Grateful Dead Continue To Innovate Amid Pandemic
Long known for bucking convention and eschewing the traditional album release format, the current incarnation of the Grateful Dead continue to innovate and adapt their music, even in the midst of the current crisis, as explored here by George Howard.
Guest post by George Howard from Forbes
Over the arc of their career, The Grateful Dead have demonstrated an understanding of product/market fit much earlier than most other artists or the music industry. Long before other artists or labels realized that music is information that demands to be shared, and that treating music as a commodity by arbitrarily packaging and pricing it in accordance with the technology du jour — vinyl, CDs, downloads, etc. (all of which, of course, now seem insane) — hinders growth, frustrates customers, and decreases net promoter score, the Dead understood that these artificial constructs — “products” — are simply poor substitutes for the over-arching purpose that has always driven the need to make and consume music.
The Dead have long been at best bemused by attempts to productize their purpose and viewed their studio albums as odd, orthogonal miscellany in the context of their greater purpose: sharing their music with those who loved and needed to hear it in a live setting. This is why they facilitated the taping and trading of their shows throughout their career, and, in so doing, foreshadowed peer-to-peer technology/platforms. If you have any doubts about how the Dead (de)contextualized the making of their albums, watch the excellent documentary, Long Strange Trip.
As I wrote in my recent article, “It’s Time To Rethink How We Use Music In The Era of COVID-19,” Clayton Christensen’s “Job To Be Done” framework provides a useful heuristic in assessing music’s role in this COVID-19 era, when — once again — musicians and the music industry are forced to reassess the ways in which music can be consumed and monetized. The Dead provides guidance.
Following up on this piece I had the opportunity to speak with someone who is on the front lines of this re-assessment, Mark Pinkus. Mr. Pinkus is the President of Rhino Entertainment and runs Grateful Dead Properties. Mr. Pinkus and I spoke about The Dead’s series, Shakedown Stream, which they launched several weeks ago at the beginning of the quarantine.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Pinkus informed me that the Shakedown Series emerged because The Dead felt a responsibility to their fans, and to society generally. Importantly, as has always been the case with The Dead, there is a reciprocal relationship between the band and their fans in this gesture. The band does not profit; all proceeds go directly to organizations like Feeding America and MusicCares. As Mr. Pinkus stated, “These are real people giving what they can to other people.”
Certainly, there are other examples of musicians attempting to use their platforms to do good during this time, and yet, the gestures can seem hollow, self-serving, and overly-indebted to skeuomorphic thinking; that is, attempting to replicate the offline experience of going to see an artist perform live in an online format. This skeuomorphic approach rarely works in any context, and frequently results in an under-utilization and of new technologies and a frustration of customers.
Innovators of all stripes must view this moment in time not as an opportunity to provide an artificial representation of what our lives used to be prior to COVID-19, but rather to view this time unencumbered by past biases and habits. Mr. Pinkus effortlessly articulated to me how to do this: “Make a promise that every decision is made via putting on our fan’s hat, and letting that guide us.” Christensen would describe this in business terms as avoiding Innovator’s Dilemma failure by staying close to your customer. I would just say: “purpose not product.”
Viewed with a fan’s hat on, the success of Shakedown Stream makes sense. It can seem anachronistic, in an era when appointment viewing is rendered unnecessary by the on-demand technology of music and video streaming, to have to wait for a specific day and time to consume media, but now, when we literally do not know when so many things related to the quarantine will end, and the days all begin to blur, having a date and time certain — Shakedown Series airs at 8:00pm EST on Fridays — that we can count on and look forward to is comforting.
Similarly, the fact that it’s not a typical fundraiser that interrupts a much-needed momentary escape from the constant reminders of the circumstances, but instead “just” runs the show — no artist or commentator pontificating or virtue seeking for donations (again, the fans are donating…no one needs to patronize us by “explaining” how needed this is during this time) — is precisely what so many of us need.
Other artists and brands should take note of this. The Dead is not for everyone, but art and empathy are. Humans are not stupid (though, uhm, don’t drink Lysol), and bands and brands can and should once again look to the Dead to understand how to strike the right tone and stay close to their customers in order to understand the ever-evolving job to be done for music. Doing so will stand bands and brands in good stead not only during the quarantine, but even after it finally ends.