When introducing Dr. Barry Barnes at the Regina A. Quick Center for the arts on Oct. 30, Dr. Phillip Elisasoph, Ph.D., art history professor at Fairfield University and founder of the Open VISIONS Forum, listed just a few of his qualifications: a Ph.D. in business, 20 years spent in corporate America and time spent owning three different businesses.
“The only thing,” Eliasoph said with a knowing grin, was that, when Barnes was brought in to consult, “they expected a man wearing a pinstripe suit.”
Elisasoph then stretched his hand to the right, and with a round of applause, in walked Barnes wearing the pinstripe suit’s distant cousin: a pair of dark washed jeans held to his waist by a blue Grateful Dead belt, all matched together with a pair of brown sneakers and a cyan pair of Grateful Dead socks. His greying hair slicked back into a low hanging ponytail, loose pieces curling around in front of his ears. The sleeves of his blue button-down missed his wrists by about two inches, a bit of a gap peeking through. But, it didn’t seem to bother him.
Barnes stood a bit back from the microphone on the podium, before taking a step forward, his sound drifting in and out as he stated that he hadn’t really prepared for this discussion. Applying the main idea of his book, “Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead: The 10 Most Innovative Lessons From A Long Strange Trip” to his own life. This main idea is based on the Dead’s quintessential idea of improvisation and needed adaptation, which seemed to mold the band and, apparently, its fans. The morals the band seemed to have naturally translated seamlessly into the Silicon Valley ideologies of today. “Basically,” Barnes said, with a laugh and a wave of his hands, “This could go for four hours.”
The room didn’t yet have anything to add, so Barnes stepped closer to the microphone and started the slideshow. He walked the audience through 10 decisions the Grateful Dead made unconsciously that built the band for longevity. Then how the companies of today are applying these practices to their own business endeavors.
Take recording at concerts. Today, with a quick visit to YouTube or another streaming platform, any version of any modern-day band’s song can be viewed in just seconds. All thanks to the wonderful creation of the Internet in the latter half of the 20th century. It’s a nice tool to have, but not entirely necessary, as for many bands you could see them 300 times and nothing would change. With the new goal of live concerts being to mimic the sound heard on their records, allowing the fans to hear the same songs with only accidental errors.
For the Grateful Dead, nothing was seen as an error as they were an improvisational band. Meaning that you could’ve spent your entire life going to Dead shows, never to hear the same set twice. A concept that pushed die-hard fans, called Deadheads, to start sneaking tape decks into concerts to record the once in a lifetime experience. Though rules existed against this, the Dead didn’t really enforce, only stating that a profit couldn’t be made, but the tapes could be traded or copied as often as needed.
Barnes mentioned that this was a brilliant idea. Bands living in the pre-Internet era only really grew in popularity through word of mouth, a process that was aided by, and sparked, recordings.
The business concepts discussed were easy enough to follow even without a business background, and the stories of the Dead were fascinating, but if you’re really looking to understand the Dead’s business practices, you’ll probably have to pick up the book. With this presentation acting more like a comparison to more formal ways of presenting and the transcending experience of seeing the Grateful Dead live than a true look at their business. As Barnes would often pause halfway through a sentence, segueing into a Grateful Dead story before stopping himself before the moral, giving us a, “But that’s a story for another time.”
The audience members didn’t mind. Barnes’ himself had been to 194 Grateful Dead shows, even meeting his wife through the Dead’s mailbox ticket service, which was a unique delivery service detailed in his book. Before modern companies like Ticketmaster existed, you could only buy concert tickets at record stores. The Dead saw how inconvenient this was and took the operation in-house. How Barnes’ met his wife through the mail though was another, “story for another time.”
The audience seemed to match his ferocity for the Dead. The room was painted in Dead Merchandise, the “Steal Your Face” logo, the skull with a red and blue brain, echoing along the room. When Barnes asked how many people had been to more than one Grateful Dead show during the bands active years, 1965-1995, multiple hands were raised. Then heads nodded and sighed along with Barnes when he said his almost 200 shows spent listening to the Dead were, “Still not enough.”
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