As the band’s following grew, the notion that it might have something to offer scholars, particularly in the social sciences, became somewhat less far-fetched, though still not without professional risk. In the late 1980s, Rebecca G. Adams, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who studies friendships formed across distances, noticed deep bonds between Deadheads. The bonds seemed to belie the idea, then popular among leading social thinkers, that communities based on common interest, whose members do not live near each other, lack emotional and moral depth—that Deadheads might belong to what sociologists call a “lifestyle enclave,” but couldn’t possibly form meaningful relationships. Adams brought a class on tour with the Dead—an opportunity, she thought, to teach classical theory while letting students study a cutting-edge contemporary community.
She became instantly famous, among a small group of scholars, and then, suddenly, among a much larger group of people. One day, without warning, Senator Robert Byrd, the histrionic and prodigiously opinionated West Virginian, gave a speech decrying what he considered an appalling decline in the standards for higher education, and cited Adams’s class as an example. Adams had unwittingly placed herself in the crosshairs of the culture wars and was beset by, among other things, an inquiry from the president of North Carolina’s state university system. Though she survived with help from her chancellor and her department head, and though the question fell squarely within her specialty, Adams was politely discouraged from pursuing her line of inquiry. “I was advised to concentrate on the more respectable areas of my research,” she told me.
Other aspects of the band nevertheless continued to invite academic examination. Musicologists showed interest, although the band’s sprawling repertoire and tendency to improvise posed a significant challenge. Lieberman says that fully absorbing the Dead’s music could take years, and he has noted its similarities with South Indian classical music, with its complex notational system and highly formalized four-hour concerts. Engineers studied the band’s sophisticated sound system, radical at the time but widely emulated today. Even legal scholars took note, some contending that the American criminal-justice system, including the courts, unfairly profiles Deadhead defendants and has, on occasion, treated fandom as evidence of mental illness.
Oddly enough, the Dead’s influence on the business world may turn out to be a significant part of its legacy. Without intending to—while intending, in fact, to do just the opposite—the band pioneered ideas and practices that were subsequently embraced by corporate America. One was to focus intensely on its most loyal fans. It established a telephone hotline to alert them to its touring schedule ahead of any public announcement, reserved for them some of the best seats in the house, and capped the price of tickets, which the band distributed through its own mail-order house. If you lived in New York and wanted to see a show in Seattle, you didn’t have to travel there to get tickets—and you could get really good tickets, without even camping out. “The Dead were masters of creating and delivering superior customer value,” Barry Barnes, a business professor at the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship at Nova Southeastern University, in Florida, told me. Treating customers well may sound like common sense. But it represented a break from the top-down ethos of many organizations in the 1960s and ’70s. Only in the 1980s, faced with competition from Japan, did American CEOs and management theorists widely adopt a customer-first orientation.