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How did Pearl Jam become Generation X’s Grateful Dead?

About the author

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune and co-host of the nationally syndicated public radio show Sound Opinions. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom's Highway.

(Samir Hussein/Getty Images)

(Samir Hussein/Getty Images)

Pearl Jam have maintained a career better than any of their early-‘90s peers. So how have they done it? By following the Grateful Dead’s lead, argues Greg Kot.

It didn’t look likely in 1995, when Pearl Jam was on the verge of breaking up. But of the many breakthrough acts that surfaced during the alternative-rock era in the early ‘90s – Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots − Pearl Jam has thrived longer than any of them.

They have stayed continually intact (save for a few drummer changes along the way) for more than two decades and are still a hit on the charts and a major draw on the road. Though Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron are no longer spitting out commercial blockbusters on par with the band’s 13 million-selling 1991 debut, Ten, Pearl Jam’s latest release, Lightning Bolt, is their 10th straight studio album to debut in the Top 5 of US chart, the Billboard 200. And they’re in the midst of a string of sold-out shows at North American arenas.

How did they manage to outrun their peers? By mirroring the approach (consciously or not) of the quintessential Baby Boomer band. In many ways Pearl Jam have turned into the Generation X answer to the Grateful Dead.

That’s not to say that Pearl Jam sound anything like the Dead. But the Seattle quintet’s approach to the music and the business behind it closely parallels those of the psychedelic pioneers from San Francisco. Phish and the Dave Matthews Band also can account for their longevity by following the Dead’s lead, but nobody has done it better than Pearl Jam.

Let’s get digital

In the pre-Napster era, the Dead had already mastered what technology expert Esther Dyson once suggested was the key to the looming digital revolution: the selling of "services and relationships" to the fans.

The Dead ranked with the most comprehensively documented bands in rock history, in large measure because it allowed fans to record its concerts and freely circulate the tapes. In addition, the Dead self-released dozens of high-quality recordings of some of its most memorable concerts, including the beloved Dick’s Picks series, overseen by archivist Dick Latvala. Pearl Jam has also allowed fans to tape concerts, and has made the majority of its shows available in a series of high-quality ‘official’ bootlegs and free streaming audio online.

Little wonder both bands’ approach is a how-to for building and nurturing a fan base:

Create a product that can’t be duplicated: the Dead embraced a no-show-the-same policy that made concerts the centre of its business model. Pearl Jam did the same, shaking up set lists nightly and avoiding rote ‘greatest hits’ performances. Like the Dead, Pearl Jam present their music live with little spectacle or fancy staging – just five guys and their amplifiers digging deep into their shared history. The focus becomes which songs are performed and how they’re sequenced. Each night tells a new story that encourages fans to see multiple shows on the same tour, knowing that each will be unique.

DIY − Do It Yourself − is best: The Dead slowed its studio recording pace to a trickle in its final decades, even as it became more popular. Though the Dead maintained relationships with major labels, the band’s operation was run by a network of friends and associates from the San Francisco area under the umbrella of Grateful Dead Productions. In the last decade, Pearl Jam have put less emphasis on churning out new studio albums and more on their live show. They now use big record labels to help distribute albums and little else. From ticket-selling to music production, Pearl Jam is as much a business as a rock band.

Respect the fans: The Dead's website became a gathering place for its worldwide fan base and sustained its legacy long after singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. Pearl Jam’s Ten Club site funnels the best tickets for each of the band’s shows to the most dedicated fans; there are now more than 200,000 active members.

Remix, remake, reinvent: The Dead took the music of the past − blues, country, folk, early rock 'n' roll, jazz, experimental and even classical music – and gave it a psychedelic twist that made it all sound fresh again. Pearl Jam does the same for the classic rock of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Lightning Bolt evokes the music of Pink Floyd (the power ballad Sirens), the Who (the rollercoaster title track) and the Byrds-via-REM. (Swallowed Whole), as well as feisty late ‘70s punk (Getaway, Mind Your Manners). But it doesn’t sound dated, in part because of lyrics that address big subjects − ecology, mortality, faith − with a scepticism that is a Pearl Jam (and Gen X) trademark.

In a digital culture, the experience of seeing a concert stands apart. Of course, many shows wind up on YouTube and other video sites, but that experience pales next to being there in person – something the Dead understood from the beginning and that Pearl Jam have championed.

The Dead amped up their touring schedule at a time when recording technology advanced and the industry’s focus shifted toward making and selling albums; important bands such as the Beatles and Steely Dan stopped touring altogether to perfect their music in the studio. Pearl Jam’s business approach, in contrast, flows with the current tide: touring is now ahead of recording as the prime source of revenue for most bands. Yet, like the Dead, Pearl Jam has kept its ticket prices relatively reasonable, often below market rate. A typical show on the current tour sells for about $80 – whereas most of their arena-touring peers top out at more than $100.

Do something different every night, remake a shared past, respect the fans – the Dead, and now Pearl Jam, understand that certain values transcend generations and can sustain a band for decades.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.

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