Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Tapers

Tapers are a different breed of music fan. They show up at concerts with a suitcase and claim their spot, usually FOH (Front of House). Up goes a microphone with a tiny umbrella. The Taper section looks like Area 51. Tapers are the first to arrive, and the last to leave and they're passionate about sound, particular about their recording equipment.  Today it's digital, but back in the day it was Maxell Vs. TDK. Cassettes vs. DAT. Taper philosophy and etiquette was never to charge for copies (covering postage is acceptable); profiting from the recordings was and is strictly taboo. The practice of allowing taping and utilizing the tapers as a promotional strategy is known in the business world as Inbound Marketing, with companies like Dell and Pepsi only now catching on.

And it all goes back to The Dead in 1967. So how did a group of musicians from San Francisco transform marketing and become social media pioneers? Essentially, The Dead made a series of important choices to separate themselves from everyone in their industry, making difficult and unpopular decisions along the way, such as allowing fans to tape concerts or creating special tickets and access for fans. 

The concept of the freemium model is to give away valuable information to attract a larger base of prospective customers with a percentage of them willing to pay for a premium product or service. This approach is at the core of inbound marketing and describes the evolving marketing funnel for many businesses today. It’s a bastardization of the Dead ideal, but remains a pretty sophisticated approach from a collection of misfits and miscreants.


The Dead, one of the most iconic and successful rock bands of its era, achieved elite success with only one top 10 song (which didn't come until we got our MTV). Instead, they succeeded by building a word-of-mouth network of fans powered by free music. The Dead understood that it was about the experience that the music provided, which in itself served as a role model for living a creative life.  The Dead model was so successful, it’s taught in business schools and codified in books like Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead.

Those internal, seemingly instinctual tenets of business created a multi-million-dollar industry without industry in mind. According to the Dead Model: 1) The most important thing is playing and creating. Everything else is secondary. 2) Work is a family affair. It’s important to shelter, support and share with a larger community. 3) Money plays second fiddle to living the kind of life one wants to live. According to Jerry, “You can build your own economy.” 4) Accept the hazards and finger-pointing as a small hindrance of living differently. 5) Push the envelope whenever possible. 6) Build a scene. These beliefs added up to a worldview that aligned with the values of the hippies and flower children of the ‘60s who intended to reshape the country and the world in their image. Pretty powerful stuff. It certainly didn’t hurt that the world was ready to think differently the moment the Dead first administered the acid test.

The Grateful Dead pioneered community-building in a lot of ways but mostly by thinking of their fans as part of the band, not separate from it. The Dead’s fans wanted to record each show, so the band let them by creating special “taper’s sections” in the audience. They encouraged peer-to-peer tape exchange by their fans, which attracted an even larger base of paying attendees, essentially pioneering the “freemium” content model.

Everything the Dead did was to assure that the band lived the life they wanted to lead, making them beholden only to their creativity and fans — not a bad template for the rest of us.