The End of a Long, Strange Journey?

The long, strange journey of the Grateful Dead has taken a new twist, one that forces us to ask — Who really owns music, the artists or the fans? Who owns the value (and values) generated by a band and its fan base, and how should that “wealth” be controlled and allocated? We are about to find out.

One reason that the Grateful Dead became a counterculture icon is that band members respected their fans and actively fostered a sense of community among them. Defying all business conventions, the band routinely allowed its fans to make tape recordings of their live performances. The band even set up special areas in concert halls for “tapers” to set up their equipment.

There was a method to this madness. The open taping and sharing of Dead music helped create an incredibly loyal and committed fan base. It not only burnished the image of the band as big-hearted champions of peace, love and understanding in a world of grasping materialism. It helped prime the market for conventional market sales of the group’s music. The open availability of tapes encouraged people to buy the official recordings, and to attend concert after concert. Bottom line: the Grateful Dead at their height were making $50 million a year touring. Not too shabby.

Flash-forward to 2005. Jerry Garcia has been dead for ten years, and the Internet is a burgeoning medium for music downloading. So here’s where it gets interesting. Is the open sharing of music that once prevailed among Deadheads different in principle from the sharing of music that now occurs via the Internet?

The surviving members of the band say yes. As reported in today’s New York Times (November 30, 2005), they are trying to stop downloads of Dead music from an independent website that has made thousands of recordings of Dead concerts available. The band has asked the Live Music Archive — part of the indispensable Internet Archive run by Brewster Kahle — to make the music available for online streaming only, not downloads.

This has enraged many fans, who consider this move a deep violation of trust with the community of fans. They consider it a betrayal of the band’s deepest ideals. A petition drive has been launched calling for a boycott of Grateful Dead recordings and merchandise unless the decision is reversed. Here’s an excerpt from the petition:

For years, we have supported the Grateful Dead unquestioned. We have purchased countless albums, releases, concert tickets, merchandise, and more. A large percentage of our income has gone straight from our bank accounts, into yours. I assure you, there are many more like us.

A band spokesman, Dennis McNally, told the Times that Internet music-trading is radically different from the previous kind of sharing because the former does not build community: “One-to-one community building, tape trading, is something we’ve always been about. The idea of a massive one-stop Web site that does not build community is not what we had in mind. Our conclusion has been that it doesn’t represent Grateful Dead values.”

For a band that once celebrated its mystical idealism and blithe defiance of mainstream culture, this explanation has the whiff of lawyerly b.s. Market control and profit maximization were never high on the list of Dead values. The band was cavalier about intellectual property because its members reaped an ample livelihood, not to mention great fun and joy, by concentrating instead on their be-here-now performances and humanity. The Dead’s franchise was based on their passion and purity, forged in collaboration with an adoring fan community. This not only made them a legend. It was a fantastic business model.

Has that been jettisoned by what remains of the Grateful Dead, who now want to cash in on their archives? Is this the real end of the long, strange journey — a fork in the road that the fans will reject?

The outcome of the dispute will say a lot about who really exerts control in the networked environment and where value resides. It’s a struggle that is playing out in countless permutations in other corners of the Internet. For myself, I’m betting that the Deadheads are likely to be the more enduring and powerful champions of Dead values than the band itself, R.I.P.