Music

How The Grateful Dead Rode Its Savvy Archival Strategy to a Billboard 200 Record

When telling the Grateful Dead’s story, many figures beyond the band itself factor prominently. Owsley “Bear” Stanley masterminded the group’s early sound rigs, recorded their shows – and synthesized their LSD. Crew members like Steve Parrish and Lawrence “Ramrod” Shurtliff supported the band through its relentless touring, while hard-nosed tour manager Sam Cutler proved a key business ally for the Dead. And since Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, few have been more critical to the Dead’s continued relevance than David Lemieux, who as the band’s legacy manager and audio archivist oversees its official releases. 

“I don’t think anybody’s got better Grateful Dead ears than he has,” says Mark Pinkus, president of Rhino Entertainment, which has exclusively licensed the Dead’s intellectual property since 2006. “[Lemieux’s] ability to listen, evaluate, respond as a fan – and as an unbiased person – is second to none.” 

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While the Dead released contemporaneous live albums throughout its career, from 1969’s Live/Dead to 1990’s Without a Net, the band’s first archival live release – and its first time releasing a complete show – was 1991’s One From The Vault, documenting a San Francisco concert on Aug. 13, 1975. Two years later, Dick’s Picks Vol. 1 arrived, capturing highlights from the band’s Dec. 19, 1973 performance and inaugurating what would become a 36-volume series named after longtime Dead archivist Dick Latvala. Latvala initially curated Dick’s Picks, but after his August 1999 passing, Lemieux – who celebrated 25 years working with the Dead’s archives on Feb. 1 – took over the series, then only 14 volumes in, along with stewardship of the vault and other future Dead releases. (Now 53, Lemieux, who saw the Dead exactly 100 times between 1987 and 1993, developed a passion for film archiving in college, which he parlayed into a short-term job cataloging the band’s video footage in early ’99.) 

Mostly multi-disc sets, Dick’s Picks captured complete shows or thoughtfully compiled selections from two- or three-night runs. For nearly any other artist, 36 such volumes would be exhaustive; for the Dead, they turned out to be only the beginning. On Monday, with the release of Dave’s Picks Volume 49, the Dead broke a chart record held by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley for the most albums to chart in the top 40 on the Billboard 200 (59), largely propelled by the success of its current archival series, named after Lemieux, which is complemented by periodic reissues of Dead studio albums, an annual box set featuring multiple complete live shows, and twice-yearly vinyl-only Record Store Day sets.

Grateful Dead

In the years between Latvala’s death and the launch of Dave’s Picks in 2012, Lemieux admits to growing pains in the Dead’s archival release strategy. After Dick’s Picks concluded in 2005, a new flagship archival series, Road Trips, emerged in 2007, with a different conceit: eschewing full shows in favor of compilations from multi-show runs and even entire tours. While “there’s a place for compilations, absolutely, and I love producing them,” explains Lemieux, “I knew that there were shows, complete shows, that we were ripping apart in order to make compilations.” 

According to Lemieux, Deadheads made their preference for complete shows known, “through correspondence … and, frankly, through sales,” and by its last several volumes, Lemieux had shifted Road Trips’ focus to full shows. But he acknowledges it had become a “tainted brand,” and after 17 releases, Road Trips ended in 2011. Other live releases during this period enjoyed varying degrees of success (the highest charting was Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978, which hit No. 35 on the Billboard 200 in 2008). 

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In 2006, the Grateful Dead inked its exclusive licensing deal with Rhino (the agreement has been renewed twice since), and in 2010 longtime label vp Pinkus – a Deadhead who saw 73 shows between 1984 and 1994 – began to officially oversee the Dead’s catalog releases after years providing informal advice. In their first professional meeting, Pinkus asked Lemieux what his dream Dead release would be, and Lemieux had an answer ready: All 22 shows from the Dead’s vaunted 1972 European tour, which were all recorded to multitrack for the band’s seminal 1972 live album Europe ’72. Pinkus greenlit the project. In 2011, Rhino released – and sold out in short order – the 73-disc Europe ‘72: The Complete Recordings, which was limited to 7,200 copies, priced at $450 and housed in a replica steamer trunk. A new era had arrived. 

