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Vault Sold

Vault Sold

Paul Liberatore
Marin Independent Journal
THE MUSICAL legacy of the Grateful Dead - some 13,000 live audio and video recordings spanning the band's 30-year concert career - left Marin County in a temperature-controlled truck and is now being stored in a huge Warner Brothers Music vault in Southern California.

The transfer of the priceless "vault" recordings - from a Novato warehouse to a Fort Knox-like facility in Burbank - is a physical manifestation of a milestone deal that effectively dissolves Marin-based Grateful Dead Productions and turns over the Hall of Fame band's business operations to Rhino Entertainment, a subsidiary of giant Warner Music Group.

"It's sad to see it go," Grateful Dead tape archivist David Lemieux said of the vault collection. "But it couldn't be in better hands."

A 10-year licensing deal entrusts Rhino with the management of all of the band's intellectual property, including its vast archive of unreleased live concert recordings, its official Web site (deadnet), the marketing and merchandising of T-shirts and other clothing and gear with the Grateful Dead brand, logo and likeness, plus videos, CDs and the all-important digital domain - sales of the band's music via download over the Internet.

This is a leasing arrangement in which the band retains creative control. It does not include the group's music publishing arm, Ice Nine.

The Wall Street Journal noted Thursday that the Grateful Dead is leading the way in this major new trend in the music business - having all of these various rights and marketing functions handled by the same company, essentially under the same roof.

"The deal with the Grateful Dead, perhaps the highest-profile group to reach such an arrangement, highlights this change," the paper said.

"Because we're all in the same house, it allows us to do things very synergistically under the band's direction," said 39-year-old Jimmy Edwards, Rhino's vice president of marketing. "That way we can explore every worthwhile opportunity. It's unlimited. Music labels can't be in the business of just selling CDs anymore."

There has already been talk of such future projects as a Grateful Dead musical production like the new Beatles show in Las Vegas by Cirque du Soleil.

In Rhino, which had already been involved in re-issues of Grateful Dead albums, the band seems to have found kindred young business executives sensitive to the Dead's image and legacy.

Edwards saw the Grateful Dead in concert more than once and considers the band "an American treasure."

"We won't do a black velvet Grateful Dead painting," he promised with a laugh.

"And we won't do dancing bears on Happy Meals," joked Rhino Executive Vice President Gregg Goldman.

"These guys were the guys who were dancing at our concerts," said Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. "They were our fans. Now they run the company. They really care."

Bassist Phil Lesh, who opposed a previous deal involving intellectual property with another company, has apparently signed off on the Rhino arrangement. He was in transit Thursday and not immediately available for comment.

While the deal is liberating for the band, it continues to shrink the Grateful Dead's presence in Marin County, which has been on the decline since the death in 1995 of the Dead's de facto leader, the charismatic guitarist, singer and songwriter Jerry Garcia.

As their concert revenues dried up, the four surviving band members often squabbled bitterly over business decisions and internal matters.

In Garcia's honor, they retired the Grateful Dead name and agreed to continue to perform together, first as the Other Ones, then as the Dead, but haven't toured under that name since 2004.

Now, with the day-to-day stress of running a company no longer a bone of contention, the door is open to a mature period of equanimity for a legendary group founded on the hippie ethos of peace and love in the '60s.

"I think it was a common thought that if we got rid of the business, we might become friends again," Hart said. "We might actually play again. We really love each other, and, deep down, we're tied at the heart. Our friendship needs to be renewed, but we could never do it around a boardroom table. Now we have nothing to fight over."

While idealistic Deadheads may blanch over their once communal idols in partnership with a big corporation, the band members couldn't be happier.

"This is a great load off of me and all of us in general, which is one of the reasons we thought it was a great deal," Hart said. "It had become unmanageable between the four of us. Board meetings were never our thing, even in the best of times."

It is also a lucrative and timely development for four musicians who are in deep middle-age, either 60 or over or close to it. While the terms of the deal were not disclosed, "it's a lot of money," said Tim Jorstad, a San Rafael-based accountant who is the Dead's chief financial officer in Marin.

"We negotiated a profit sharing with Rhino with some very large minimum payments each year," he said. "We have replaced their income, at one of their highest earning years, for 10 years. We are expecting to earn way more than the minimum payments, but at least these guys are very well protected. They're pleased that they have financial security for 10 years."

But the agreement with Rhino further loosens Marin's connection with a rock institution that has been identified with the county since the summer of 1966, when the Dead moved onto a ranch at Olompali in Novato and then to a former Boy Scout camp in Lagunitas. They earned their greatest notoriety at their landmark Victorian at 710 Ashbury St. during San Francisco's Summer of Love, but retreated to Marin soon after.

At the band's commercial peak in the mid-'90s, the Grateful Dead held the title of top touring act in the world, grossing some $50 million a year and overflowing stadiums across the country with tie-dye legions of Deadheads.

Grateful Dead Productions had more than 40 employees and a capacious headquarters in a former soft drink bottling plant in Novato's Bel Marin Keys.

With this switch to Rhino Entertainment, the band "severed" its remaining seven employees and closed its Lucas Valley Road office. It had already sold the sprawling Novato facility to a mountain bike company and moved out of the nondescript house on the corner of Fifth and Lincoln avenues in San Rafael that it had occupied as an office for more than 30 years.

With its move to Novato in the early '90s, it let go of its Front Street rehearsal studio and hangout in San Rafael, made famous by the album "Shakedown Street."

It has its Novato rehearsal space until the end of the year, and is looking to donate some of its equipment and memorabilia to the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, Jorstad said.

Whether the four survivors ever play together again is anybody's guess. For the time being, they are all focused on their separate bands and careers.

Singer-guitarist Bob Weir has bought one of the former Industrial Light and Magic buildings in San Rafael as a rehearsal space for his band RatDog. The group is managed by former Grateful Dead Productions President Cameron Sears, who has also been retained by the Dead as an independent contractor, as has longtime CFO Nancy Mallonee and tape archivist Lemieux.

Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and his Phil and Friends band have had a busy summer concert tour and have released CDs of their own.

Hart and fellow drummer Bill Kreutzmann have joined forces in a revival in the works of Hart's onetime side project Planet Drum.

Weir, Lesh and Kreutzmann still live in Marin, and Hart has a home in nearby southern Sonoma County, so it's not like the band has completely picked up stakes.

Still, as Dennis McNally, author of the Grateful Dead biography "A Long Strange Trip" put it: "There's not much left of the Grateful Dead in Marin County other than memories."

Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at
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