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Is the Trip Over? : Retailing: Grateful Dead music, merchandise sales expected to keep on thriving, but touring days may be gone.

August 10, 1995|CHUCK PHILIPS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sudden death of Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia on Wednesday casts a shadow over the future of one of the entertainment industry's most unlikely financial empires.

It is likely that the group will cancel the remainder of its lucrative North American tour and could even decide to throw in the towel as a concert attraction altogether, sources said. However, the band is expected to continue to enjoy strong sales of Grateful Dead merchandise.

A spokesman for the band said no decision about its future will be made immediately.

For much of its three-decade run, the psychedelic San Francisco rock band has reigned as the most successful draw on the concert circuit, raking in between $30 million and $50 million a year. The graying sextet was also recognized as a savvy group of capitalists, who aggressively exploited their own anti-Establishment image by marketing a wide array of authorized merchandise--from music to silk ties.

"In terms of longevity, the Grateful Dead is arguably the most successful rock act on the concert trail in the history of business," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar magazine, a leading concert trade journal.

The band has given birth to an entire generation of fans known as Deadheads who have purchased more than 20 million albums and spend millions of dollars each year snapping up a growing line of products from the Grateful Dead's mail-order catalogue. As his fans grew up to become lawyers and accountants, Garcia became such a household name that Ben & Jerry's even named an ice cream flavor, Cherry Garcia, after him.

But the Grateful Dead has profited most from its appeal as a live concert act. Over the past five years, Grateful Dead fans have forked over more than $225 million on concert tickets in North America. The band, which staged its last show on July 9 at Soldier Field in Chicago, sold $34 million in tickets during the first seven months of 1995 alone.

While no official decision about the band's future has been made, statements made in the past suggested that the group is not likely to continue its concert touring without its main draw. The 53-year-old Garcia had been hospitalized several times over the years for diabetes, exhaustion and drug-related illnesses. Following one episode in 1986, when the guitarist lay comatose in a hospital, the Grateful Dead implied at the time that the band would probably break up if Garcia or any other key member died.

Music industry experts said Garcia was seen by many as the primary attraction to Grateful Dead concerts, and his loss may severely reduce the band's appeal.

While Garcia's death could dramatically affect the band's future as a touring act, industry experts predicted that Garcia and the group's legacy will continue to generate income from music and merchandise sales for generations to come.

"The Grateful Dead has been an amazing seller for the past 20 years," said Howard Schomer, an executive at Winterland Productions, the San Francisco merchandise firm that has marketed the group's and Garcia's products since the early 1970s. "I think this band is so well loved that they will continue to sell forever."

The Grateful Dead was one of the first bands to create its own mail-order catalogue and ticket-distribution system. And while it has released more than 20 albums since 1968 through Warner Bros. Records and Arista Records, the band also has a series of compact disc archival albums on its own label, featuring full-length live recordings of its concerts.

Garcia was a painter whose artworks not only commanded lucrative fees, but inspired a line of products. Fans have been snapping up Garcia-designed silk ties since 1992 at Bloomingdale's, where a line of his scarves is expected to be introduced soon. Skateboards and wet suits, as well as hair accessories and wool rugs, are already in stores nationwide, and the Beverly Prescott Hotel in Los Angeles recently opened its own Jerry Garcia Suite.

"The Grateful Dead fan base is probably the biggest in the history of the music business," said Garcia's longtime friend John Scher, chairman of Metropolitan Entertainment, a New York concert firm that has coordinated tours for the Grateful Dead for the past two decades. "Deadheads buy everything they can get their hands on, and there's no doubt that Jerry's legacy will continue to make people happy long into the future."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Big Draw

The Grateful Dead was the top-grossing concert act in two of the past four years. Total gross from ticket sales, in millions of dollars:

*--*

Year Act Gross 1994 Rolling Stones $124.2 1993 Grateful Dead 44.5 1992 U2 68.0 1991 Grateful Dead 33.8

*--*

Sources: Pollstar MAIN STORY: A1

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