It all began when the fat man sang

One of my favourite t-shirts, second only to Help>Slip>Franklin’s. [That’s a reference to one of the finest sequences ever played live or laid on vinyl: Help On The Way, Slipknot and Franklin’s Tower, taken in sequence from Blues for Allah.] Both t-shirts, by the way, available from zazzle.

You guessed it. I’m one of those. A Deadhead. And proud to be one. If you check out the end of the About Me section of this blog, written when I started blogging, you’ll find these words:

my thoughts on opensource were probably more driven by Jerry Garcia than by Raymond or Stallman or Torvalds

It’s been a long strange trip for fans of the Grateful Dead recently: For example, the March 2010 edition of the Atlantic Review had an article entitled Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead.

Image credit: Zachariah O’Hora

The article talks about the inauguration of the Grateful Dead archive at the University of Santa Cruz. Some years earlier, Strategy + Business, a prestigious management journal, published an article entitled How to “Truck” the Brand: Lessons from the Grateful Dead.

Atlantic Review. University Archives. Management Journals. Just what is it about the Dead? A fan site that’s really a social network, one of the earliest to understand the value of social media in bringing the fan base together and giving them a space to inhabit. A dominant position in live music: the Dead have their own tab in the Internet Archive (the only entity, band or otherwise, to have one) and account for 10% of the overall Live Music collection there. A Google Earth mashup that shows you the precise locations and times of Dead concerts. Sites dedicated to trading the music of the Grateful Dead. A shirts Hall of Fame. A gazillion ties. [I should know, I have over 50 of them…]

A long strange trip indeed. So here’s my personal perspective on why the Dead succeeded.

1. It’s all about performance. Unlike most other bands, the Dead were a touring band. They played. And played. And played. Between 1963 and 2007 the Rolling Stones performed live 1597 times, or about 35 times a year. As against that, the Grateful Dead performed live 2380 times between 1965 and 1995, or about 77 times a year. Very few bands keep up that level of performance.

And so it is in business. People care about what you do, not what you claim to have done or how good your marketing is. Particularly now, when the cost of discovering truth is lower than ever before, what matters is how a company performs. Not how it says it will perform. Which is why customer experience has become so important.

2. It’s all about participation. Studio performances are not the same as live music: when you see what gets traded in Dead circles, you begin to understand why. Live sessions are real, organic, they change from session to session. Audiences are not locked away on couches or straitjackets, they participate. Because they can. And they want to.

Companies need to understand this as well, particularly as the analog world shifts to digital. The cost of participation gets lowered. There was a time when I used to get really irritated with management consultants who would bring their powerpoint decks when meeting with me, always in analog, always taking care not to leave it behind. [In case I tried to copy it or, Heaven forfend, amend it, add to it.] What tosh. I’d already paid through my nose for the material.

Contrast that sort of short-term thinking with the vision inherent in Garcia saying “When we’re done with it, they can have it”, when asked about fans taping their shows.

3. It’s all about improvisation. John Lennon, another of my favourites, is reported to have said:

Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans

When you look at the way they performed at concerts, there were many interesting charcteristics. They didn’t seem to have a predefined list of songs or sets; there was a lot of jamming and improvisation within the songs, drawn from a vast array of songs whose “design” made such improvisation possible. Garcia suggested more than once that they made up the song list as they went on, basing it on active feedback from the fans.

Lineups varied; band members performed in other bands or groups; everything about the culture of the band screamed responsiveness, adaptability.

4. It’s all about passion. Quality matters. And quality is a function of passion, of persistence, or practice. What the Dead did they did as a labour of love. Unless you enjoy what you do, there isn’t any point.

When you’re passionate about something, then you take the values inherent in that something and live your life according to those values. They permeate everything you do. I had the privilege of spending some time with John Perry Barlow, erstwhile lyricist for the Grateful Dead, cattle rancher, founder member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, poet, what-have-you. And he was a perfect example of how his values affected everything he did and does.

If you haven’t done so already, you should read his essays The Economy of Ideas and  The Next Economy of Ideas, along with the oft-quoted A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

In the end, what the Grateful Dead stood for are principles. Principles of openness and participation, principles of performance and passion, principles that allowed them to improvise and respond.

Companies would do well to pay heed.