Why the Grateful Dead are the Pioneers of Social Media

dancing bears

This post was inspired by my Deadhead mother who has helped shaped my life in the most interesting of ways. I love you so much mom :)

For those readers that don’t know the Grateful Dead, you will sure know some cultural staples they have helped cultivate, like the Tie-dyed shirts, music file sharing, hippies, and the classic jam session. Simply stated, they are easily one of the most influential bands of all time while taking a different approach from the rest. This post represents a revelation I had which revealed that the Grateful Dead go far beyond their iconic rock and roll status. They created music that not only represented their time but created a movement that was far ahead of its time:

Growing up in a house littered with stickers of dancing bears and skulls, it’s an understatement to say that I was a bit embarrassed of my Deadhead roots. Having a Dead Head mom, I was immersed in a world of music, singing, stack and stacks of cassette tape and peculiar tape traders (don’t ask). The longer I live more I realize that the Dead are embedded within by DNA…and no I am not saying this because I just acquired a bongo drum.

After a weekend coffee shop stop with my mom, I noticed the uncanny parallels between her lifelong journey of Dead Headness and my Social Media passions and work. She constantly shares music with other Deadheads while I constantly share interesting content through the web. She meets interesting people from groups across the country to talk about the Grateful Dead while I meet interesting people on Twitter in hopes of sparking up meaningful relationships. She gets into the zone by turning their music up full blast and humming along while I get in the zone by turning on some Calm Meditation on Pandora and blogging up a storm. I guess we’re not so different after all.

The more I spoke with my mom the more I understood the fundamental implications the Dead have on our Social Media Culture. I am a believer…they are the pioneers of Social Media…

“Social” Media is More Important Than Tradition Media

The Grateful Dead had only one top 40 album, yet they are one of the top grossing bands of all time as they made on average 50 million dollars a year on concert revenue alone (according to Seth Godin’s “Tribes”). How was this at all possible? The answer is very simple: they didn’t focus on gaining fans, they focused on building a community. They ignited a movement composed of faithful community members known as “Deadheads” who lived for the now, the music and the love of the people around them.

The Dead did not make their money from CD sales or other traditional media. They made their money from concert tickets, memorabilia and other concert items. Basically they monetized the longtail! They found a few passionate followers, they gave them the tools to spread the message (free music being one tool), they grew and scaled up (sort of), and put passion before money. Sounds pretty Web 2.0, don’t it?

Sharing as a Pillar of Conduct

Deadheads are renowned for their sharing habits. They have created a network based on trust and reciprocity, much like that of the social web. Deadheads share tapes, CDs, and DVDs of Dead shows (much of the media is not from the original source…Jerry Garcia never cared :) ). Deadheads build up credibility and become trust agents by sharing great shows, returning what was given to them and knowing their stuff. Do you see any parallels with the social web? Authentic Social Media Marketer’s equity is in their ability to share, reciprocate and gain trust. We share links, blog posts, insightful videos and more in hopes that we add value in people’s lives and gain respect in our community. It’s obvious that both Deadheads and Social Media Marketers learned the art of sharing at a young age.

The People Shape The B(r)and

The Grateful Dead was not maded up of 5-7 people playing instruments on the stage; the group was made up of the millions of people who lived and died by their music. The band was influenced by their followers just as much as their followers were influenced by them. The Dead actually went as far as collecting the names and addresses of Deadheads so they could send them newsletters about the band, gifts and even went as far as asking for direct feedback from their followers.

You will also notice that the majority of the Dead did not dress up in tie-dye and prance like the dancing bears around the stage (Phil Lesh looks and dresses like your dad). Instead, their followers embraced the band’s music and formed a culture and lifestyle beyond the music. They made the Dead the legends that they are now.

Brands that are leveraging social media the right way are embracing their customers beyond the dollars and turning them into true fans. These brands not only listen but actively ask their fans to shape their company; they ignite a culture of sharing and discussion. The Dead’s followers spread their music further than the band could ever imagine. A brand’s true fans evangelize a brand that they love and trust to a level beyond word of mouth. They will become an entity of the brand by authentically promoting the brand and its offering.


The Grateful Dead was more than a band… it was a movement. The same movement is taking shape in the digital space today. Thanks for teaching me your ways mom!


If you are a Deadhead and are outraged by any small tidbits of misinformation I may have provided in this post, I apologize. I am merely a 2nd generation Dead Baby that ran around dodging spinning people at the concerts. I am not an expert.

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12 Responses


Great article. I am a big fan of the Grateful Dead and never put the two together…


Thanks Bobby glad u like it. My mom helped me make the unlikely connection.


That’s a great post Brenton. While my parents were not deadheads, several of my friends’ parents were and I would never have made the connection without this post, that’s for sure!

It definitely is all about creating a community, not simply a customer and I think that’s an excellent point. Instead of focusing on trying to sell something to someone through social media, it is much more valuable to focus on creating the following, to build relationships and to build that trust. Without any of that, little in terms of real change can be made.


Thanks for the comment Earl! Good insight on the community section. I think the Dead really understood social capital and how to keep on giving…that lead to an amazing community of die hard fans.

You’re right, real change is built on trust…it’s great to see more and more people doing it right!

How do we do it for the Ebook?


Hey Brenton-

Great comparison! I relate to the Deadhead Mom part (me), sharing bootleg tapes, etc. There was nothing like a Grateful Dead show (like it used to say on the bumper sticker.) And you’re absolutely right about the community part – except that it was REAL, not virtual.

Thanks for including that amazing clip of Ripple. It really brought me back in time and made me realize how much I miss seeing them, especially Garcia.

The closest comparison I can make to current fans creating that feeling is is with the Dave Matthews Band fans. (Probably PhishHeads too). They span ages/generations too, just like the Dead. I go to shows w/my 18 year old and love talking to people in the crowd.


Hey Deb,

I’m so happy you found this post and liked it. My mom would be proud to hear that the post represented the Dead well!

I think you’re right with DMB and Phish…however, I don’t think their anywhere close to the Dead…I guess I am bias :)


Awesome post! Just found your site & I like it :) This post cracked me up because it really is true the Grateful Dead not only rock (both literally & figuratively) but were amazing at growing a ‘following’.

p.s. Its also great that you love your mom :) I love my mom too!


Thanks for the love Maren. I actually stumbled across your site a while ago…really good stuff!

As for our moms…happy birthday to mine today…and happy birthday to yours whenever that day comes.



Found your post. As for giving away free things you forgot the most important thing that was given away on most every night. “The Miracle.” Deadheads would always go to the show without a ticket and hope someone would give them a ticket for free, thus the miracle.

“I need a miracle everyday…”

Good post. And you are not alone. My daughter is becoming a second generation Deadhead. We listen to XM23 all the time and she is a big fan of “Bertha’ and “Fire On The Mountain.”

Tell you mom to download free podcasts on iTunes of the Dead. Move them into a new playlist and burn them. Hours of fun stuff for which to listen.


Clark Jester
Milwaukee WI
(Alpine Valley, Wisc)


Thanks for the comment Clark…did not even know about the “miracle”…although I do know those lyrics. I think being 4 to 7 and just in awe of my surroundings…I missed along of the dynamics that were going on :)

[…] those mythic collections that were traded freely across the country and around the world by mail, from Deadhead to Deadhead, as they shared experiences before the advent of the internet and social media. It is possible to […]

[…] those mythic collections that were traded freely across the country and around the world by mail, from Deadhead to Deadhead, as they shared experiences before the advent of the internet and social media. It is possible to […]

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