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Will the Grateful Dead Live Forever — Through Merch?

today10/10/2023

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Shortly after Michael Cherman founded his apparel company, Market, in 2016, he designed and sold a tie-dyed T-shirt with the Grateful Dead’s dancing bears spiraling toward a center point. Spotting the trademarked image online, the Dead’s official merchandise company, Rhino Entertainment, contacted him and asked: “Would you like to do this more legit instead of bootlegging it?”

“Yes,” he responded, and today, the company’s streetwear products include a $200 Grateful Dead screen-printing kit and a $45 trucker hat with the lightning-skull Stealie Rose logo. “This has unlocked the world for me,” says Cherman, whose company sells clothing licensed from the estates of Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and others. “People just came to us and said, ‘Hey, how can you do that for us?’”

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Since the Dead sold one of its earliest T-shirts in the late ’60s, featuring keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and designed by Hell’s Angel Allan “Gut” Terk, its merchandise business has evolved into an international brand licensed to dozens of companies and sold in stores from Walmart to Saks Fifth Avenue. What Cherman calls the “holy trinity” of Dead logos — dancing bears, lightning bolts and skeletons — is on thousands of products. Online, fans can buy a pair of tie-dyed Crocs containing pink-and-yellow dancing-bear charms for $160; a $70 Teton hoodie designed for snowboarding; Grateful Dead leggings marked with “GD” and pink roses, $38; Grateful Dead fluorescent green Nike skateboarding shoes, $110; a psychedelic Air Garcia skateboard, $65; and a pair of Grateful Dead skis topped with the “Steal Your Face” skull logo, $750.

The band’s merch machine has also served as an exemplar of how an act can expand its brand into a multimillion-dollar business, raking in revenue years, and even decades, after the deaths of such core members as McKernan, Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter.

Dead products are a sliver of the nearly $4.4 billion music merch licensing industry, as valued by trade organization Licensing International in 2022, an increase from $3.7 billion in 2019. Universal Music Group, which owns merch giant Bravado, earned $618 million from product in 2022, according to financial reports — a 70.2% increase from $363 million the previous year. Much of that revenue comes from traditional sales (T-shirts, hoodies and caps sold at concerts), and contemporary stars like Taylor Swift and BTS dominate the business. But classic-rock merch is booming, too.

“That universe has expanded,” says Rhino president Mark Pinkus, who oversees the Dead account. “The shirts are being worn by people of all ages.” Jeff Jampol, CEO of Jam Inc., which manages licenses for The Doors and the estates of Janis Joplin and others, adds that classic-rock merch has evolved from basic black T-shirts to a diverse fashion industry “largely driven by 10- to 20-year-old females and their moms.”

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The rich and famous also boosted demand. In the late ’90s, Brad Beckerman, who worked with his father at the sports-licensing company Starter, noticed that most music merch came in the form of mass-marketed T-shirts and saw an opening. Beckerman’s company, Trunk, secured 76 licenses, including Madonna and The Beatles, and expanded the market to high-end customers and department stores. Trunk sold T-shirts, but also jackets and rhinestone belts, Japanese denim and Italian leather for prices that could approach $1,000. “It was unbelievable, the exposure we got,” he recalls. “We had hundreds of celebrities buying these things.”

Until the early 2000s, the Dead — whose members weren’t getting along at the time, according to their former longtime publicist, Dennis McNally — ran Dead Merchandising. Later, the band licensed its name and various logos to just a few companies, like Ripple Junction and Liquid Blue, and mostly focused on T-shirts. “It was easier to go their own ways and let somebody else deal with the business,” McNally says.

According to a source who works in the business, merch licenses are normally structured as a percentage of the licensee’s gross sales income. Smaller licensees typically pay 12% of gross revenue; national licensees, 4% to 5%; and for internet sales, where there is less overhead, it’s a few points higher.

In 2006, after the Warner Music Group-owned Rhino took over the Dead’s merch, Heather Lewis, vp of merchandising for Warner’s artist-branding division WMX, saw how well the band’s CDs and box sets, such as the dozens of Dick’s Picks live albums, were selling, and steered Rhino’s Dead team toward a similar strategy for merch. “Over the past decade, it has been about growing not just the merch but the creative aspect of the merch and working with Deadhead artists,” she says.

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One of Rhino’s challenges is when to turn a blind eye to bootleggers — such as the Shakedown Street vendors who sell unlicensed products at spinoff concerts such as Dead & Company — and when to shut them down or, as with Cherman and Market, license their creations.

The Dead’s first line of merch gatekeeping is archivist David Lemieux and Pinkus, a Deadhead who recently flew to Boulder, Colo., to attend three Dead & Company shows. Their shared philosophy for licensing the band’s nine trademarks: “The Grateful Dead should be everywhere, for everybody, at all price points and in all styles,” Pinkus says. Accordingly, he and Lemieux are “easy to find and open to doing licensing deals.” They recently approved Dead-branded coolers, hammocks, camping equipment and polo shirts with embroidered lightning bolts where you might typically find a horse or alligator. They run every potential licensee proposal by the band members and the estates of those who’ve died, but they usually approve the decisions. (A representative for the band members said they declined to comment.)

“My impression is that Rhino tries to honor the Grateful Dead example, which was choosey, low-key, and generally it wasn’t to make money,” McNally says. “It’s like everything else about the world of the Grateful Dead. It just grew.”

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