Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Grateful Dead: Top-Grossing Act of 1991

I just picked up a copy of Pollstar's 1991 Year-End Special Edition, entitled Year of the Dead, dated December 31, 1991.

Though I don't do much GD stuff, blogger's stats tell me that GD posts are the most popular. People are funny. But I digress. One of the reasons I don't do it is that others are just so much better at it, and there's so much to do. I like my quieter, Garcia-on-the-side view of things.

But I couldn't pass this up. I just loved some of the data that I found in this magazine, and so want to present a few pictures, each with a few associated thoughts (though, thankfully, not a thousand words).

The GD was the top-grossing American live music act in 1991, bringing in almost $35 million for the year. At this point, Garcia is founder and de facto leader of a company grossing well over this amount, once we factor in GD merchandising, record sales, licensing, royalties (I'd love to know the details), in addition to all of that stuff from his "other" bands. He was an entrepreneur (I need to read Barry Barnes's book, I know). A lot of the messed up shit (such as the 1978 tax liens) that I report on needs to be put into this context. The Dirty Fucking Hippie was a massively successful businessman. He wasn't just some junkie rock star. He was an American success story: Jerry Garcia, Inc.

Here's the key table, with data from Pollstar. I have independently calculated the gross per ticket stuff and the column totals. Pollstar's narrative has some weird numbers, for example "76 shows in 27 cities", while I count 58 paid shows (plus free Bill Graham Memorial show on 11/3/91, no tickets of revenue, of course) across 23 cities.

Table xxx. Grateful Dead 1991 concert grosses.
I'll leave it to GD people to comment and parse as they might like. Let me just elaborate with one more picture from these data, focusing on promoters.

Figure xxx. Grateful Dead 1991 concert grosses, by promoter. Man that is some ugly-ass graph, isn't it?

Here are a few observations, bullet style.

  • There is so much continuity in promoters! I was looking at tour information from the October 22 - November 2, 1975 JGB tour, and you see not only John Scher all over it, but Cellar Door in DC and Don Law in Boston, as with here. Seems like there were lots of first-mover advantages in this particular market.
  • Barry Fey was the only holdout to the total market domination of Bill Graham and John Scher.
  • This distribution is such a great artifact of high modernism. It's perfect how Scher and Graham divide the country, each with his domaine réservé or his chasse gardée, exclusive territoriality on a par with the sharply distinct domains of Westphalian states. No overlapping authority, à la the pre-Westphalian Holy Roman Empire, with its thousands of princes, dukes, suzerains and assorted monarchs and their associated principalities, duchies, suzerainties, and kingdoms.  Sharp lines. Modernity. From the article:
Grateful Dead Productions had the band's yearly excursions down to a science in '91 with Bill Graham Presents and Metropolitan Entertainment splitting the country in their roles as tour producers. All the Dead dates were co-promoted by one or the other except for a stop in Denver, where the two companies couldn't agree on who had the territory. It's safe to say the plan won't change much in the future. If there's one thing to learn from this success story in a year that had so few, it's 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'
  • Why would Bill Graham have co-promoted the May 1991 Shoreline shows, but not the August ones?
  • Garcia, like all of us, wanted to simplify out the shit that didn't appeal to him (e.g., the business side of things) to make maximal room for the stuff that did. We should, and probably do, all strive for that sort of thing. Specialization and exchange. Pay the promoter to handle that stuff. Delegate.
  • Look at how lucrative the eastern half of the country is. Man oh man! We have talked on the blogs, and the books talk a lot, about the importance of the core northeast fanbase over the years. It began very early on. The Dead perceived the importance of these folks (or are they markets?) early on and drew the appropriate conclusions in terms of engagement, marketing, outreach, etc. Constituency service, the pols would call it.
  • The annual MSG and Boston Garden runs are just unbelievable. Again, high modernism. Capitalism at its finest.
  • Scher seems to have been smart about working with local partners, and I am sure the GD folks were more than glad to have him sub-contract as he needed to. The Dead and Scher worked well together, they obviously trusted him, and you can't particularly argue with the results.
  • The fact that the Dead staged an intervention after the Denver show 6/28/91, that Garcia entered a methadone-based recovery program that summer, and seemed burned out beyond all recognition in the fall (the Hornsby recollections, the Boston statement about taking a break from touring), gives us a little peek, as if we needed any reminder that life is full of tradeoffs, at the human toll, on Garcia in particular, of the "Year Of The Dead". A Year of Dying, too. Ain't creative destruction great?

One last point, on data and methodology: the entertainment industry has always documented itself very thoroughly, and especially in quantitative (and, specifically, monetary) terms. I guess that's true of all industries, but, like any ad-based industry, music, television, film, and the rest of the entertainment-industrial complex had a great incentive to make at least some data public. From very early on there are charts and lots of information about grosses and such.

So how is it possible that we don't have better quantitative data in the field of Grateful Dead Studies? We need  more graduate students writing more dissertations to start compiling more data; we oldsters can't handle the strain. Billboard, Pollstar ... etc. etc. I want graphs of the chart position of every Dead/Garcia record ever ... stat! (so to speak)


  1. These are indeed some interesting data points. I think there has been very little quantitative economic analysis of the Grateful Dead, despite the available data, because historians are not asking the questions that require such answers. In that respect, Grateful Dead historiography has been surprisingly limited in scope. There has been a lot of biographical study, in the manner of "Eminent Victorians," and lots of attempts to make a narrative out of their musical ups and downs, but few other approaches.

    A few comments about your chart of promoters:
    the question is not why BGP didn't co-promote the later shows at Shoreline with Avalon, but why they co-promoted them at all in May. BGP owned Shoreline after all--why have a co-promoter? I think the answer was that BGP made a deal with Avalon to share the promotion of the May/June Los Angeles and Shoreline shows. It may have been tied into other NorCal/SoCal tours as well.

    After the success of Shoreline and a few other places in the mid 80s, similar "sheds" (as they are called in industry parlance) were built all over the country. About 1990, the first Bush recession hit, and promoters found that fans didn't want to pay a lot of money to sit on the grass to see the same Steve Miller/John Mellencamp bill they had seen the year before. The Dead tours of 1990-92 pretty much saved the concert industry, and that is no exaggeration. When Garcia died in 1995, the head of BGP (Nick Clainos) promptly sold the operation (to SFX/Clear Channel) because the Dead were 25% of BGP profits, though only 8% or so of their revenue.

    The Dead were certainly loyal. The co-promoter of the Boston Gardens show was Don Law, who was the founder of the Boston Tea Party, and had been booking the band since 1969. It's also funny to see Barry Fey as the lone holdout--Barry Fey got his start in the concert business when he took over the Denver Family Dog in 1968 after Chet Helm was run out of town by the Sheriff.

  2. The mastermind behind the Boston Tea Party club was Ray Riepen. Although it booked very few good acts and ran on a shoestring, The Tea Party flourished under the imaginative direction of its owner, Ray Riepen. Riepen is a legendary character . Besides the Tea Party he started WBCN and The Phoenix.(5)

    5.)^Lovell, Paul "Blowfish", The Boston Tea Party Club,

  3. Where did you get this copy of Pollstar?


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