Need That Merch To Feed That Jones

For years, millions of dollars in unlicensed Grateful Dead merchandise was sold outside of the band’s concerts by its tour-hungry fans. The band did crack down on it a bit after 1987, when “Touch of Grey” was on the radio, Macy’s started stocking tie-dyes and non-Deadhead criminal networks started hawking goods in the lot.

Since Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995, the band that made a ton of money from touring, began to squeeze what they could from what was left, namely record sales, branded merchandise and “reunion” tours. According to an article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, surviving members of Grateful Dead are significantly increasing their merchandising and licensing deals.

The band’s music has appeared in at least four movies since April, and over the last several months, the number of licensees has increased 20%, including new deals with Burton snowboards, Dregs skateboards and Wines That Rock.

“The band wants to turn on that 18- to 25-year-old audience,” says Mark Pinkus, the keeper of the Dead’s legacy at Warner Music Group’s Rhino Entertainment. Pinkus is Rhino’s senior vice president of Grateful Dead Properties and proud attendee of 73 Dead shows.

There are limits, however. The Dead has turned down all offers for its music to appear in commercials, so don’t wait for “Truckin'” (the most requested song by potential licensees) to show up in a shipping company ad.

The band’s unwillingness to sell out to Madison Avenue is on one hand admirable and completely understandable, on the other hand it seems like an antiquated position. I know Neil Young doesn’t license his music for TV ads either, but the reality is a commercial can be an art form when it is made by people with integrity and skills.

In many cases, the commercial is better than the programming it props up and also longer-lived. For example, Apple Computer and Nike spots featuring music by The Beatles are more memorable, and better for the bands than having one of their songs placed in a scene in a TV show.

I don’t know that it ever aired, but Jerry Garcia and David Nelson of New Riders of the Purple Sage did work on a Levi’s commercial together. Here’s footage from that session:

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About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.