What Works for the Dead Won’t Work for the Living


A short Wall Street Journal article about a forthcoming Grateful Dead documentary contains the following interesting insight:

The biggest obstacle [to making the documentary], Mr. Bar-Lev says, was the Dead’s communal philosophy, which extended to business decisions. That approach persisted after 1995, when the group ceased to exist following the death of Jerry Garcia, its best-known member. The Grateful Dead organization “moves in an extremely egalitarian, consensus-oriented way, which means that nothing ever happens,” Mr. Bar-Lev says. In addition, the band is “mistrustful of anything that would nail them down to one meaning, so a documentary film had strikes against it right there.” Persistence, a shake-up at a record company and a nod from Martin Scorsese finally cleared the path.

For a labor of love, “an extremely egalitarian, consensus-oriented” methodology is fine, but as an economic plan, not so much.  The whole world can’t depend on being the Grateful Dead; indeed, one could argue that the fact of being unique was key to the Dead’s success.

A “communal philosophy” requires at least one of two preexisting conditions:  either a preexisting conformity of belief that the method of decision making must supersede the community’s ability to accomplish goals (meaning a willingness to suffer for the belief) or sufficient economic potential that much of it can be squandered.

Artists of a certain type will often be willing to suffer for their beliefs, and the Grateful Dead obviously had huge economic potential.  However, just as we shouldn’t go so far as to proclaim that the go-getters have a right to impose their beliefs on the communal types, we can’t insist that everybody conform to the latter’s beliefs.