A Long Strange Trip: How the Grateful Dead Uses Digital Channels to Stay Relevant

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A Long Strange Trip: How the Grateful Dead Uses Digital Channels to Stay Relevant

How is it that a band that officially disbanded in 1995 upon the death of Jerry Garcia continues to stay active and as popular as ever 20+ years later?  Let’s explore some of those reasons:

New releases

Any Grateful Dead fan will tell you that their studio work is nothing compared to their live stuff.  One song that would be a forgettable 4-minute track on the album soars to life on the stage often exceeding 20 minutes in length!  The band toured essentially nonstop for their entire lifespan from 1965-1995, playing over 2,300 shows.  Considering the sheer quantity of freely-recorded concerts, there is a virtually limitless supply of new music to experience.  As a result, the Grateful Dead can continue to release new live albums and compilations for the foreseeable future, including 9 in the year 2017 alone.  All of these are posted to Spotify and promoted on their official social media channels, constantly attracting new fans and followers: their Instagram has over 176K followers and their Facebook has nearly 2 million followers!  Additionally, there are several groups continuing to tour and play the Dead’s music: Phil Lesh & Friends (the bassist’s group) and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (a drummer who has collaborated with multiple members of the band) are two popular examples.

Solo members’ pages

The Dead is one of the rare bands in which the individual members have fan bases nearly as strong as the band’s itself.  Their social media channels certainly reflect this: Bob Weir’s Instagram (the rhythm guitarist and co-vocalist) has over 109K followers; Jerry Garcia’s (the late lead guitarist and co-vocalist) has over 107K—pretty impressive for a musician that died over 20 years ago!  There is an even more social media-savvy proxy band member whom I’ll elaborate on shortly.


It is no surprise that the millennial generation is getting more and more into politics than ever before, partially as a response to the polarizing 2016 Presidential election.  The Dead have typically stayed out of politics (besides a few songs about specific causes such as environmentalism and pacifism), but they do encourage activism.  Their most notable efforts have been promoting HeadCount, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy, particularly encouraging voter registration.  Bob Weir even serves on its Board of Directors.  At the Grateful Dead’s highly-attended 2015 Fare Thee Well “farewell tour”, they set up tables to help attendees register.  Additionally, they use their social media channels to promote easy ways to register online.

Dead and Company

Perhaps the most high-profile project keeping the band relevant is Dead and Company, a band consisting of three members of the original band, a few professional musicians, and John Mayer in the lead guitarist role.  Dead and Company formed in 2015 and has gone on four incredibly successful national tours, and will be starting their fifth later this year.  Mayer’s presence has energized not only the fan base but the band itself, playing shows comparable in quality to the Grateful Dead’s peak touring years.  The band has a notable social media presence, with over 176K Instagram followers and over 259K Facebook followers.  They additionally get a large boost in social media presence from Mayer’s personal accounts, with over 2.7 million followers on Instagram and nearly 7 million on Facebook!  I was born two months after the band disbanded, but I have been lucky enough to see Dead and Co twice, both with my dad, an avid Deadhead who says these shows are virtually identical experiences to the nearly dozen Grateful Dead shows that he saw.  There were several moments I experienced in both shows where the entire audience was moving as one, singing along to songs written decades ago yet finding new life each and every day with a constantly-growing fan base.  It is moments like that that illustrate that the spirit of the Grateful Dead lives on, transcending what any singular group of musicians can be; I have no doubt that their music will continue to be played for years to come.

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SPARKsouthSeptember 28, 2018
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