Grateful Dead

Documenting The Dead: "Business Records"

By Nicholas Meriwether

Business Records

This week's entry focuses on the Dead's business records, the section of the band's papers that academic researchers consider the heart of the Archive, and what establishes the collection as such a significant part of the nation's cultural heritage. As one visiting historian recently remarked, “the business papers distinguish the Dead Archive as one of the premier archival collections documenting the 1960s, the counterculture, and their impact on American history.”

The business papers document the band's work as an enterprise. Although that is not the entirety of the Dead's story-and certainly not the most colorful or compelling-they form the core of that story, the framework that describes the day-to-day reality of the work of building the Grateful Dead organization, and keeping it alive for thirty tumultuous years. The business series (as that part of the Archive is called) is also the most extensive section of the Archive, more than 380 boxes spanning over 200 linear feet, although that number will change as final processing is completed.

Fig. 1 The business records arrive, June 2012.

Final processing is well underway, but preliminary work on the series is complete, making clear the dimensions, depth, and richness of the records. Dozens of music releases, books and scholarly publications already attest to that: In addition to illustrating and informing archival music releases for the band, from Dave's Picks to numerous boxed sets, the business records have been the subject of extensive, and for some researchers, exhaustive, research. Recent books by Peter Richardson (No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead), David Browne (So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead), and Bill Kreutzmann (Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, cowritten with Benjy Eisen), have all benefitted from the insights and details these materials convey.

Those details are extensive. The most significant aspect of the business series is the documentation of concerts, which the band's longtime business associate (and early manager, briefly) Bill Graham dubbed gig files. Those files contain everything associated with a particular show, or consecutive run of shows at a venue: contracts; correspondence documenting logistics, expectations and understandings; production receipts, expenses, and documents; and the final settlement. Occasionally other kinds of documents are included, such as press accounts describing conditions that might affect a show.

Sadly, no gig files before 1970 have surfaced: the band led a highly peripatetic existence before they incorporated and leased their San Rafael headquarters, nicknamed Fifth and Lincoln, and some early files created by Bill Graham and later Lenny Hart may have remained with them. In general, that is the greatest lacuna, or gap, in the Archive. Yet what exists is remarkably evocative. Contracts, for example, do not vary much in terms of language or even format-the band used a standard union contract whose boilerplate language changed very little over their three-decade performing career-but their details are fascinating. Not only do the contracts trace the Dead's earning power over the years, they also show how the band's terms evolved: perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that by the early 1970s, the Dead were demanding minimum times to play, in a stark inversion of most performers, who specified a maximum. And some gig contracts do stand out, such as the 1982 US Festival, which earned them a far bigger paycheck than any other gig they played that year.

Fig. 2 Contract, San Antonio Municipal Auditorium, Nov. 12, 1971

While contracts didn't change, riders did, and substantially. Riders for most high-profile rock acts tend to focus on backstage amenities and other luxuries; for the Dead, riders focused more on logistics and technical concerns. In time, those concerns would be codified into what the band and crew called “The Book,” a ten-chapter, 100-page tome that apprised promoters of what mounting a Dead show entailed, from the dimensions and load capacity of the stage to the exact electrical specifications. An entire chapter discussed grounding, reproducing Ohm's Law and ending with the injunction, “If any of this is unclear … call us, and wait.”

That also reveals the band's increasing sophistication with production, another significant component of the business records. Some of the most interesting documents focus on venues: the band began to systematically research halls and theaters starting in the early 1970s, seeking out information from basics like capacity and access to details like the length of the walk between dressing rooms and the stage and even the type of electrical conduits available. As their expertise with the PA grew, they requested architectural plans to help plan for optimal speaker placement. Figuring out how to configure the PA to each hall's intricacies-and foibles-was both a science and an art that the Dead pioneered, one of several themes that emerge from the business series.

Production expanded with the size of the arenas. As the Dead grappled with their increasing popularity in the latter half of their career, they also devoted enormous efforts to the safety of their fans. By the 1990s, they could specify that local venues convene meetings before shows that included all principal stakeholders, from hall managers to security and crew chiefs to local police supervisors, to be educated about the unique aspects of Dead shows-with minutes taken and submitted to the band for review and comment.

As production became increasingly complex, accounting became more efficient, and settlement went from being a long, tortured process that could take months to finally resolve in the 1970s to an immediate post-gig process by the 1990s, with everything tallied and totaled the night of a show, with only occasional adjustments afterwards. It is part of how the Dead, and their archive, trace the growth of rock touring as an industry-and how the band pioneered so many aspects of that. One of the simple but revealing indicators of that are the tour itineraries, which evolved from typewritten sheets (Fig. 3) to typeset, saddle-stapled booklets by the early 1980s (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. “October Itinerary, Midwest Tour,” 1971.
Fig. 4. Tour Book, Spring 1984.

Beyond individual gigs, tours are also a significant aspect of the business series. Two remarkable examples of tour planning are the files documenting Europe '72 and the Egypt shows. Although Egypt ended up being only three shows, it was originally planned as a small tour, and the mammoth planning process certainly was more extensive than that of most major tours the Dead undertook. That effort required more diplomacy and high-level outreach than anything else the band undertook, but Europe '72 was no mean feat, a mammoth logistical challenge that gave them a crash course in navigating borders, customs, foreign promoters, and all the associated challenges that another country can pose.