“A GOOD REPUTATION AMONG DEADHEADS” 

Around then, on a long bike ride up California’s Pacific Coast Highway, Pinkus got to thinking. “As a fan, what would I most want?” he recalls asking himself. “Let me give you 100 bucks in January, and you send me four shows throughout the year. I don’t need to worry about did I do it, did I not do it, did I forget? I don’t even need to know what four shows. [I’ll be happy] as long as they’re Grateful Dead shows and sound great and look great, which I trust that they will.” 

Pinkus and Rhino pitched Lemieux: What would the archivist think of launching a new, subscription-based archival series – and with his name on it? “I was floored, I was honored,” Lemieux says. “I said, ‘I mean, if you think that, as a brand, it’s a good thing, I’m 100% onboard.’ They said, ‘Look, you’ve been with them for 12 or 13 years. You clearly have a good reputation among Deadheads – and the band likes you.’” 

The series debuted in February 2012 with a show from the Dead’s hallowed month of May 1977 – and has proven to be a juggernaut, launching 44 volumes onto the Billboard 200. Dave’s Picks follows some important criteria: inventory is limited (though it has grown from 12,000 per installment in 2012 to 25,000 today) and sold exclusively on dead.net; the releases are CD-only; and, crucially, the shows billed on the cover are contained in full on the discs within (though Lemieux happily adds in “bonus” material from other performances when space allows). While volumes are available in small quantities a la carte, sales are driven by the series’ annual subscription, which is sold the preceding fall and offers subscribers a mild discount and a bonus disc, shipped with a given year’s second installment and typically featuring material related to that release. 

“I think people want to know that there’s a vision behind things, and whose vision that is,” Lemieux says of his curatorial role. “If they respect the person and the person’s taste, they’ll give it a try.” 

“Dave’s Picks is a series that’s created by fans, for fans,” Pinkus adds. “It’s Dave, picking out shows that he believes these fans should have in their collection.”

Dave's Picks Vol. 49 Cover Art

Savvy searchers can find the vast majority of Grateful Dead shows in varying fidelity online. But Dave’s Picks (and the Dead’s other archival releases) present shows in pristine audio mixed from the master tapes by longtime Dead studio whiz Jeffrey Norman (“In terms of archival, live Grateful Dead music, there is nobody in the industry like him,” Lemieux says), along with bespoke artwork (Dave’s Picks has an artist-in-residence every year), thoughtful liner notes and archival goodies like newspaper clippings and photographs. Plus, Lemieux confesses, “Deadheads are collectors.”

The series has spanned 1969 to 1990, and includes numerous tape-trader favorites such as 11/17/73, 2/26/77 and 11/30/80. But if they’re so beloved, why weren’t they released previously? Dating back to the Dick’s Picks era, Lemieux and the Dead’s team have worked to represent all the band’s distinctive eras, some of them particularly fertile, in its official releases. And, notably, the Dead’s vault of master live recordings is incomplete – and sometimes has an infusion of missing tapes. 

“I’ve been with the Dead for 25 years, and about four or five times, significant batches of tapes that we didn’t even think existed, from shows that we didn’t think were recorded, have made their way back into the vault,” says Lemieux, adding that “we very much work with what we have; we don’t lament what we don’t have.” 

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Dave’s Picks also includes shows of personal significance to Lemieux and Rhino. Dave’s Picks Vol. 36 captures March 26, 1987, Lemieux’s first show. Pinkus went to 73 shows from 1984 to 1994, and somewhat surprisingly, Dave’s Picks Vol. 49 – the new, record-setting installment, which contains two back-to-back April 1985 shows at the Frost Amphitheater in Palo Alto, Calif. – marks the first time that shows he was at have received the commercial treatment. “Finally, the intersection happened,” he says with a chuckle. “The fact that it’s the record-breaking release just has me thrilled.”

