SONG CORNER BY Bob Keyes
Rob Stoner thinks the handwringing and conjecture over Bob Dylan’s decision to sell his publishing catalog is nothing more than mixed-up confusion.
Too many people, all too hard to please.
“This is strictly a business deal. This is all about the numbers, cut and dry. It’s not surprising, and I don’t understand the controversy,” said Stoner, who played bass and was bandleader during the Rolling Thunder Revue, and toured and recorded with Dylan later. “Bob is no dummy. Do you think he is going to make a stupid deal? He’s always had his ducks in a row. He’s always had the best advice, the best lawyers, the best accountants that money can buy.”
Stoner’s advice to fans: Calm down. Everything is going to be okay.
Dylan’s decision to sell his entire publishing catalog of more than six hundred songs, up through Rough and Rowdy Ways, to Universal Music Publishing Group for what Billboard now says is between $375 million and $400 million reflects the unprecedented value of Dylan’s catalog because of the near-ubiquitous nature of music streaming. It’s the right deal at the right time, observers say, the confluence of opportunity and convenience for both sides in the landmark deal.
For fans, the sale likely means a lot more Dylan music will begin appearing in commercials and across mass media, as Universal recoups its investment by licensing as many songs as often as possible—and we can only hope with respect to the integrity of the collection. More significantly, it does not mean Dylan will stop recording, stop touring, or begin concentrating only on making paintings and sculpture. If he does, it almost certainly will be for reasons unrelated to the publishing deal.
Indeed, within a few days of the report of the sale to Universal in the New York Times, the Dylan camp announced the upcoming release of the new Dylan/George Harrison box set, following up a limited release of a special-edition collection issued primarily to extend copyrights. Both products suggest it will be business as usual in terms of curated, bootleg-style releases.
For Dylan, the Universal deal is about cashing out at high value and walking away with the ability to continue to do whatever he wants to do, still with control of his masters but without the headache of administering a song catalog that grows more complicated with time, shielding his heirs from the hassles and complexities of evolving entertainment and business law.
“Now Universal will do all the administration, and Bob doesn’t have to deal with it,” Stoner said.
For Universal, it’s about gaining control over the most valuable and culturally significant collection of contemporary songs ever written, the jewel-in-the-crown of twentieth-century American art.
Dylan’s deal is the latest and most intriguing among the so-called evergreen generation of songwriters and recording artists, who generate huge revenue on streaming services because of the size, popularity, and sustaining nature of their song catalogs. Each time a Dylan song is sold, broadcast, or streamed—or placed in an ad, movie, or TV show—Universal will earn back its investment.
In addition to signing over his publishing royalties, Dylan also sold the copyrights to his songs, according to multiple reports. That means Universal will earn money each time a Dylan song is covered by another artist, and Dylan will have no say in how his previously recorded songs are used or how much Universal can charge to license them.
George Howard, an associate professor of music business at Berklee College of Music, said the sale of the underlying copyright (“the whole kit and caboodle,” he told Business Insider) “almost never happens,” which makes this deal unique. “That explains the valuation.”
It’s a safe investment for Universal because streaming services have made music revenue predictable, which makes music catalogs attractive to investors. That is why so many artists have sold their catalogs, from Stevie Nicks to Taylor Swift. “The way streaming services are growing, this will be the gift that keeps on giving, in terms of royalties,” Howard said of the Dylan deal.
Tim Riley, a longtime Dylan observer, music critic, and associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, called the deal a slam-dunk for Universal and said the initial report in The New York Times of the sale being worth $300 million “struck me as a small number.” He said Universal would earn back its investment in a few years’ time.
He wasn’t surprised by the news—nothing about Dylan surprises him anymore—but he was surprised how much attention the sale received and how much Dylan was criticized. It’s easy to criticize wealthy rock stars, Riley said, “but we will never understand the air they breathe. They make a lot of decisions that may seem weird to us.”
