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25 Years After Jerry Garcia’s Death, the Grateful Dead Is Bigger Than Ever

The band hasn’t played a show since 1995 but remains as relevant — and profitable — as ever.

Greatful Dead Band Still Touring and
Skulls/Roses: Adobe Stock; Dead and Company: Jay Blakesberg

It’s been 25 years since the Grateful Dead played their last show at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 9, 1995. A month later, on Aug. 9, founding member and idolized frontman Jerry Garcia was dead of a heart attack. But the music never stopped, and in the decades since, Garcia’s legend has grown — and so has the business of the Dead, which has become a premier brand to partners in apparel (James Perse) and footwear (in July, a Grateful Dead Nike sneaker series sold out instantly, with shoes now going for thousands on eBay), furniture and decor, accessories and even beauty products (vegan Grateful Dead deodorant, anyone?).

But perhaps the best gauge of the Dead’s post-Jerry boom is the number of Dead-inspired bands that continue to tour (in the non-COVID era). Chief among them: Dead & Company, featuring John Mayer on guitar alongside original Dead members Bob Weir (guitar), Bill Kreutzmann (drums) and Mickey Hart (also drums), as well as Oteil Burbridge (bass) and Jeff Chimenti (keyboards), which was formed in 2015 and brought awareness of the Dead to a younger generation while providing their parents — or grandparents in some instances — with a return to the music of their own youth. Other Dead-adjacent bands include bassist Phil Lesh’s Phil Lesh & Friends, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, known to Deadheads as J-RAD, and the Dark Star Orchestra, which started performing in 1997 and is scheduled to play a drive-in show at the Citizens Bank Park parking lot in Philadelphia on Sept. 5-6. Even Circles Around the Sun (aka CATS), a band formed with the late Neal Casal to provide between-set music during 2015’s “Fare Thee Well” concerts (featuring the Dead with another guitar god, Phish’s Trey Anastasio), has continued on as a unit.

“The Dead represents a time and place that people, especially young people, wish they had experienced the first time around,” offers Peter Shapiro, owner of the Capitol Theatre in New York and promoter of “Fare Thee Well,” when asked why the group still resonates 50 years later. “It’s probably the closest they can get to being in 1967.”

Except that in 1967, or even 1987 — the year the band landed a Top 10 hit with “Touch of Grey” — the Dead never saw so much bread. Dead & Company’s touring revenues, for one, are enviable. The band grossed $250 million in the past five years, averaging box office of $2.3 million per concert, according to live music trade Pollstar. All of those shows were sell-outs in arenas, amphitheater and stadiums, with total tickets sold numbering more than 2.4 million. Even J-RAD can make a decent living playing Dead favorites — the band averages a gross of $143,000 per headlining date and last year played such storied venues as the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre.

The Dead’s business brain trust is a collective of stakeholders including all the remaining band members (Lesh, Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart), represented by their individual managers; members of Garcia’s family (Marc Allan of Red Light Management oversees Garcia’s musical output); and the band’s management, Bernie Cahill at Activist Artists Management and industry veteran Kraig Fox. All are card-carrying Deadheads for whom preserving, not perverting, the legacy is paramount.

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Dead & Company perform in Boulder last year; a Nike collaboration released in July sold out instantly. Courtesy of Nike

According to sources familiar with the band’s finances, the Dead could easily command $150 million for rights to its name, likeness and IP.

It’s proof positive that nostalgia factors greatly in the business of the Dead, not just emotionally but with a steady stream of products. “I find it super exciting,” says Mark Pinkus, president of Rhino Records, the Warner Music Group label that houses all of the Grateful Dead catalog. “The band is very unique in that it has iconography that is striking and timeless.”

Pinkus points to the label’s limited pressing “Dave’s Picks” series, curated by David Lemieux, the band’s archivist and legacy manager, as an example of how steady Dead sales are for the company. The series was launched in 2012; subscribers pay an annual fee of $115 for four live show recordings. Initially limited to 12,000 subs, that figure has since been expanded to 20,000.

Indeed, the band’s live shows are the stuff of legend, and a virtual treasure trove of high-quality recordings are available all over the web and on streaming platforms. In addition, a weekly “Shakedown Stream” has been airing on the Grateful Dead YouTube channel during COVID, offering a succession of stellar performances, as has a recently launched podcast, under the guidance of Pinkus.

As for the Dead’s repertoire, the band never was a big studio album seller, but it’s seeing licensing and music revenue reach an all-time high thanks in large part to the brand alliances it’s formed.

Rhino is also a profit participant in merchandise sold on Dead.net, the band’s official site. Last month, the 1970 album “Workingman’s Dead” marked its 50th anniversary, and with [the deluxe edition release? it] came a wide array of related products, including a special edition Leatherman and a hatchet. Why an ax? “It’s very Marin County, 1970,” says Pinkus matter-of-factly. “People were out there chopping wood!”

“We have a small core,” explains Red Light’s Allan of how decisions are made regarding new product. “We’ve found that the broader we go, the more noise we hear, so we’ve kept things to the family and a pretty diverse team of fans on our management team representing the many different types of Deadheads out there.”

“David Lemieux and I made an agreement on our first official meeting,” Pinkus elaborates. “We’re both huge Deadheads, first and foremost, and we wanted to make sure that, one: working on this never tainted our love for the music. And, two: that we only release things or approve things that we as  Deadheads felt resonated true to us — that felt right.”

“This is generational music that’s passed down in the folk tradition and, years later, is connecting different dots — like genealogy,” offers Allan. “So it will continue to get bigger over time. As long as people keep going to summer camp, they’re going to keep finding this music.”