Nov 8, 2012

October 1973: Grateful Dead Records


"The record company appeals to people like Jerry Garcia for two reasons," explained Ron Rakow, president of the new Grateful Dead Records.
"One is that it's dangerous, and therefore exciting. And Garcia hates security. If there's anything in the world he hates it's security. The second reason is that it's our step going counter to the trend of concentration. In every industry, they're getting larger and larger and more concentrated. This represents a step away from concentration, from collectivization. And we think that's very important."
On Monday, the first release of Grateful Dead records, "Wake of the Flood," will be in your corner record store, and the world's most individualistic major rock band will have taken another step where mortals feared to tread.

On Wednesday, the Dead will take off for the Mid- and Southwest for a tour designed to coincide with the album's release. Rakow, a 35-year-old former accountant who has been with the Dead family since 1966, continued. "Warner Bros. (for whom the Dead produced nine albums, preceded by two for Sunflower) was never able to get the ultimate participation of the band for promotion. Now, on the other hand, I made up a list of 22 cities I wanted the band to visit while the record was in its intensive release period, and they agreed to play them all." Rakow sounded mildly astonished. "It may turn out that they all can't be done, but at least I have their own unqualified cooperation and incredible enthusiasm."
The history of pop music bands with their own label is not without precedent. From the Beatles' Apple to the Rolling Stones Records and Jefferson Airplane's Grunt, major stars have been able to pry certain concessions from the biggest record companies. The result is somewhat more artistic freedom, certain added prestige, and usually, a higher royalty rate. But generally, such arrangements have also left promotion, distribution, and certain mechanical concerns to the parent company. A mail-order operation allows independence but severely restricts the availability of the albums.

There will be no such compromise for the Dead. With the recent expiration of their contract with Warner Bros., they have absconded with complete artistic and financial control of their recording affairs. By brandishing their economic power (more than $3 million in albums sold in the last year) they have solved the major problem of any independent recording effort.
"We have independent distributors who operate out of 22 major locations," Rakow continued. "Our feeling is that these people, who built their own businesses, who don't work for somebody else, will give us even stronger distribution than Warner Bros. did."
Garcia, spokesman for the band, commented on a few reasons for abandoning Warner Bros. "We've never really gotten along that well; we've always been kind of at odds. We were never satisfied with the whole trip and having to deal with people we couldn't relate to. It was mostly a communications trip. Years of that kind of corporate's kind of hard to explain.
"But mostly, why should we be providing juice for the Kinney Corp. (Warner's parent company)? We thought it would be groovier to do it ourselves and take a lot of the money the record company made and use it to put out a better product. And we also felt that, even if we (bleeped) up real bad, we could still sell as many records as Warner Bros. could..."

If ever the time was propitious for the Dead to undertake such a project, it is now. The band is at the peak of its popularity; bordering on superstardom. They have some 60 people in the family, their own publishing company (Ice Nine), and even a travel agency, Fly-By-Night.
But, according to Garcia, they're not rich. "We're still a wage-earning band, our income from records has been minimal, and our operation is a high-overhead trip. Right now, we're not well-to-do but we're succeeding nicely. And the music is still a get-off; that's what makes it..."
"The Grateful Dead exists comfortably but is not a secure financial scene," Rakow concluded. "As a matter of fact, we have people thinking up ways to guarantee that the Grateful Dead will never be a secure financial scene..."

(by John Wasserman, from the San Francisco Chronicle, October 12 1973)

1 comment:

  1. Wake of the Flood sold 420,000 copies in the first few months after release.
    Rakow later said, "I think some people believed that were were going to instantly go out and sell a million copies of our record because Warner Bros had done such a lousy job and now we were in control. Then, when it didn't sell a million copies, some people thought I was fucking with them. There was this attitude in the Dead that the record company is for fucking with... [But] some people in the band didn't believe our fans were buying it quickly and that there were only that many of them, which was Garcia's theory, and what Warner Bros always said." (Jackson, Garcia p. 245)

    But Rakow pointed out to the Wall Street Journal that with Warner Bros, "We were making about 33 cents an album - now we make about $1.22 an album."
    Nonetheless, the band did have a problem with bootleggers putting thousands of copies of counterfeit Wake of the Floods into stores. The Dead not only sent postcards to Deadheads asking them to watch out for counterfeits, they contacted the FBI; but the bootleggers were never caught.

    Garcia had talked about starting an independent record company as far back as the 1971 Rolling Stone interview:
    "What it depends on is us getting out of our present contract, or it expiring. Then we're in a position where we can start to think about that. We've been planning to do it seriously... See, Grunt Records is still RCA. There's no question about it. It's not truly independent. And our fantasy is to be completely independent if we can do it...
    We don't have to be a crashing huge success anyway. Not at all. The idea would be to keep it marginal so that we didn't have to escalate our trip. I'm interested to see how it's going to turn out...
    We're gonna do everything we can to try to make it happen. It would be illustration of the kind of thing that we've been trying to do all along: 'Look man, here we are, we're on the edge, and we can make it. So can you, give it a try.' We're finding out the kind of stuff we need to know, talking to people and stuff like that, and it seems to be going pretty good."

    He'd said of Warners then, "I don't think that they're that bad; I just think that they're incompetent. That's probably the worst thing about them. I don't object to the idea of record companies at all, in fact, record companies are good. But we're already getting reports - this is the kind of thing that really fries me...that our new album has a slight skip on every record. Goddamn, it makes me want to scream. We go to every length we can to insure quality all along the line, on our end of it. We even suggest a place to Warner Bros where they can have 'em pressed, where they can receive the attention that we want to give it.
    I'm gonna do it with my own record, my solo record. Insist that they be pressed at a place that uses quality vinyl and allows the proper drying time and all the rest of that. Think of the billions of records that a big pressing plant has to rush through. Then when you hear that your record has a side that nobody can play, especially a double record, which is expensive, it just burns me...
    My main concern is being able to put out a fucking record that you can play a million times with a minimum of wear; and it's available, that kind of vinyl is around and you can get it." (see Signpost to New Space, p.78-80)

    Also see Charles Perry's article "A New Life For the Dead" in the 11/22/73 Rolling Stone (reprinted in RS's Garcia book) - it goes into a LOT more detail about Grateful Dead Records & the Dead's business affairs at the end of 1973, and expands on many details in this article.