Fifty Years of Contrarian Marketing

By: Jay Caporale

In 1965, a band of merry pranksters boarded a bus that is still on the road 50 years later. The Grateful Dead, house band for Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, initiated a series of inbound marketing concepts in the 60’s and 70’s including social media, CRM and open content that businesses still use today. The Dead organically grew a loyal and committed customer base, “deadheads,” placing them in the center of an innovative business model and customer relationship management strategy which created a legion of fans who remained faithful for generations.

From the beginning, the Dead embraced a distinct business model which ultimately promulgated an unscripted journey unlike any other in rock and roll history. The Dead’s brand was their live music. They toured chronically for 30 years, playing 2,300 concerts, recording 2,200 of the shows. In an era when rock concerts were well rehearsed and predictable, playing the “best of“ songs while sprinkling in new music from a just released album, Dead shows were unscripted, with no prescribe set lists. This promoted a sense of anticipation of what could happen on a given night, giving “deadheads” a reason to attend multiple shows and participate in a communal experience. The Dead encouraged and, in fact, help to facilitate customer taping of each show. The decision to essentially give away their music increased the demand, exponentially shattering the long held belief that scarcity drives demand and value—Adam Smith would not have counseled the Dead to “open source” their product.

The Grateful Dead valued their customers’ decades before loyalty programs and reward cards. In 1968, a person was hired to create a mailing list of deadheads who attended shows. In 1971, a liner was included in the Skull and Roses album—“dead freaks unite” encouraging fans to send their name and address and be placed on a mailing list. The list grew to 63,147 in five years. Leading the odyssey, the band controlled content and information flow to fans, placing the customer in the center. In the mid 1980’s, the band created a mail order process selling premium concert tickets directly to the fans. This ensured “deadheads” had preferred seating at shows, controlled tickets prices and nurtured loyalty. The “middle man” was cut out of the ticket price and the savings was passed along to the consumer, not the corporation. The Dead nurtured and respected their fan base and “deadheads” responded by creating a traveling caravan for 2,300 concerts.

Giving back was a core value of the band since its inception. For 20 years benefit concerts were primary vehicle for giving; however, in 1983 the band established the Rex Foundation, a 501(c)(3) making it easier and more efficient for philanthropic investments. The Rex Foundation is thriving today making charitable grants totaling $8.5 million to more than a 1,000 organizations around the world.

So this band of misfits who simply wanted to play music created one of the most recognizable and lasting brands in America by blazing their own trail while remaining loyal to their tribe—“sometimes you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

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17 thoughts on “Fifty Years of Contrarian Marketing

  1. Taylor Mason December 1, 2015 / 12:00 am

    I found this presentation to be extremely enjoyable. I am not really into rock music, however I was very intrigued by the information presented. I would have never thought to take this assignment this way. Never have I thought of the set lists bands choose for their concerts would relate back to their entire operational business plan. Based on everything that was presented, it appears as though the way they have carried out their tours, the songs they sing and the merchandise they sell have all allowed them to maintain their popularity throughout the years. They have been able to establish and retain a respected loyal consumer base all through sticking to their core values. I definitely agree with Jay when he says that The Grateful Dead has been able to create a legion of fans who have remained faithful for generations. Looking at it now, I definitely see how this all relates to CRM and other concepts that we have discussed throughout the course. I might just start listening to the Grateful Dead after hearing this presentation. I am sure that the Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia advertisement caught other peoples attentions as well.

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  2. Kimberly Martin December 1, 2015 / 2:39 pm

    I also found this presentation to be enjoyable like Taylor. It was so different and I had no idea where it was going at first as I do not know much about The Grateful Dead. I think they were able to create a “loyalty program” in a very cool way and were so successful at it even though they seemed to be doing the exact opposite of the entire industry. By having the shows be unscripted and different every night gave their fans a reason to follow them around. They would never see the same show twice, which today a concert tour for an artist is pretty much the same at every stop. They were able to give their fans a unique experience and rewarded them by allowing them to buy premium tickets at cheaper prices and also allowing them to tape during the shows. I think they definitely created something long lasting and a good example for others to follow. They seemed to have given the fans exactly what they wanted and the band was rewarded for that by having the traveling caravan of fans. I think the most important part of this is that they were able to keep their core values and were able to do the benefit concerts while creating this lasting brand.

