Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Music Never Stops, But The Playlist Sure Sucks

I am a Deadhead, have been since July 13, 1989 when I saw the band play at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC.  I got 'on the bus' to borrow from Tom Wolfe's book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and have been on ever since.  I toured with the group until Garcia's passing in 1995, seeing them in venues all the way up and down the East Coast and deep into the heartland.  My appreciation of the group has withstood the passing of Brent Mydland, Jerry Garcia and Vince Welnick, a marriage (and divorce), life changes both great and small and the passage of more than 22 years.  In fact, I've been a Deadhead for more than half my life, which is why I feel sufficiently qualified to tell the people who program the Grateful Dead channel on Sirius that it sucks - big time.  

In theory, a channel devoted to nothing but the music of the Grateful Dead makes eminent sense.  The band, which played more than 2,000 concerts over 30 years, has a dedicated and loyal fan base that collects its music with passionate obsession, each member had various side projects during the group's existence that generated further material, a number of studio albums were released and even after the passing of Garcia, the surviving band members have participated in various "reunion" tours and shows that keep the Dead's flame burning brightly.  Pulling away from the Dead itself, its influence on modern music has been seen everywhere from MTV's "Unplugged" to drum circles at the Occupy Wall Street protest.  Moreover, the band was very forward thinking in the way it marketed itself by encouraging the recording of its shows from its early days and circulating soundboard recordings to favored tapers over the years.  Indeed, so ubiquitous was the circulation of quality SBD recordings, that by 2004, a website called archive.org had essentially posted the so-called "vault" of the band's entire recorded history (the site, at the request of the surviving members, changed its policy in 2005 to limit access to SBD recordings - (http://www.archive.org/about/faqs.php#215).

This is all to say that when Sirius announced it was launching a Grateful Dead channel, I for one was quite excited.  Imagine, all Dead, all the time.  No need to drag CDs into the car or spend hours searching the web for shows now verboten - just turn on the radio and listen.  Unfortunately, the Grateful Dead channel makes no sense from a programming perspective.  Essentially, the channel is an iTunes library on shuffle - regular programming, which comprises the majority of the day, jumps between the bands eras at random - a version of "Around and Around" from 1977 is followed by a "Touch of Grey" show opener from 1990 that bleeds into a studio version of "Easy Wind" from 1970 and may end with an Indigo Girls cover version of "Uncle John's Band."  The channel does air full concerts at 12 noon and 9 P.M. but they make no connection between the two.  The noon concert might be a late-era show from 1993 and the 9 P.M. concert an obscure gig from 1968.  Sometimes a "head set" is played featuring a fan's favorite songs, but even those don't create a logical "set" of music in the way the band ever created music.  There is very little original programming, a once a week "Tales from the Golden Road" where two hosts take calls from fans and incessantly plug upcoming concerts is the closest thing to interactive radio the channel produces. 

If this were not bad enough, the true failure of the channel is in its inability to incorporate the "vault" of music in the band's library.  There's no reason one should stumble across the same version of the same song in the course of a day or even a week, yet that happens with alarming frequency.  It seems as though the access to the vault is limited because much of the "shuffle" in the library comes from officially released material, not tracks from commercially unreleased shows.  This results in almost no music being played from the mid-1980s, when the recording equipment and method of equipment were notoriously troublesome and did not produce nearly the number of full SBD recordings that other eras have.  Indeed, the band has never commercially released a full show from 1984 or 1986 and has released fewer than 5 total from 1982, 1983 and 1985.  This omission is glaring in light of the fact that while *full* SBDs from that era may not be prevalent, enough material exists to incorporate into the rotation of music the channel plays.  Similarly, late era Dead (from the passing of Brent Mydland to the passing of Jerry Garcia) is underrepresented not because of a lack of material (if anything, 1990-95 probably has the most music available) but a seeming bias against recognizing that period as a fertile one in the band's history (which is arguable, but not an unreasonable assertion).  