He agreed with Stoner that this deal is about timing and convenience. “The idea that you could sell it for a lump sum and never deal with it again—‘just get it off my plate’—that becomes very attractive after you have had to manage it all these years,” Riley said. “If he spends four hours a week administering his catalog on the phone with his team, it’s probably the worst four hours of his week.”
People who are upset with Dylan for making his music available for commercial purposes have had plenty of time to resolve those conflicts. Dylan has licensed his music for ads for more than a quarter-century, sometimes successfully and with artistic flair, sometimes less so. He filmed an ad for the “ladies’ garments” company Victoria’s Secret in 2007, using his song “Love Sick,” and appeared without music in another for IBM. “Forever Young,” it seems has ageless appeal among advertisers. The list is long. As Dylan himself said, money doesn’t talk, it swears.
“There is punditry that you now will start to see Bob’s songs everywhere, and you might,” Howard said. “But he’s not like Radiohead or Neil Young, who have never licensed their work. Maybe you’ll notice a bit more, maybe a bit less, but the average consumer probably won’t notice much. Dylan already licenses his music for such weird things. Not much he does would surprise me.”
I’ve been listening to Dylan since the ‘60s, I’ve been a fan since the ‘70s, and I’ve attended eighty-plus shows all across the country. This year, 2020, will be the first since 1986 that I have not seen at least one Dylan concert. And yet, I have never appreciated his music more, with a tantalizing new record and the convenience of streaming music during my walks in the Maine woods that have carried me through the pandemic. When people ask what I did during the pandemic, I will tell them I listened to a lot of Dylan.
The use of his songs in TV ads in no way diminishes my connection to his music or my desire to see him again in concert. I sometimes wish he hadn’t sold this or sold that, but who am I to judge his motives?
As Tim Riley said, we will never understand the air he breathes.
I appreciate the ads for their quirky mystery. I see the Chrysler Super Bowl ad, with “Things Have Changed” lingering in the background, as an extension of one of his road songs, a travelogue, and an homage to American adventure with at least one great line: “Because we believe in the zoom, the roar, and the thrust.”
Richard Thomas, the Harvard classics professor who wrote the book Why Bob Dylan Matters, said the worst-case scenario of the Universal deal is that Dylan’s music shows up in ads we don’t approve of, that perhaps degrade the integrity of the song. But he’s not too worried. “I don’t buy Victoria’s Secret, and that didn’t bother me. I quite liked that ad. I thought the Cadillac ad was pretty good too,” he said.
As a researcher who has worked with Dylan’s team to secure permission to reproduce song lyrics, Thomas understands the work involved in dealing with those requests. He called it “a level of micromanaging” that Dylan and his management “are not enamored of.” He said Dylan’s team has always been cooperative, and he hopes Universal is equally responsive and open to allowing writers to quote Dylan’s lyrics.
Further, Thomas said he does not read anything into the deal as the end of one phase or the beginning of another. It’s nothing more than a business deal, timed to coincide with the high value of Dylan’s catalog at this historic moment in the music business.
“Any new material is not included in the deal, so the implication is there could be new material, new song material as well as other things he is working on,” Thomas said. “I sure hope he is writing another album, since the last one we got is so terrific. Dylan will keep doing what Dylan is doing, which is continuing to produce his songs, paintings, and sculpture. And I think he will tour again. I sure hope he does. I think touring is something that means a lot to him, and it means a lot to us.”
Stoner said Dylan became savvy in business from fighting with Albert Grossman, his early manager who suffered an inglorious separation from Dylan in 1970. “Bob didn’t want to let Grossman have a penny for his songs, so he retained his own rights and administered his own publishing through his own employees,” Stoner said. “The people who ran his business office back in the 1970s were the people he poached from Grossman’s office. When Bob split with Grossman, he replicated the same operation with the same employees a few blocks away.”
The deal with Universal is the same kind of thing, only this time civil, and with higher stakes and rewards. With Dylan turning eighty in the spring, who can blame him?
“It’s a huge chunk of change,” Stoner said, “and now his heirs don’t have to fight about it.”