A concert performance by The Grateful Dead.
A concert performance by The Grateful Dead.

naleck/flickr

The Grateful Dead and the Deadheads brought more than psychedelic music to the world — in many ways, they were the pioneers for today’s music sharing technology.

What do you think of when you envision the Grateful Dead? Technological innovation probably isn’t high on your list. To those on the outside, the Dead and their faithful fans, known as Deadheads, often conjure images of teenage dropouts, unkempt and stuck forever in “The Summer of Love.”

But in reality, Grateful Dead-fandom is a complex culture built upon dedication, experimentation, and uninhibited sharing. As Jesse Jarnow writes in his fascinating article for WIRED, this free and open atmosphere ultimately became a breeding ground for music sharing technology. To this day, Deadheads remain pioneers in the music industry.

A History of Music Sharing Genius

The Grateful Dead’s music is made for people who cherish innovation and spontaneity. Even now, 16 years after Jerry Garcia’s death, Grateful Dead gigs remain some of the most popular and well-known live show experiences around. But how has this band managed to cultivate such an enduring culture and community?

Blogger and self-proclaimed Deadhead Brad Porteus explained on Quora that much of the live show’s allure stems from its unpredictability — every concert is unique and full of improvisation, the result of which “sometimes is magical, and is sometimes a God-awful train-wreck. Either way, it’s exciting.”

Veteran Deadheads will brag about their 400-plus Grateful Dead concerts, never forgetting to claim that no two shows were alike.

So, what if a Deadhead can’t make it to one of these once-in-lifetime experiences? Technology comes to the rescue. Tapers have become a huge part of Grateful Dead culture — these are people who go from concert to concert, capturing each live set with high-quality audio recording gear.

It started with cassettes in the sixties before it gradually transitioned to CDs and MP3s. You’d think this kind of activity would be discouraged or even punished, but the Dead have always encouraged their fans to tape their shows and to share it freely with one another.

It’s music sharing in its purest form, long before the days of Napster and YouTube. As Jarnow writes, “even before the band started officially sanctioning the practice in 1984, the tapers built a worldwide music distribution system that sustained the Dead and helped launch bands like Phish, Widespread Panic, and dozens more.”

The result? A musical archive like no other, allowing fans to discuss legendary shows and share their favorite versions of their favorite tracks from years long passed. And to this day, the Grateful Dead’s official website, dead.net, makes those archives available to everyone for free.

The Legacy Continues

Yes, the technologies have changed throughout the years, but the Deadhead tapers have never missed a beat. In a New York Times article, writer Joe Coscarelli observes that today, there’s actually a dedicated tapers section at Grateful Dead concerts, and that “it wouldn’t be a Dead show without them.”

Although Dead are in their final days of touring, Deadheads continue to be a source of technological innovation. Today, concert recordings can be heard within mere hours of a show, and fans share their reactions and experiences with one another on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat.

As Jarnow points out, “Deadheads were almost unquestionably the first fanbase to rush to their computer screens,” and before today’s social media was available, “they were using mailing lists, backchannel chats, and The WELL,” one of the world’s first online communities.

If a Deadhead is currently reading this, bravo — you’ve played an important role in the history of music sharing technology.

And if you feel so inspired, you can add to the Grateful Dead’s legacy of technological innovation by creating your own app with Infinite Monkeys — whether it’s for sharing music, connecting with your fellow Deadheads, or some other wild idea that only the Dead could inspire.