Jun 23, 2015 ยท 6 minutes

This weekend the remaining members of the Grateful Dead will take the stage at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara to commemorate 50 years as a band. After three nights of shows in Chicago over the Fourth of July, it is said they will never play together again.

You don’t need me to rhapsodize about the band’s weird country boogie. If you haven’t made up your mind about the music in its first 50 years, who am I to force your hand now? But given the recent online actions of another kinda-country rock star, Taylor Swift, now is a great time to reflect on a telling episode of the Dead’s (business) history.

Forty-five years to the day before the band takes the stage at Levi Stadium, the players found themselves in Toronto, as part of a traveling festival including the Band, Janis Joplin and Buddy Guy. After a previous show in Montreal was canceled due to security concerns, the tour was scheduled to begin on June 27, 1970, at a (Canadian) football stadium.

It was almost a disaster. Thousands of protesters attempted to storm the gates, taking on a force of some 400 police officers, many of them on horseback. Keep in mind, this was just six months after Altamont, and just over a month after Kent State.

A crush of protesters tried to force the gates, others lept the barbed-wire fences. A young idealist grabbed the mic and started shouting about the pigs before being led off stage. A police officer had his head split open, and several other people were injured, dozens arrested.

The protesters' complaint, distributed in the parking lot in a newsletter, was this: $16 ($14 in advance) was too much to ask for a two day festival. Music should be free.  The top-ranking police official urged promoter Ken Walker to lower the price to avoid a riot. Walker refused.

It was at that point that Jerry Garcia, raven-haired and bearded, decided to make a last-ditch effort to dispell the militant madness. A grateful stage manager-type introduced Garcia...

“Hey wait a minute, we’re trying to do something... and... and... Jerry Garcia would like to explain what we’re trying to do,” he said, and hustled off stage.

There were protesters storming the gates, horses getting spooked and milling through a hostile swarm, arrests being made, people in the audience shouting abuse. Yet as ever, Garcia took only a few moments of noodling to find the right key. He spoke into the live mic:

“The thing we’re trying to do is, ah, organize another sort of scene that we could have here. and we would like, if possible man, to have like a half hour of just coolness, so we could work something out that could put an end to all this hassle and see if we can avoid getting people hurt.”

He THEN issued some hard truths to the “music should be free” agitators.

“You have to remember, man, that somebody put their neck out to have a festival here, they didn’t have to do it. All this is stuff is, like, voluntary in nature. We’re trying to put on a free stage, man, you don’t have to go for it, believe it or not, but that’s where it’s at, right now. Be back in a while.”

In the end, Garcia, Walker and Police Inspector Walter Magahay negotiated a free concert to be held in a nearby park, directly after the assembled bands played to 40,000 paid attendees at the football stadium. The rebels were placated, the altercations subsided. And the "fremium" concept was born.

This episode was captured on film and can be seen in the 2003 documentary “Festival Express.” In an interview from that movie, guitarist Bob Weir notes:

“As I recall, there were some people who were quite vocal, who thought the musicians should be playing for free. Regardless of the expense it takes for us to get there, and the fact that we need to make a living, details like that.”

It was a different time, but the same old story.

Taylor Swift has found a way to own her music and make serious money with it, and her monumental success has allowed her to use her popularity as leverage against those gathering forces of change who would have music be given away for free.

In the history of recorded music it’s a rare artist who achieves this feat. The Grateful Dead did it decades ago. Their albums never sold well, and one of their earlier managers absconded to Mexico with their loot, but over time the perpetual touring machine is said to have reaped an average of $50 million per year in revenues. More than enough to hoover up all the best drugs in their path and maintain leafy Marin County estates besides. The Dead were deadly serious about their business, in the great American Western tradition of ballsy entrepreneurship.

Of course, the Dead are also famous for encouraging, or at least allowing, free distribution of (some of) their music. At their shows, forests of personal recording equipment on booms provided original tapes that would be traded around the world. As at least one social media marketing professional has pointed out, the Dead built themselves a social network by way of mailing list, and sold their own tickets. In the ‘90s, the trading and sharing of these tapes became one of the first widespread use-cases of the early internet, and later of musical file sharing in the pre-Napster world.

These same methods to building a band brand, albeit over social media, are often mooted today as means for musicians to get out from under the thumb of major recording labels, and transact directly with fans. Among other things, the thinking goes, this approach can offset the minuscule returns artists receive from streaming services.  

Maybe we have come a long way since 1970, but the underlying issue remains the same: it’s hard for even popular artists to make a living at their art. As for music festivals, these days they are hum-drum by comparison–efficiently organized, contained, and fully monetized. At Bonarroo last weekend, with twice as many people as the Dead’s shows in Toronto, I saw only two cops but a disciplined army of 500 litter pickers.

Like much of our social strife, the real action has migrated online. And as we saw (online) again this weekend in the episode between Taylor Swift and Apple, a satisfying solution to this problem has yet to fully emerge.

“These are not the complaints of a spoiled, petulant child,” Swift writes. “These are the echoed sentiments of every artist, writer and producer in my social circles who are afraid to speak up publicly because we admire and respect Apple so much.”

If anything, Apple comes off as scarier than a hell-bent mob of leftist Canadians was to Garcia. Which makes sense. Throughout the Dead’s financial hassles, they’ve always been able to roll into the next town and open up the money tap again. There is no escaping the ire of iTunes.

Don't bother to orchestrate a gate-storming at the new Forty-Niners stadium this weekend. The shows can be livestreamed over mlb.com (the great American pastime is tops in livestreaming, go figure) for $20 a pop. Several venues are throwing viewing parties. But as the Grateful Dead tributes and reminscences roll in to your newsfeed, and the band is laid to rest, keep in mind that this isn’t a simple nostalgia trip. The band’s core principle – making a living while entertaining people with music – is as problematic and vital now as ever. 

As Buddy Guy sang on stage after that near-deadly scene in Toronto in 1970: 

Your lovin' gives me a thrill
But your lovin' don't pay my bills
Money, that's what I want, that's what I want
Oh that's what I want