The channel needs to be overhauled entirely by doing the following:

First, ditch the "shuffle" feature.  This accounts for at least two-thirds of the programming day and is awful.  It not only creates sonic dissonance for those who understand the difference between band periods like "Jazz is Dead"(1973-74) and "Primal Dead" (1968-70), but is inconsistent with the way *the band* played its music.  Bloc programming should be instituted that focuses on eras, as opposed to the random playing of music so that the songs flows more organically. More broadly, use the full library of music contained in the vault instead of relying so much on commercially released live material.  There is no reason an afternoon of programming can't be done around the music of, for example, 1992-95.  

Second, utilize interviews and historical context to pinpoint important shows or experiences in the band's history.  Instead of merely playing say, the first Branford Marsalis show (March 29, 1990) as a full-live concert, why not turn it into a special, weaving in interviews with band members, road crew, even fans who were at the show, into the airing of the concert to discuss that night's experience.  This could also be done in the context of studio albums, much like the VH1 Special that focused on the making of American Beauty and Workingman's Dead.  This could be a once a week, or even once a month event.

Third, air live concerts that connect to one another and air only one concert per day.  For example, why not focus a week of live concerts on a a particular run of shows from one venue (i.e., Omni 1991, Capital Center 1989, Greek Theater 1985, etc.) or tours (Spring 1990, Spring 1977, etc.) so that the band's playing can be appreciated holistically from a particular period of time.  

Fourth, incorporate, as separate and discrete programming, non-Grateful Dead material, including performances and music from spin off bands like Further, The Dead, Phil and Friends, Rat Dog, the Jerry Garcia Band, Legion of Mary, Bobby and the Midnights, etc. and non-Dead artists that have covered Grateful Dead songs, been influenced by the music or are artists whose music the Dead plays (i.e., Bob Dylan). Present this music at scheduled times or within a bloc discussed above instead of randomly sprinkling it in during ordinary programming.  

Fifth, utilize the band's surviving members and organization more often.  Record interviews with Bob Weir or Phil Lesh about the band's history, where the inspiration from songs came from, what the show experience was like in 1971 or 1984 or 1995.  Talk to Mickey Hart or Bill Kruetzmann about "the beam," their Drums segment and what influences them musically.  Highlight the work of David Lemeiux and how he maintains the band's official archive, what goes in to mixing, producing and releasing shows commercially (and how they are selected).  Talk to roadies and ticket sellers, concert promoters and fans about their experiences with the band and what it meant to them.  In short, make the experience more interactive and collective, two things the band worked really hard over the years to do.  

Lastly, consider scaling back the 24 hour-a-day programming to 12 or 18 hours if it results in better programming.  I know, some will kick and scream that content should be new and fresh all the time, but if Howard Stern has proven anything, it's that true fans will accept recycled programming if done well.  Or, run 24 hour-a-day programming Monday-Friday but do "best of" programming on the weekend that condenses the 5 days of original programming into 2 days of music.

The Grateful Dead channel is in desperate need of a makeover.  It fails to take full advantage of the band's rich history of recordings, diverse musical eras and access to members, crew and fans.  By modifying the way in which music is presented to the audience, focusing on eras of the band's career instead of everything at the same time and making the channel more interactive, the Grateful Dead channel would be immeasurably improved.




1 comment:

  1. Heck, I can't even get Sirius, and you've convinced me. Except for the part about post-Brent being arguably a fertile period in the band's history. (Argue argue argue. Fill in all usual comments.) But of course, sensible blocs might convince the naysayers. Or at least provide more ammunition.

    Interviews would be wonderful, but probably time- and money-intensive. The rest is doable. What a waste that they don't. Gee, kinda like 24-hour news channels ... such a great opportunity, and yet so squandered. Sigh. Well, at least it exists.

    Btw, your blog has a great name.

    - gal writing from Kathmandu

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