The business series also documents many of the band's projects, such as Ron Rakow's ambitious proposal called “The So What Distribution Company,” a meticulously researched and carefully written plan that led to the formation of Grateful Dead Records and Round Records-and secured a major loan from a high-profile bank, which anything but a formidable plan could not have achieved. Even smaller efforts shine, however, such as the thoughtful and eloquent analysis of the band's business structure by Alan Trist in 1981, the product of his academic training as an organizational anthropologist and his long years of work for the band. Called “A Balanced Objective,” the report-commissioned in the wake of the band's celebrated shows in the fall of 1980 at the Warfield and Radio City Music Hall-represents a fascinating snapshot of the way the band worked, and how they approached their craft, from stage to office.

“A Balanced Objective” includes a poem by Bobby Petersen, a superb preface by Garcia, and even artwork to leaven the import and impact of the report. Yet even dry materials in the business series can be evocative, simply because of the context: with memoirs by Rock Scully and Sam Cutler now published, a simple memo between the two casts even greater light on how they worked to refine the band's rider in 1971. The fingerprints of the famous outline the band's footsteps from the Haight-Ashbury to Soldier Field, on so many of these pages.

Fig 5. Sam Cutler, “Draft of Rider to Contracts of the Grateful Dead,” ca. 1971.

Ultimately, despite gaps and omissions, the business series nonetheless provides a powerful and compelling perspective on the Grateful Dead and the cultural phenomenon they engendered. These records document how the band's business evolved, not only highlighting their box office clout but demonstrating their increasing sophistication and prowess as a touring rock band and entertainment enterprise.

Yet those logistics are not the most important dimension of the band's project to emerge from the business series. The Dead spent their money, and devoted their time, to creating their music; and the way they did so reflected a deep understanding, and awareness, of the values that informed that music. As Garcia wrote in the preface to Trist's “A Balanced Objective,” “we do business the way artists do business.” And they worked hard to make that business as creative and ethical an enterprise as their art. They succeeded, creating a model now followed by hundreds of other bands and providing an example studied in business schools and by managers in a host of industries, many far removed from anything remotely associated with rock music. The business series documents that extraordinary effort-and enduring achievement.

All images courtesy Grateful Dead Archive, UC Santa Cruz. Photographs by Nicholas G. Meriwether. All rights reserved.


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Haldor84's picture
Joined: Nov 1 2010
Braudel and New Years Eve!

Gotta love Dead Heads. Thanks for the reference to Braudel. He would love the materials!

I imagine the paperwork for the Fare Thee Well shows was rather extensive; certainly the shows were great.

Dead and Company coming to the City of Angels for New Years!!!

Haldor84's picture
Joined: Nov 1 2010
70% of the Net

Geomeister, you appear to have missed the 70% of the net part of the compensation for the 71 show in San Antonio. (Computing a net is always exciting since the expenses had to be taken into account, but there was probably a fixed amount as I recall seeing copies of other agreements.)

I saw a rider once for a show in the 70s, I don't recall details. What I do recall was the specificity of the beverages in the dressing room before the show, on stage, available during intermission, etc.!

Cool stuff.

JimmieJi's picture
Joined: May 14 2010

On the last night of the "Last Five Nights" at Winterland in '74 (the run of shows in the first Grateful Dead Movie), I overheard a brief exchange between one of the Dead's 'kwepment 'krewe and one of the film camera operators.
The camera operator commented on the vast complexity of the logistics required to transport and erect the band's Wall of Sound. Replied the roadie, "We'll, this ain't no riffraff this is the GRATEFUL DEAD!" Kinda says it all for me. Even in my youth I knew the was much more to the Dead than the incredible music they played or even the community that formed around the band. The Dead's innovative music and business practices, along with their deep integrity made them a solid class act.

Joined: Feb 14 2012
Once again, Nicholas makes a dry and arcane subject interesting.

When I once told a non-Deadhead friend about Barry Barnes' book titled, "Everything I Know About Business, I Learned from the Grateful Dead," he laughed dismissively and then changed the subject. It would have taken too long, and been useless, to pursue the topic.

I wish I'd had this article from Nicholas Meriwether to show him at the time. It fleshes out, in very specific terms, the evolution of the Dead's business practices that were, indeed, groundbreaking at the time. (I admit I haven't read Barry's book, so I don't know if that served the same purpose.)

Nick's article also sheds rare light on the care taken with details by the likes of Rock Scully, Sam Cutler, Alan Trist, and of course members of the band who attended all those meetings. For me, that was the bonus on this article, as I didn't attend band meetings back in the day when I could have, and I wasn't around much during those days of fame and fortune and need to deal with larger and larger venues.

Well done, Nicholas!!

geomeister's picture
Joined: Jan 18 2015
The records

Fascinating stuff, and fun to wade through, just in the topic alone.

Whether a blessing or not, i've always been interested in the behind the scenes part of it all. Having this treasure of records makes me want to head your way and paw through some of it. Wonder what that Haight Rider looked like the day they pulled up the flatbed and blocked the street...

..and $500 to play a gig, divided by all the members, was still a cool paydayt back then i imagine.

Joined: Dec 3 2007

If Fernand Braudel had been a Deadhead, this would be the Mother Lode. He wasn't, as far as I know, but this is still an unprecedented view into rock band history.


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