Studying the Grateful Dead - in Biz School

The Grateful Dead was one of rock and roll's most enduring acts - making records and touring constantly for 30 years, until 1995, when lead singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia died. With its roots in the 1960's counter-culture, the Dead improbably became America's most lucrative touring act. Now, the band's success is even being studied - in business schools, as CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod reports.

In many ways, Barry Barnes is a typical "deadhead," as the most loyal fans of the Grateful Dead have long been known.

"I saw them 194 times over 21 years," Barnes said. "My best friends today - still 15 years after the band ended - are deadheads."

But Barnes - a professor at Nova Southeastern University's Wayne Huizenga School of Business - keeps an uncommonly close eye on the band even for deadheads. He teaches in his business courses about what he learned from all those years on the road following the band.

"Be true to your vision. Know exactly what you really love and you're passionate about. Stick to that," he said. "If you do what you love, the money will follow."

The Grateful Dead is a textbook example of the passion-based pay-off. At their peak, the band drew nearly 2 million fans to their shows every year. Fans report seeing them 150 times or more. And the Dead has had no problem selling $50 million worth of merchandise.

Long before the Internet changed media and marketing, the Dead pioneered an approach that we'd recognize today as "social networking."

"They were reaching out in a way that went beyond the usual sort of Beatles-mania fan club and really connecting to the fans," said Nina Nazionale, curator at the New York Historical Society, which just opened n exhibit on the Dead.

On the back of one 1971 album, the band asked their fans who they were.

"It says, 'Tell us where you are, and we'll keep you informed,'" Nazionale said, reading from the album cover. "That was the beginning of their mailing list, which by the mid-90s had a half-a-million people on it."

The Dead kept their fans in the loop with a newsletter and by selling their own tickets. Every concert sold out.

Fans sent in money orders in colorful envelopes hoping to stick out and get tickets for a concert experience like no other. The Dead's trademark improvisation guaranteed no two shows were ever exactly alike.

Memorabilia from the Grateful Dead's archives is now on display at the Historical Society - part of what will become a permanent archive at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Barnes says lots of companies could learn from the way the Grateful Dead took care of business.

"If you really want to engage your employees, and you really want to be creative and innovative and respond in the moment to the situation at hand, then strategic improvisation and the Grateful Dead have important lessons for the 21st century," he said.

Two members of the Dead, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, plan to tour together this summer with their new band, Furthur. The exhibit at the New York Historical Society is open until July.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.