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Lessons From the Grateful Dead: Creating the Magic for Live Shows 

There’s nothing like seeing your favorite performer live. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the nosebleed section, you can still say you saw your favorite entertainer live. People who’ve seen acts that are no longer together — The Beatles, the Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys — will never forget the experience. For many, it’s because the act stimulated more than seeing and hearing: it stirred feelings that remain decades later.

If you’re part of an act that’s getting off the ground, think of ways to give your budding fan base a few extras to help them become the next wave of DeadHead-like devotees.

Create a Fan Community

Unlike other rock bands — even very good ones like The Rolling Stones — the Dead didn’t come together to make money as much as to play music. They came together to be part of and to grow a community, according to Blair Jackson’s biography of Jerry Garcia, “Garcia: An American Life.” The Dead built a scene around them and their concerts that emphasized the hippie sensibilities of the day: peace, love, dancing and sharing. Their concerts became events: fans followed the group’s tours, camping out and sharing tents, food and other substances for days on end. The fans became part of the Dead’s legend as much as “Sugar Magnolia” and “Casey Jones.”

We won’t recommend that you encourage substance use at your shows, but you can create a kind of ambient mood by (legally) enhancing the atmosphere with scents. Since you’re starting out, you’re likely playing small indoor venues, so make it smell better than sweat and stale beer. Mix in scents that reflect your music: cedar if you’re folky, coconut if you’re pop-oriented or spices like clove and cinnamon if your sound is more rock. Both spices are aphrodisiacs, according to Natural Health & Healing.

Give More Than You Take at Shows

People who saw the Dead in concert often remarked at the nonstop play; the band didn’t take short breaks between songs. The Ramones may be the only other big-name band that did the same. Similarly, Bruce Springsteen is noted for long concerts that leave his fans nearly as tired as he is. Well into his 60s, the guy rocks for three hours or more, with only a brief break. Fans like this because they leave feeling fulfilled and not like they’ve handed over $100 for an hour of singing.

The Dead also encouraged fans to make bootleg tapes to share. They knew they’d still sell enough records and they were also smart enough to control distribution of Grateful Dead merchandise.

Have a Great Name

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of a great name. Jerry Garcia reportedly changed the band’s name after reading a German fairy tale. Garcia found a large volume entitled “Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend” and flipped it open to a page about Graf Willekin von Montabour, a knight who took time off preparing for a joust (the prize was marrying a princess) to bury a corpse tossed into a stall. He also borrowed money to pay off the dead man’s debts. The corpse became the Grateful Dead.

And yes, the knight got the girl.



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