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  3. Olivia Martin December 2, 2015 / 3:08 am

    Really enjoyed this article. I found it interesting how The Grateful Dead was able to create such a loyal fan base in untraditional ways. I never really thought of bands as running a business but this article really put that into perspective. Not only was The Grateful Dead able to sell their music and concert experience to fans but were also actually selling their brand. I think that a lot of the tactics that they’ve demonstrated, such as staying true to their values and giving consumers something to be passionate about, should be kept in mind and used by many businesses.

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  4. Matthew E. Dulac December 2, 2015 / 5:15 pm

    I found not only the article but the presentation to be enjoyable and intellectual as I didn’t truly understand the business and monetary aspect of bands and the music industry. Even though I am not a fan of The Dead, my father is and will always be and this generated my interest throughout the presentation. One of the more important aspects that I was able to pick up from this presentation was that The Grateful Dead was ahead of their time in relation to advertising and marketing; they set the precedent for the music industry today. The Dead was not only focused on their multitude of concerts and the albums they could sell, they were also focused in creating brand recognition that would not only last in the present but continue into the future. They succeeded to a great degree as many people still listen, enjoy their music, and attend concerts today.

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  5. Patrick Coskren December 2, 2015 / 11:45 pm

    This was one of the more interesting ways to present on this topic. I found not only the article interesting but also the way in which it was presented to be excellent. Jay was able to not only put emphasis on the more important points, but also additionally put a personal and quite enthusiastic. Before his presentation I knew The Dead as a great band from the 60’s. I am happy to say that after this article and presentation I now see them as innovators in the world or marketing.

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  6. Chris Coveney December 3, 2015 / 11:23 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this and thought that it was influential into what I though would be good to know for this class and marketing in general. I thought that this was one of the more impressive ways to blog post something that is educational. It was good to see how inivators in the marketing world work and what they focus on for their job.

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  7. Kedar Gandbhir December 5, 2015 / 4:48 am

    This was honestly the best presentation I’ve heard in a while. It was really well done and gave me more insight on the role of Rock music in business. Its quite amazing how they tied there music into marketing and business strategies. Valuing customers is the mindset a lot of businesses have strayed away from lately. It is great to see that it was a significant piece of the Grateful Dead’s business model.

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  8. Adam Chadbourne December 5, 2015 / 10:38 pm

    As others have said, I think that this was a great article and excellent presentation. I was impressed at how well the Grateful Dead were able to create a type of “loyalty program” before loyalty programs were even a thing. You tend to not see a lot of groups or companies that would be more favorable to the loyal fans, rather than making money. By creating the caravan, selling premium seats and even allowing fans to reserve the same seats every time they were in town, they made it easy for fans to keep track of the Dead and plan out their next concert to attend. I also like how they made each show an unexpected experience for the fans by having it be unscripted, so they had no idea which songs they would be hearing and giving a unique experience every time they performed. By the creation of the mailing list and the way they treated their supporters, they definitely created a longstanding fan base.

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  9. Jane Paradise December 6, 2015 / 4:02 am

    I really enjoyed learning about the Grateful Dead in this presentation – sounded like they had quite the entrepreneurial side to them as well as being musical. I liked also learning about how they really created a strong (and life-long) consumer base while selling their music and making themselves more well-known within the industry. Really learned a lot of presenting styles from this presentation and will be incorporating them into my next presentations for school!

