Dyson Alum, Les Kippel ‘70
Music Mogul and Grateful Dead Devotee
Les Kippel ‘70 graduated from what was then Pace College, with a degree in Human Relations. Brooklyn-born, Kippel’s father wanted him to be a teacher, a safe career choice. Kippel chose another road, following his passion.
Kippel can be described as a Deadhead, an enthusiast of the quintessential 1960s counterculture band known for their unique sound, lengthy instrumental jams, and devoted fan base. In 1971, Kippel started a tape trading collective, known as "The First Free Underground Grateful Dead Tape Exchange.” This evolved into a handmade newsletter known as Dead Relix that enabled deadheads to exchange taped live recordings of Grateful Dead concerts. Think of it as an early version of free music sharing via the post office, but not illegal. In time, the newsletter would transition to a full-fledged magazine, renamed Relix, and grow into a multi-million dollar business that included a record label and merchandising division.
Kippel sold Relix in 2000, and today it remains the second longest continuously published rock music magazine in the world after Rolling Stone.
Kippel spoke with Dyson Digital Digest, sharing how he turned his passion into a lucrative business venture.
At Pace, I took a class called Rock in Contemporary Culture. It asked the question, ‘What’s in the songs that reflect what’s going on in society?’ This was 1968-70 when the Vietnam War, Nixon in the White House, the Free Speech Movement was happening, and the social and cultural landscape in the US was changing.
The professor gave us an optional assignment – to see the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore East.
It was the first time I heard them. After my first show, I said ‘There is something special going on here and I have to be a part of it.’ The next time I went to see the Grateful Dead, I brought a tape machine, and gave it to some friends in the first row to record the show. I didn’t get a good recording. All I heard was ‘Hey man, pass the wine skin.’
I wish I knew where the professor is now so I could thank him.
What is tape trading?
The next time I went to a Grateful Dead concert, I brought along a brand new Sony cassette deck, microphones, and TDK cassettes. We got the first-row seats in the center balcony and strung our microphones to the end of the aisle. We got phenomenal recordings.
It was like a collecting. People collect coins, dollar bills, postage stamps; we collected live concerts of the Grateful Dead. Fans were trading tapes, one tape at a time, by mail. We communicated by letters and phone. There was a lot of trust, ‘Send me a tape, I’ll send you a tape.’
I was working full-time at the NYC Housing Authority and doing the tape exchange on the side. I realized I needed a method of bringing people together to trade without me being in the middle. And that’s where the Dead Relix newsletter came in. It enabled fans to connect and exchange tapes for free. It didn’t start as a moneymaking business.
Jerry (Garcia) said, “Once the words and the music leave me, it’s yours.” The only problem we had was the record companies. They felt we were stealing music, but no one was paying for it so they couldn’t do anything about it.
More than magazines
In the mid- to late-70s I was looking for business opportunities to keep the magazine alive. I found people who were producing novelty items. I started selling those, and all of a sudden I was selling thousands of stickers, buttons, t-shirts, as well as the magazines. Out of this, we created a second corporation we called Rockin' Relix.
In June of 1980, I realized that I was making more money during my lunch break from work in 30 minutes with Dead Relix than I did in an entire week at the housing authority – I knew it was time to go and work on the magazine full time.
The magazine was growing quite nicely, from the first issue with 250 copies, to its highest distribution of 120,000 when Garcia died. It was carried at Hudson News, airports, newsstands throughout New York, and major chain stores like Tower Records and Colony Records. We were everywhere.
‘Keep your day job ‘til your night job pays,’ said singer-songwriter Robert Hunter.
Success comes in two ways: first in happiness in who you are and what you’ve created, and second, in financial security. Don’t be stupid; get yourself an IRA or a Roth IRA. That will lead to financial comfort later in life. But the main thing this is to be happy -- if you can be happy living in a rat-infested trailer, you will be happy when you are successful.