“IF IT’S GOOD MUSIC, IT’S GOING TO SELL” 

Still, the Dave’s Picks series is just one component of Rhino’s Grateful Dead strategy, which is also anchored by an annual, multi-show box set. The largest, by far, was 2015’s 30 Trips Around the Sun, which celebrated the band’s 50th anniversary with 30 full shows, one for each year the band was active with Jerry Garcia from 1966 to 1995. Most Dead boxes contain four to six shows, themed around a run of concerts or a venue or region, and are housed in elaborate packaging; 2022’s In And Out Of The Garden: Madison Square Garden ’81, ’82, ’83, featuring six gigs the band played at the iconic Manhattan arena from 1981 to 1983, won the Grammy Award for best boxed or special limited edition package.

Since 2015, Activist Artists founding partner Bernie Cahill has managed the Grateful Dead’s ongoing business, and he lauds Pinkus and Lemieux for their stewardship of the group’s legacy. Lemieux “is one of the all-time greats,” Cahill says. “We are so lucky that he’s in our orbit and contributing his art to this, as well. Because that’s how I view him, as an artist in his own right. It’s just been a great partnership.” 

To Cahill, the Dead’s latest chart record reflects “how well [Lemieux] is communicating with this audience. He is telling a story with each one of these [releases] and it’s really resonating.” 

For Pinkus and Lemieux, Rhino’s release strategy is intuitive. “We’re both Deadheads at heart, so we try to figure out what would we want? How many shows could we handle, could we listen and dive into? That’s really where it starts,” Pinkus says. 

Lemieux is even more direct: “I approach everything as a Deadhead. My marketing side of things, when it comes to the Grateful Dead is: If it’s good music, it’s going to sell. And that’s the end of it.”

When it comes to the Dead’s continued – and by some metrics, growing – commercial clout, it doesn’t hurt that the Dead’s surviving remembers have performed regularly since Garcia’s death and continue to be major touring forces, from Dead & Company, the stadium-conquering project created by Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann, to other outfits like Weir’s Wolf Bros. ensemble, Kreutzmann’s Billy & The Kids, and Phil Lesh and Friends, helmed by the Dead’s founding bassist. “They’re all contributing to the elevation of the songbook and [its] visibility by playing it live,” Cahill says. “They’re all out there, they continue to play, and they continue to bring this community together around the music – which then makes people want to go deeper and discover more.” 

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And as new generations gravitate to the Dead’s music, Lemieux is waiting for them. “These are curated shows and for the people who don’t have the time or the energy or the experience of how to get out there and find a collection of 1,000 tapes or 1,000 downloads,” he says of the Dead’s commercially released recordings, which now total more than 250 complete shows and chunks from several dozen more. “This is a curated selection of Grateful Dead music that takes the guesswork out of people thinking, ‘Where do I start?’” (Dave’s Picks aren’t on streaming services, but dozens of other releases, including Dick’s Picks, Road Trips, and the complete Europe ‘72 box, are.) 

“IN THE REALM OF DECADES”

If this commercially released body of Grateful Dead archival recordings seems exhaustive, think again. “There’s 2,300 shows or so that they performed; as a Deadhead, we would love to collect each and every one of them,” Pinkus says. “There are that many great shows in the vault that if we continue at the cadence that we’re at, we’re good for another 60 years.” 

“In terms of the quality of the music and the quality of the sound, we are in the realm of decades,” concurs Lemieux, citing the quality of the forthcoming Dave’s Picks Vol. 50 – another selection from Dead’s revered spring ’77 tour, which along with spring ’72 and spring ‘90 is among the most comprehensively represented in the band’s official live catalog – as evidence that fans need not worry about “scraping any bottoms of the barrels.” He and Pinkus are both mum on Vol. 51, the 2024 box set and beyond, but promise exciting things in the immediate future for Deadheads.

Like much else about the band, the Grateful Dead’s archival release strategy is idiosyncratic – and couldn’t be applied to another artist. But with diligence and care, the band has slowly refined and reframed its legacy. 

“In recent years, the Grateful Dead have been recognized for their music,” Pinkus says. “Not that they weren’t always recognized for their music – but so much of it was about the culture and the scene and the concerts and the whole vibe around it, the whole look and feel. With our releases, it gets down to the show. … I feel like they’re finally getting their just due for being arguably the greatest American rock band ever.” 

And Lemieux cherishes his role in that process. “I take the responsibility very seriously that we’re preserving and making accessible the Grateful Dead

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