How the Grateful Dead became unlikely business consultants

The Grateful Dead, circa 1970. They’d play live regularly until Jerry Garcia's death in 1995.

In his youth, Barry Barnes was pretty square, especially by late ’60s standards: He was a business major working in IT for IBM. But then in 1972, he heard the Grateful Dead for the first time. “Was it a shift in consciousness? Yeah, I guess you could say that,” he explains.

He spent the next 17 years attempting to keep his patchouli-scented tie-dyes in the closet as he pursued an MBA and later worked as an executive at John Deere — until 1989, when inspiration struck: What could the Grateful Dead teach the business world?

“I could see the dramatic changes in the economy, and I saw businesses struggling to adapt,” he explains. “The music was speaking to me in a nonverbal language, saying: ‘Look, you talk about adaptability? Here it is. Teamwork? Creativity? Innovation? Reaching out to your customers? These guys know how to do this better than anybody.’”

He promptly quit his job and began a doctoral program at the University of Kansas, where he hoped to study the “organizational principles of the Grateful Dead.”

Barnes’ research came to international prominence after being featured heavily in a 2010 Atlantic Magazine article on the Dead. Now, after 20 years of study, “Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead: The Ten Most Innovative Lessons from a Long, Strange Trip,” is set to hit bookstores in November.

“The people that I interviewed in the Grateful Dead organization were on the business side. They weren’t in the band. For the band, it’s easy to say [they didn’t plan anything],” says Barnes. “But you can’t have a successful organization that tours the country nonstop for 30 years without a whole lot of planning going on.”



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