From ties to skis, rockers sell it all

CAPITALIZING ON 'THE DEAD'

November 25, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Flipping through the pages of Relix magazine, a rock 'n' roll newcomer could be forgiven for thinking the Grateful Dead was a star consumer products division of a large company called Classic Rock.

In fact, the San Francisco-based rock group sells products on every other page of the rock magazine. Through licensed businesses or the group's own merchandising division, fans can order through the mail downhill skis, men's ties, dolls, backpacks, an array of books and videos, comic books and equipment for perhaps the least likely of Deadhead sports: golf.

"The interest in the Grateful Dead is phenomenal. It's like a part of American history that people want to have," said Tim Petrick, vice president of Lunatic Fringe, a subsidiary of Anthony Industries Inc., a $375 million company that specializes in recreational products.

Although Grateful Dead products have been available for years, the band has branched out over the past two years into new territory for a music group. Today, the group that defined the spirit of counter-culture America through songs such as "Truckin " and "Box of Rain" is at the center of a multi-million dollar industry going far beyond the usual concert T-shirts, posters and pins.

Rather than the ubiquitous tie-dyed shirts sold by Deadheads following the group around the country, the band might soon be better known for the colorful neckties designed by band guitarist Jerry Garcia, which sell in pricey mid-town Manhattan boutiques.

The downhill skis are made by Mr. Petrick's company, which also makes skateboards, surfboards and other "gravity" sports products. Last year, Lunatic Fringe sold 1,700 pairs of skis named and decorated after a Grateful Dead song, "Dark Star" and currently features a line called "Panther Dream."

Other products include $450 snowboards and another series of skis planned for next year called "American Beauty," after one of the band's albums.

But unlike many acts, the Dead is starting to put an environmental spin on some of their sales.

The "Panther Dream" skis will earn $60,000 for several development projects aimed at preserving tropical rain forests, Mr. Petrick said. The snowboards will also contribute, with 5 percent of salesgoing to the forest project.

The 1,500 skis cost $500 a pair, with a percentage of the sales going to the projects. The skis are decorated with drawings based on a children's book about the African rain forest that lead singer Bob Weir and his sister, Wendy, wrote.

Mr. Weir said Grateful Dead products have such an appeal because the group's fan base is so broad. Rather than attracting a certain generation, the group attracts a kind of person, he said, the sort of person who thinks: "'I like a little adventure in my life and I call on my imagination when I'm playing or just living.' "

Tom McIntyre, a San Francisco-based popular culture analyst, said the Grateful Dead also offers fans a feeling of belonging. The products help solidify this, he said.

Interest is also strong because the fans are not uniform, Mr. McIntyre said, with some hard-core Deadheads following the band around the country on tour and using song titles as an insider's language.

Others associate the band with their youth and will still fly to the nearest city where the group is playing. A bit of Dead paraphernalia helps the memories linger, he said.

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