In keeping with my recent tradition of writing about things that I never thought I would, I am going to devote an entire column to the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.
Before you accuse me of wildly anachronistic behavior, let me point out that I have been prompted by a recent Rolling Stone article concerning Garcia’s website. In what they describe as a “digital makeover,” the website is being transformed from a simple reminder of the late guitarist’s existence to an all-out experience encouraging obsessive fandom and major time investment. According to the article, the website includes hours of unreleased concert footage, full-length tour itineraries, and opportunities for fan interaction—elements of online marketing that seem incredibly cutting-edge for an artist who has been dead for nearly two decades.
However, as any baby boomer knows, the truth is that these elements are par for the course when it comes to the Grateful Dead. Long before memes or social networking graced our smartphones, Deadheads were living these phenomena out in the real world (you know, that place you explore when there’s nothing good on Netflix). Obsessively following the band on tour, Deadheads not only formed a strong network, but also began to develop their own subculture, complete with inside references and slang. This in turn helped to support countless products, festivals, and records—building an entire industry out of nothing more than raw enthusiasm.
In a way, this behavior is perfectly suited to the Internet, which allows for community, inside references, and content sharing on a scale never envisioned by the original Deadheads. In fact, if I had to design the perfect tool to enhance the experience of a jam band superfan, it would be the Internet in its current form. Memes are the perfect way to convey inside references, file sharing creates easy access to bootlegged concerts, and online shopping allows for a much broader distribution of niche products (use your imagination). What surprises me about the Garcia revamp is not that these two worlds are colliding, but the fact that they took so long to do so. Why would something so perfectly suited to social networking wait nearly 10 years to fully harness its power?
By and large, I could ask this question of the entire music industry. Every artist and label has a Web presence, yet so few have created an immersive community à la Jerry Garcia. The Internet is filled with some of the most ridiculous fandoms known to man (I’m talking to you, Bronies), yet fandoms for one of the oldest and most revered art forms on the planet lag far behind. Despite the proliferation of YouTube concert footage, music blogs, and band websites, it is a constant struggle for today’s bands to create a powerful community among their fans. The pieces are all there, but the unity and enthusiasm of earlier generations is missing. Bands must follow in the late Mr. Garcia’s lead by adapting the success of the past to fit the realities of the future.
David Ecker is a Columbia College junior. Slightly Off Key runs alternate Fridays.