Friday, September 10, 2021

The Grateful Dead and the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (Intersections)

Since the Civil Aeronautics Board had to approve all flights and fares, US airlines competed on other grounds. This is a 1969 magazine advertisement for United Airlines. The pretty (and thin and unmarried) stewardess invites us all to "Come Fly With Me," and to "fly the friendly skies of United."

In 1983, the Grateful Dead defied most of the orthodox music industry of the time by offering advance mail order tickets to their shows for each upcoming tour. While many 60s-era bands had persisted into the 80s, few of them were drawing more than they had back in the day. The few that were doing better, like Fleetwood Mac or the remodeled Jefferson Starship, had significantly revised their music to the point that their legions of newer fans hardly recognized their earlier incarnations. Yet the Dead had never had a meaningful hit, and while their live music had evolved, it was still presented in a radio-unfriendly way that only appealed to people who saw the band over and over.

In fact, the Grateful Dead created the template for 21st century (and late 20th century) presentation of "Classic Rock," a lesson easily applicable to bands younger than themselves. In the 1970s, bands had striven to constantly expand their audience, generally watering down their music from its striking past. Sometimes it worked (see Floyd, Pink or Clapton, Eric). But usually, the expansion reached its limit and bands went into decline. The Grateful Dead had the opposite model.

A sample of a fan-embellished mail order request for Grateful Dead tickets

The Grateful Dead's assumption, going all the way back to the 1970s, was that the most likely person to attend a Grateful Dead concert was someone who had attended one previously. The more concerts they had attended, the more likely they were to attend another one. Even more importantly, they would travel to do so. The Grateful Dead concentrated--way back in 1983--in making it easy for people who had seen numerous shows to see as many more as they could get to. Now, with modern technology--the internet, the I-phone, Uber and everything else--every established band does that. When the Rolling Stones announce a tour, their whole fan base can get tickets to any show, whether in New England or in New Zealand, and it's the die-hards who are the target, those who have seen the band dozens or even hundreds of times. But it's the Grateful Dead who started this, back in '83. 

Why could the Grateful Dead initiate this, way back in the eighties? There were three reasons:

Every Show Was Different
It is a foundation stone of the Grateful Dead that every show is different. They improvise and they vary their set lists, and no major bands did that Back In The Day. So every show had unique elements, and there was inherent drama as each set unfolded. 
Cassette Decks
Every Dead show had always varied, but it wasn't until the proliferation of cassette decks in the 1970s that the taped evidence could easily be exchanged. Reel-to-reel recorders and bootleg records had helped to pique interest (as Jesse Jarnow has documented in his great book Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America), but it was cassettes that made listening to tapes universally viable. The mid-70s introduction of high-quality portables (like the Sony D5) made audience taping easy, too, so a steady stream of intriguing tapes energized enthusiastic Deadheads to make every effort to catch more shows.  
The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978
The factor that has gone unnoticed in the vast expansion of Deadhead territory was the Airline Deregulation Act, signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on October 24, 1978.

Yes, really, the Airline Deregulation Act was the fuel that turbocharged traveling Deadheads from a casual trend to a music industry phenomenon, a fact that has largely been ignored. This post will rectify that oversight.

Traveling Deadheads

While the Grateful Dead were a San Francisco band, the most motivated Deadheads really came from the East Coast. What we now consider "Deadheads,"--not just people who liked the Grateful Dead's music, but those who saw the band as central to their identity--seem to have first reached critical mass in Brooklyn, and then New Jersey. Jarnow has documented the earliest tape trading circles and the first Grateful Dead cover band (in 1969!), and they were just on either side of the HudsonRiver.

In the 1970s, there were plenty of enthusiastic Grateful Dead fans in the Bay Area, and we even called ourselves "Deadheads." But by and large, Bay Area Deadheads wouldn't go outside of the Bay Area to see Grateful Dead shows. Why would we? The Dead played all the time, and Jerry Garcia played tiny bars during the time in between. There wasn't an urgent need to go see them in Santa Barbara or Portland unless you wanted to go there anyway. The situation was not the same elsewhere in the country.

