While the shows were quite popular, the lead up to Fare Thee Well was far from trouble free. There was a lot of blowback with the ticket prices, especially when the prices for sections were revised upward after they had already gone on sale. Part of what the event was selling was the Grateful Dead Experience and that was – at least in our nostalgic remembrances decades later when we don’t have to deal with the downsides of the scene first hand– largely was about giving and helping others. Two hundred dollar tickets, VIP arrangements, and gloating scalpers didn’t seem consistent with the values of the event. As a result, when the Dead announced the 30 Trips Around The Sun box set priced at the low $699.98, an already sticker shocked fan base had reached its limit.
People were willing to cut some slack for the Fare Thee Well shows because they really wanted to see them; the CD set had fewer fans. I have no plans to purchase the set, but for once, this makes sense. The problem with CDs is that they don’t sell. The Grateful Dead have a bigger problem because they have so many releases. There are the studio albums. There are the live albums and the From the Vault series. There’s the thirty-six Dick’s Picks and the fifteen Dave’s Picks. You can also check out the Road Trips series, and all of this doesn’t even factor in the multitudes of soundboards available on archive.org. Convincing people to actually purchase a new release is a challenge.
The good news for producers in the digital age is that studios are cheaper. You can release music at a fraction of the cost of what it used to take before software and digital recordings existed. However, that doesn’t make up for the sheer loss of income from the people who will never again purchase music. Newer bands think of releases as less of a source of income and more a form of advertising. I saw an example of that first hand in Yakima this spring. I was at a music festival where a band named Vaudeville Etiquette played. I loved their song “Blood & Bone” so I went to their merchandise booth to ask them about it. After some conversation, they handed me a disc so I could have a copy. I thanked them, walked away, and noticed a few minutes later that I had somehow misplaced it. When I made my embarrassed return to buy a replacement, they just handed out another one. I have seen them since then and they’re on my list to check out, so they still will turn a profit on the deal. Even if you think of music as a loss leader, and even with the lower start up and distribution costs, there still is the basic start up costs for creating the album.
What smaller bands are doing is resorting to Kickstarter. A small but loyal fanbase is likely to be inspired to pay the extra money in return for extra goodies. Anna Tivel offered to send a handwritten letter every month from wherever she is playing. Rabbit Wilde let fans rename the band . Almost every band out there is offering a package where they’d play a private show at your house. These are cool and a great way to get people interested, but the catch is that it only works for a small band. I can’t even imagine how much the Fare Thee Well band would try to charge for a private show at a fan’s house, but it’s not even clear if Bill Walton would be able to afford it. The irony of being a big band is that you can become so large that some income streams are cut off for you.
Instead of having tiers and novel presents, the Dead went another approach. Make the release itself a collectable item. Throw in a unique 7-inch vinyl recording and appeal to the completists. That’s the point of the $700 box set. The goal isn’t to appeal to all Deadheads. As much as they’d like to sell tens of thousands of copies of this set, that’s not how this game is played anymore. While it can become a vicious cycle where bands market only to the rich collectors so the less well off fans don’t have any concerns about just streaming the music so the band assumes no one will buy it so they start charging even more, the point to remember – especially when dealing with a band and fan community like the Grateful Dead has – that it very well might not be inspired by greed. The result of this is that a few people get interesting items for their shelves, the band gets seed money to remaster a pile of live shows, and the rest of us can listen to the music whenever we want. Regardless of the intent, the result is beneficial for all involved. It’s no longer about what you’re willing to pay; it’s about finding the money to make something exist.
 OK they didn’t but they did offer to throw you a party at the right donation level.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He now tweets and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page
His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and his Create Space store.