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  10. Michelle McNall December 6, 2015 / 4:58 am

    I thought that this presentation that Jay gave was superb! I feel like, when thinking of branding, I continuously think of tangible products such as clothing, cosmetics, cars etc. but it is important to realize that branding goes far beyond that. What I found most interesting about Jay’s presentation was that his content forced me to think outside-the-box. He introduced me to a whole new way to conceptualize branding and his enthusiasm for the subject was infectious. Well done, Jay!

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  11. Melanie Barbarula December 7, 2015 / 12:13 am

    Jay you did a great job with this presentation! I thought your insight into the music industry and the Greatful Deads business strategy to be an innovative way to relate to the topics at hand, customer relationship management (CRM). The innovative strategy of encouraging their “deadheads” to videotape their performances was unheard of a the time and the fact that this increased the demand rather than making the demand scarce was an impressive tactic that I wonder if it was strategic or unintentional, merely accidental. Either way they have created an impressive business strategy focused on their fans providing them a service like no other, founded on the creation of their mailing list that developed into a ticket sales opportunity that benefitted both the seller and buyer! Impressive!!

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  12. Melissa Miller December 8, 2015 / 3:19 pm

    This reading was very interesting to me. A marketing plan and strategy through the eyes of a famous rock band is an interesting way to see these concepts used. I am nt a fan of rock music or the Grateful Dead but this was quite interesting to see a rock band use marketing methods. It really shows how marketing is so important in almost all industries. Whether you are the CEO of a technology company or the drummer in a rock band.

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  13. Giulia Palombo December 8, 2015 / 8:15 pm

    I loved how Jay explained successful branding in the music industry, as I believe most of us had no idea of how that truly works. Jay’s presentation helped me to realize that truly almost anything can be branded successfully if done correctly. Through realizing this, I actually was able to apply this when thinking about my personal branding strategy. Great job Jay!

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  14. Owen Jarem December 9, 2015 / 2:00 pm

    Jay presented this blog in an enthusiastic manner, and as a fellow Grateful Dead fan I found this to be very relevant to our coursework. The Grateful Dead has done an amazing job branding themselves without relying on outside media or advertisements. Much of their success has come from their internal controls within the band. Personally, I was drawn to the band by their ability to create such a passionate following and by the way they presented themselves. I feel like the image they have set up will bring them continued success with future generations.

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  15. Ronald Zampanti March 4, 2016 / 6:59 pm

    I found this to be an interesting article. I believe this band was very innovative to use these CRM methods in an era in which these methods seemed untraditional. The band used intelligent tactics to get a loyal fan base. I believe it is of the utmost importance to be creative as a brand and differentiate yourself from other brands and this article is a great example of a brand that excelled in doing that.

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  16. Meg March 7, 2016 / 8:36 pm

    This article brings a interesting take on music and customers. In a market where marketers and economists constantly balance supply and demand, the band started to give away music for free and focused on gaining a strong consumer base. Their success contradicted leading economists and financial experts, therefore, “exponentially shattering the long held belief that scarcity drives demand and value.” This is especially important as artists begin to take their music off platforms like Spotify and YouTube, in order to protect their music. Popular artists such as Taylor Swift and Jason Aldean refuse to put their music on Spotify, and Prince avoids YouTube. Some artists take it even farther and avoid all streaming, such as Garth Brooks, Tool, and the Beatles. They believe artists are not compensated for their work, but perhaps they are too focused on traditional views of money instead of the importance of consumer relations.

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  17. Megan Lac April 19, 2016 / 10:48 pm

    This was a very interesting read. I know that many bands tend to focus on their loyal listeners and might release a live session CD, but I never thought about a band doing this as early as the 60’s. We always talk about businesses using CRM practices, but we don’t tend to talk about other groups using it. I’m impressed that The Dead had this loyalty based idea of marketing their band. And creating a relationship with the people who attended their shows and signed up for the mailing list. A good way to stay in touch with previous consumers and even generate new ones.

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