For those outside the Bay Area, while the Dead toured relentlessly, they would only come to your city once or twice a year, and maybe play two nights if you were lucky. On the more compact East Coast, however, if you were willing to drive a few hours in one direction or another, you could multiply the number of Dead shows you saw. So someone in Rochester would also drive to see shows in Buffalo (to the West) and Syracuse (to the East), seeing three shows on a tour instead of one. There are also anecdotal, but generally confirmed stories, of colleges in and around Brooklyn where students chartered buses to see shows in Virginia (a 7 hour drive), so they could party all the way. The seeds were planted--Deadheads would travel to see the Dead, and that culture was particularly strong on the I-90 and I-95 corridors in the Northeast.

Kaiser Convention Center, June 19, 2015. The lawn in front of the former Oakland Auditorium after the parade for the first Golden State Warrior championship in 40 years. A rare moment where the outdoors crowd was bigger than the Grateful Dead "Shakedown Street" encampment

December 26-31, 1979 Oakland Auditorium Arena, Oakland, CA: "Shakedown Street"
Another cornerstone of Grateful Dead mythology was the christening of the parking lot vending scene, colloquially known as "Shakedown Street." I had no real contact with any of that, so I am repeating mythology, but mythology is more important than fact here. In the last week of 1979, the Dead played  five shows (over six nights) at Oakland Auditorium. The Auditorium is on Lake Merritt, and fronted by a little park. The story goes that there since so many people from out of town hanging around the arena, intrepid Heads asked for permission camp out in the park. BGP Operations Manager Peter Barsotti consented, and there was a six-day party outside the Auditorium, interrupted only to attend shows each night. Somehow, the name "Shakedown Street" got attached, and the name stuck.

I went to all five of those Oakland Auditorium shows. I lived in Berkeley at the time, and drove to the shows, parking in the nearby Junior College lot.  I only faintly recall any big scene outdoors, and in any case I only arrived a few minutes before showtime. Throughout the week, however, I was struck by how many people there were from out of town. And I don't mean Sacramento or Los Angeles, but New York, Boston, Philadelphia and so on. These weren't people with family ties or some other reason to come West, either--they had flown out after Christmas just to see the Grateful Dead. So even though I didn't notice the outdoor camping, I did note the preponderance of people who had traveled to see the band.

Air travel was different back then

The Civil Aeronautics Board and Airline Deregulation
The Civil Aeronautics Board had been established in 1938, modeled on the Federal regulation of railroads. Up until 1978, the flights and fares from city-to-city between states was set by the CAB. If United Airlines had three flights a day from San Francisco to JFK in New York, and wanted to add a fourth, they had to make a formal request to the government. If they wanted to raise or lower the fare by $50, they also had to petition the government. Sometimes these requests took years to enact. The CAB set fares high enough to ensure that the airlines were financially solvent even when passenger traffic was low. To the extent airlines competed, it was often over what now would be called "branding"--one Airline would have in-flight movies, and another would have stylishly dressed stewardesses (all of whom would be fired if they gained weight or got married, I kid you not). Interstate air travel was expensive, because it was designed that way.

Airline travel within a single state was not regulated by the CAB, however, but by the State itself. The pioneer of this model was Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), which in 1949 initiated service from San Diego Airport, to Burbank Airport and then to Oakland Airport, serving the three main metro areas in the state. By 1958, PSA had 37 flights a week from Burbank to San Francisco, costing only $9.99, which was not much money even then. PSA was free from CAB regulations, and could add, subtract or re-price flights at will. In 1964, the short-haul Boeing 727 jet entered commercial service, and suddenly passengers could get from LA to San Francisco in about an hour. The California airline business boomed, and there were competitors like Air California and Hughes Air West, flying in and out of every California airport in short-haul jets, as did the major airlines like United. All were exempt from the CAB when they stayed within the state.

When you read about rock bands in the 60s, it may seem surprising that the Grateful Dead played a weekend at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and yet played an afternoon rock festival in Santa Clara on Saturday afternoon (May 18, 1968). It makes more sense when you realize that flights were only 10 or 15 dollars per person, and uncrowded airports made the trip quick. Airports were uncrowded because the CAB limited the total number of flights, even though intra-state travel was unfettered.

Southwest Airlines flight attendants, early 70s

In 1967, Southwest Airlines was established in Texas using the same model as PSA. Due to some lawsuits, Southwest did not initiate service until 1971, but Texas was an even better model for short-haul flying. There are miles and miles of Texas, of course, so the new Boeing 737 was perfect for moving Texans around the the state quickly and cheaply. The national airlines had a lot of frustration with the sluggishness of the CAB, compounding their abilities to compete, and the oil shock of the early 1970s, and the recession that followed, did not help their financial prospects.

