The Grateful Dead and the Tapers: A Distribution Lesson for the Arts

I had the chance to tune into a great webinar yesterday led by Guy Kowasaki, the former chief evangelist at Apple and author of the new book Enchantment. The book is about how products and their marketers succeed in really enchanting audiences (buyers.) One of his examples was too good not to repeat. And it is a great follow-up to last week’s blog on how newly increased cable distribution will change the way we consume the arts.

Many of you may know how big the Grateful Dead community has been for all these decades. You know the ease of downloading recordings of their vintage concerts. What Kowasaki focused on was how the Dead fostered that community and all those recordings by creating and championing free seating for the tapers – the bootleggers and fans who got it all live. He noted that while everyone else works so hard to ban tapers and to control the distribution of concerts, the Dead’s free taper sections created – and continue to create – a lot of enchantment as the music and events live on and on.

I got a lot of feedback and emails on last week’s post about new distribution mechanisms in the arts, and a number of skeptics wrote me that we have to protect the live event and especially the artist’s ability to be heard and seen at the live event. (There seems to be some sentiment that too much distribution of classical arts via cable could somehow harm classical arts?) I love live events, witnessing art first hand. But maybe these guys had it right all along when they openly encouraged the free distribution of their work to make it live for everyone who couldn’t be there. What would happen to audiences if there was more of this, using today’s technology?

There’s a lesson there. Face to face interaction with content is what builds audiences far more than all the PR and marketing in the world. Face to face interaction – sure, including via digitized media – that is facilitated by people just like you and me, who think enough of the content to pass it along, is even more likely to build audiences. Too bad that 99.9% of the artists out there have contracts forbidding the very thing that, as Kowasaki puts it, is totally enchanting in the simplicity of methods to build and keep thousands of happy fans. Think of it – a taper section at the concert hall. A taper section at the theatre, the opera. YouTube content that never stops, that is fundamental to audience growth. Encourage distribution, facilitate it, champion it. And watch the line at the box office grow and grow, just as it did for the Dead.

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2 responses to “The Grateful Dead and the Tapers: A Distribution Lesson for the Arts

  1. Taper sections were not free, but they sold taper-specific tickets. Point is, the prime sounding spot was set aside for tapers. Congratulations for cottoning on, and letting your peers know about how much sense it made, and how it never influenced the Dead’s ticket sales.

    • Thanks, Donna, for correcting me. You know, I had thought they were paid tix…but no matter, the point is as you say that it made such sense. Ticket sales never suffered from tapers in part because the programming was so “live” – you never knew what to expect. That’s another part of the story, right?

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