If the red-brick warehouse in this Marin County town were open to the public, it would be a haven for one-stop shoppers. Its endless shelves are lined with everything from toothbrushes to golf balls, dog collars to stamps, skis to motorcycle parts, baby rompers to electric lanterns.
But this is not a supermarket. It is the headquarters of Grateful Dead Merchandising, where the golf balls are tie-dyed and the dog collars are emblazoned with the head of Jerry Garcia. A thousand packages of Grateful Dead items are shipped from this warehouse each day, bringing in an annual gross of $50 million to $60 million.
But much more than the sale of memorabilia is involved here. There is a Grateful Dead master plan. Most of the revenue coming in is being earmarked for an enormous project, perhaps the biggest undertaking ever attempted by a single band.
It is called Terrapin Station, to be built in San Francisco, a $60 million museum, amusement park, gathering place, concert hall, research center and possibly even a hotel for Grateful Dead fans who have lost their way since the band broke up after Garcia, its leader, died 2-1/2 years ago.
“There’s a way to keep this band going, even without Jerry, God bless him,” said Dennis McNally, the band’s press agent for 14 years. “Instead of dying, the Grateful Dead is morphing.”
Rock ‘n’ roll is a 50-year-old beast, and its founders and early innovators are just beginning to die off. With its pioneering musicians and bands gone, rock ‘n’ roll is becoming a museum piece. Two years ago, the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland. And Paul Allen, a Microsoft entrepreneur, is in the process of developing a $60 million Experience Music Project rock museum in Seattle.
But Terrapin Station, named after a 1977 Grateful Dead album, promises to be a different type of tourist attraction altogether.
“This is probably the first rock-and-roll museum dedicated to one artist,” said Bob Grossweiner, the senior editor of the concert industry magazine Performance. “If kids traveled all over the country following the band when they toured, I’m sure they’ll all go to San Francisco to see the museum. It will bring a lot of money into the economy, and it’s very possible that Terrapin Station will outdraw the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, because it’s in a bigger city, and some people are going to be spending weeks there instead of just a day. Hopefully, they’ll have smoke alarms in the bathrooms and the staircases.”
In its 30-year existence, the Grateful Dead was transformed from a band into a cult, attracting and retaining a more loyal, obsessive and dedicated following - the Deadheads - than any other rock group. Its tours were among the highest grossing, regularly earning some $50 million in a good year. But when the band broke up in 1995, it left tens of thousands of fans with nowhere to go, no band worthy of following so slavishly around the country.
One of the roles of Terrapin Station will be as a kind of shrine and meeting place for Deadheads. Its builders expect, in their most conservative estimates, that Terrapin Station will attract 1.2 million people in its first year.
Though a site has not yet been chosen, the band is considering two San Francisco locations and expects to close a deal by the end of the month. Meetings have already begun with city officials. Spokesmen for the band said that the city had pledged its support.
Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead’s bassist, said the idea first germinated in the late ‘60s when the band dreamed about becoming what he called “a rock-and-roll satellite” that would stay in one place and broadcast concerts around the world.
“The relationship between the band and the Deadheads needs to be nurtured because they are us, and we are them,” Lesh said in a recent interview. “We’d been talking about Terrapin Station more seriously for the last five years, but the touring overhead and the number of employees we had were so great that we couldn’t think of a way to generate enough time and energy, let alone money.
“With Jerry’s death, everything changed. We are no longer a viable touring operation. We couldn’t even support our entire staff. To make a smooth transition, we had to fall back on merchandising our music archives, and that became the cash cow for the whole organization.”
“But we didn’t want to just put out old live concerts until the material and interest dwindled away,” he continued. “As big a draw as the music at our shows was, the fellowship and community people had there with one another. We wanted to create a place that would be a presentation of what we did musically and culturally, and a place where people could gather, and new music could be showcased, and a nonprofit organization for music groups in the Bay Area could be developed.”
The entrance to the 65,000-square-foot Terrapin Station, which Lesh said he hoped would be open by New Year’s Eve 1999 for reunion of surviving Grateful Dead members, will be a parking lot, a re-creation of the place outside concert halls where Deadheads used to meet and sell food and crafts.
Inside, there will be a 1,000-seat auditorium for concerts by Bay Area bands and by members of the Dead, most of whom have formed their own groups; rotating museum exhibits focusing on the Bay Area music scene since the ‘60s, world music and chapters in Grateful Dead history, and a store full of band merchandise.
Plans also call for a roomful of percussion instruments for spontaneous drum circles and jam sessions; a multimedia theater that will re-create the experience of Grateful Dead concerts, and a restaurant tentatively called the Dancing Bear Cafe. (Expect the vegetarian burritos and grilled cheese sandwiches typically served up in a Dead concert parking lot.)
Depending on the size of the site that the Grateful Dead buys, there may also be a theme hotel or apartment complex, named Mars Hotel after another Dead album.
Terrapin Station will not be a giant Hard Rock Cafe, those involved say.
“I want to put my entire legal and business files on display,” said Hal Kant, the band’s lawyer for 30 years. “The music industry is kind of new, and I was one of the first lawyers, so maybe my files can help teach people about the development of contracts and business practices from the beginning. A substantial part of the museum is intended to be a research center.”
Deadheads seem to be behind the project and have already contributed $1.5 million.
Unlike most rock corporate ventures, the Grateful Dead has a very elaborate business partnership in which the musicians are heavily involved. Each original member owns an equal share in Grateful Dead Productions and has an equal vote in business decisions.
When Garcia died, in keeping with an agreement made 25 years ago, the remaining members of the band bought back his interest in the corporation while his estate continued to receive his royalties from music and merchandise.
Although it isn’t involved in band decisions, the estate is behind Terrapin Station, said Garcia’s widow, Deborah Koons Garcia. “It sounds like a really fun and imaginative project,” she said. “I think it’s a few years off, but my understanding is that people are most excited about it being a high-tech playground and looking toward the future, which is something Jerry was really interested in.”
Grateful Dead Productions itself is a complex, rapidly growing machine fueled by the band’s insistence on direct control over its products, enabling it to control its image and keep a greater share of the profits than most musicians who work through separate record labels and merchandising companies. Besides the new company being established to run Terrapin Station, Grateful Dead Productions includes a retail arm, which develops products and runs a mail-order catalog for direct sales.
A division licenses the Grateful Dead name and trademark to manufacturers (from multinational companies to entrepreneurs working out of the trunks of their cars) to develop and sell products.
There is also a merchandising service, which works on product development, inventory control and concession sales not just for Dead-related concerts but also for other music acts like the Gipsy Kings and Maxwell.
And there is Grateful Dead Records, which recently expanded, to compensate for some of the loss of touring revenue and merchandise, releasing albums by Crosby and Nash and the Allman Brothers as well as the Dead, whose rigorous and extensive archives of some 2,300 concerts and numerous studio sessions are kept in a vault in the Novato warehouse.
In case of a fire, the vault has a security system that will pump the air out from the room, killing anyone inside but saving the music.
“Thanks to the archive that the band had the foresight to compile over 30 years, the music can be presented in different ways in the band’s absence,” said Peter McQuaid, the chief executive of Grateful Dead Productions.