The Idea: The founder of the Grateful Dead, the late Jerry Garcia, once said, “We are the only ones who can do what we do.” This past weekend, a total of 210,000 fans descended on Chicago to see them perform three final shows, 25 years after their last record. How have they created such lasting connection with their community? “The Dead” fostered the ultimate community; they were masters of improvisation, stewards of their tribe; and were vulnerable with their music.
Reason #1: Improvisation. The Dead never once played a song the same way twice. After studying the likes of Jazz greats John Coltrane and Miles Davis, they incorporated live improvisation into every song they created. They were vulnerable because of it. “They’ll follow me down any dark alley,” Garcia noted in 1987. “Sometimes there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and sometimes there’s a dark hole. The point is, you don’t get adventure in music unless you’re willing to take chances.” Vulnerability is not a fluffy idea, it is the heart of risk taking.
Reason #2: Co-Creation. Outside of every Dead show, there were entire economies of hunter-gatherers that traveled with the band. The Dead created emotional experiences that attracted like-spirited people into a special tribe, and let them create their own products reflecting what the band meant to them. Stadium parking lots were converted into marketplaces –and the followers of the band shared their stories and their lives with others in the community. The Grateful Dead culture is not created by Madison Avenue, it is created by an endearing mission and trusting relationships.
Reason #3: Humility. Founding member Bob Weir recently said, “I don’t believe in pride, I don’t trust it.” For the Grateful Dead, there are no egos in the room. With the idea that the music is the mission, each member is allowed to flourish, innovate and assume his role as an artist. The band believed (and still does) that without their followers there would not be a Grateful Dead. Any organization that embraces this philosophy thrives.
We can all learn from the Grateful Dead’s community, and maybe enjoy some music along the way!
They are still the only ones in the world who do what they do.