Grateful Dead Productions to MP3: Drop Dead

The Grateful Dead were the most enduring and most worshipped of all the rock groups who originated in the San Francisco scene of the 1960s. The Dead spawned Deadheads, a global family of loyal followers, who lived for the communal high of Dead concerts, where recording by fans was encouraged by the band and its management. Deadheads continue to share recordings of those concerts through a vast network, including several websites. Until recently, at least two of the sites had been providing MP3 transmissions at no charge.

The free tunes are part of a long-standing tradition. The making and sharing of the mostly amateur recordings was part of the cult of the Grateful Dead, who set aside special taping areas at their concerts strictly for their fans. The Dead were the first successful musical group who recognized that encouraging the use of their music in any form was a way of ensuring their own commercial longevity. Deadheads, like rabid fans of the Rolling Stones and other big-name groups, are completists---they want all of the group's standard-issue domestic commercial recordings, as well as all of the foreign releases, and the bootlegs, and the outtakes, and the spin-offs, and copies of all the marginally listenable recordings made by anyone anywhere in the world in any format.

During the Dead's reign, such rabid fan activity provided a guaranteed market for every new disc the band ever made. But the band ceased to exist when lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died in a drug rehab center a few years ago. Former members may play together (they sometimes perform as The Other Ones), but the unique creative energy that sustained them through a 30-year career died with Garcia. There will never be another Grateful Dead tour. Nor will there be any new recordings. The seemingly inexhaustible well is dry, and there is nothing left but the concert archive.

Which is where Grateful Dead Productions steps in. The Novato, California-based company oversees every aspect of marketing the Dead's artifacts. On March 31, attorneys for GDP, citing copyright infringements, presented Astrojams---then known as a cease-and-desist order threatening legal action if the site did not immediately remove any reference to the Dead from its name and stop distributing MP3 recordings over the Internet.

Astrojams' founders and operators, Joshua Kerr, Luke Stutzman, and Alex Bibighaus--- former computer students at the University of Texas--- protest that they have never made a profit from the distribution of Dead recordings over the Internet, and claim that they are simply continuing the tradition of sharing the music. Many of the MP3s transmitted by Astrojams were digitally transcribed from Kerr's own tapes. The site's Dead library has been made unavailable to the public while the issue is worked over by GDP executives and attorneys. Astrojams, which incorporated on March 15, is a labor of love on the part of the three former students.

Peter McQuaid, chief executive officer of Grateful Dead Productions, replied to a Stereophile inquiry about the matter with a tersely worded fax. "We are in the process of considering all the various issues that surround MP3 distribution . . . When we are in a position to make that opinion public, we will be glad to give you a call."

That's the essence of GDP vs. MP3 as it now stands, but it's only the tip of the iceberg regarding the Grateful Dead's revenue stream. On Saturday, January 17, 1998, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ken Garcia (no relation to Jerry) wrote a blistering report on the Dead's proposed "theme park"---a $60 million hotel/restaurant/museum complex to be called Terrapin Station. The project, with the blessing of the San Francisco mayor's office, would be funded by a small amount of seed money provided by band members and GDP, with the bulk of the financing to be raised by the issuance of non-participating stock---meaning fans could help build the place, but wouldn't share in the profits. The complex would feature a Mars Hotel, a Dancing Bear Café, and a souvenir shop selling everything from little skull Christmas-tree ornaments to American Beauty golf shirts.

The San Francisco scene in the '60s was a real revolution, and the Grateful Dead were among its leaders. During their heyday, and despite the wealth they accumulated from their fans, the Dead managed to present a convincing image of disdain toward the seedier aspects of capitalism. But regardless of their feigned or stated agendas, all rock bands are commercial enterprises, and the Dead's image is no longer useful except in the sale of memorabilia. Revolutions become institutions, and institutions become ossified. It's the oldest story in the world: When life vanishes, fossils are all that remain.