Hive Five: Grateful Dead in the Digital Age

[caption id="attachment_9078" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Jerry Garcia performs in San Francisco, 1975. Photo: Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images"][/caption]

This week is shaping up to be a groovy one for Dead Heads. This past Monday, August 1, marked what would have been guitarist Jerry Garcia’s 69th birthday, and today, directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood release Magic Trip, a film about counterculture icon Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, a gang of acid-dropping “truth-seekers” that included members of the pioneering San Francisco psychedelic-rock band. While the Dead will always be associated with the muddy, druggy, back-to-the-Earth ‘60s, the group has continued  to stay relevant in the digital age, even as their last shows were 16 years ago. Here are five ways Garcia and the gang have made good on the promise of their 1987 hit “Touch of Grey”: “I will survive.”

1. Fighting for digital rights

John Perry Barlow wasn’t an official member of the Dead, but he was a friend of Bob Weir who penned lyrics for a number of tunes, including “Cassidy,” “Mexicali Blues” and “Black Throated Wind.” In 1990, Barlow co-founded the now wildly influential Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that aims to “confront cutting-edge issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights,” according to the website. Barlow’s writings include 1996’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” and he serves as a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. [Follow John Perry Barlow on Twitter.]

2. Granting samples to like-minded youngsters

There was no better band to land the first officially licensed Grateful Dead sample than Animal Collective. The indie experimentalists used Phil Lesh’s 1974 tune “Unbroken Chain” as the basis for “What Would I Want? Sky,” from 2009's Fall Be Kind EP. Animal Collective multi-instrumentalist Avey Tare, AKA Dave Portner, grew up digging the Dead and said in interviews he was drawn to the song’s unexpected melodic shifts. In characteristic fashion, Portner reworked the original, fitting the sample over an entirely new chord progression. [Stream "What Would I Want? Sky" here.]

3. Inspiring mash-ups with genuinely dead artists

In December 2009, the popular mixtape website Datpiff posted Gratefully Dead, featuring mash-ups of Grateful Dead and Notorious B.I.G. songs. On the surface, Biggie’s “Party & Bulls***” may not seem to share much in common with the Dead’s “Jack Straw,” but the late rapper would have loved the Bob Weir chorus: “We can share the women/ we can share the wine.” [Stream Gratefully Dead here.]

4. Being forward-looking businessmen

The hippie generation may have scoffed at consumerism, but rock has never known savvier marketers than the Grateful Dead. That’s the message of Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, a 2010 book by business strategists and Deadheads David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan. By encouraging tape trading and creating a community of evangelical fans, the authors contend, the group bucked industry trends and anticipated the kinds of business models now used online. “The Grateful Dead can be considered one giant case study in doing social media marketing right,” Halligan said in a press release. “Not only did they pioneer the freemium business model by allowing concert attendees to tape the show, but also encouraged their fans to build a community, and kept them informed via their newsletters.” [Watch the book trailer here.]

5. Apps, of course

Bob Weir has a “Weir’s World” app featuring his take on classic children’s songs, but the real draw for Deadheads is “Taper’s Row,” which gives users a daily chance to stream live shows recorded on that date. If you remember Dead concerts, you probably weren’t there, so this flashback-inducing app is a great way to relive the old days and marvel at the fact you were once high enough to sit through 45-minute drum solos. [Download Taper's Row here.]