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 removed the Civil Aeronautics Board, a rare instance of a government agency being fully deactivated. While safety and other certification issues remained in Federal hands, as they should, airlines were free to set fares and routes on the basis of market demand. Technology then was not what it was today, so while there was a free-for-all with prices and routes, there was also a lot of experimentation, some successful and some not. Travelers from 1979 through the early 1980s recall getting crazy flights, where you could go from Chicago to Salt Lake City for 49 dollars, but with a five hour layover in Dallas.

For mostly young Deadheads, however, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 may as well have been the United States Deadhead Act. Why were there so many out-of-towners at the Oakland shows in 1979? Because there were cheap flights. It had taken several months for the Airlines to figure it out, and for people to figure out the airlines. But word had traveled that there were going to be 5 shows in the Bay Area, and Deadheads all over the country said to themselves "hey, I could fly cheap to Oakland and see the Dead five times, and it will be warmer in California than where I live." So they did. 

By the time the Dead instituted mail order tickets in 1983, the pattern was established. Grateful Dead tours were in legs, and depending on your geography, you either flew to the starting point or flew home from the end. You got some 59 dollar flight that left at midnight or 6:00AM, possibly stopping in some out of the way airport for a few hours. But so what? You were going or coming from a Grateful Dead tour, so a few idle hours drinking diet Pepsi in Nashville or Denver was no big deal. It didn't matter now if the tour started in Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine, since the only difference was how long the layover might be. Thanks to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the American transportation system had been reconfigured for Deadheads. 

Gina Arnold's indispensable history Route 666 (St. Martin's Press 1993)

New Wave, Punk Rock and Airline Deregulation

Music scholar Gina Arnold wrote Route 666: On The Road To Nirvana, the definitive book on the rise of the Alternative ("Left Of The Dial") Rock music scene in the United States. She is also the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Punk-Rock (ok, also she's my sister but that is a side note). Some years ago, she pointed out to me how Airline Deregulation was essential to the history of English rock bands touring America in the 1980s. When I reflected on it later, I realized that Deregulation had been critical for Deadheads, and an important component for building the Grateful Dead audience back in the day.

At the beginning of the Jet Age, fares and routes were fixed, so airlines had to find something else to sell. By 1971, Braniff Airlines (which mostly had South American routes) had Pop Art colors and high-fashion stewardess uniforms (check out the funky ad jingle, to the tune of "Everybody's Talking At Me," done in a Stax-Volt style)

In the late 1960s and then the 1970s, numerous English rock bands toured the United States, seeking fame and fortune. They flew around the country, often lugging lots of equipment, and did so at great expense. There was literally no way to fly cheaply, as it was against CAB regulations. On top of that, the English bands had to pay enormous sums to fly across the Atlantic, separately regulated but no less onerous. The record companies would charge the expense against a band's royalties, so bands had to sell a huge amount of records to make that money back and get out of debt to the label. Some groups, like Foghat or Queen, managed to sell that many albums. But a mid-level band like Wishbone Ash, for example, somewhat popular and with a following, but no mega-hit, found themselves perpetually in debt.

The seminal event for Alternative rock promotion was the 1979 US Tour by The Police, supporting their debut album (Outlandos D'Amour). The trio was perceived in the States a sort of punk/New Wave band, because of their short hair, although in fact they were all veteran musicians (guitarist Andy Summers had played Fillmore West with Eric Burdon, for example). Their manager, Miles Copeland--also manager of Wishbone Ash--had the band fly over and travel around the country in a van, staying out of debt while promoting their album. It was a revelation for managers and bands--you could push your album and not go bankrupt.

One of the key economic building blocks of 80s New Wave and Punk tours by English groups was cheap transatlantic flights, primarily on Laker Airways. By 1977, Laker Airways was selling same-day tickets from London to New York for $99. This allowed the likes of the Police to get across the Atlantic cheaply, which had hitherto been impossible. Now, the history of transatlantic air travel regulation and Laker Airways is byzantine indeed, far more complicated than the Airline Deregulation Act, so I won't try and go into it here. The notable point was that Airline Deregulation, both nationally and internationally, was critical to the expansion of live rock music for both fans and bands, and it never gets any attention. Without the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the economic history of the Grateful Dead would have had a different path.