Bob Dylan, the voice of protest, the brilliant songwriter and probably the most respected artist in popular music history has sold away the rights to his songs to cooperate America. Sounds pretty bad huh? Well, for some it is. If this would have happened twenty years ago it would have been met with a stunning response from critics and fans. However, times have changed dramatically on so many levels in the past twenty to forty years. A move like this is no longer stunning, it’s rather accepted. Even in a year like 2020 which has pretty much repeated so many issues of the 1960s on a entire new level, the news that Bob Dylan has sold the rights to his songs away to the Universal Music Publishing Group is pretty much not news at all to most music fans under 40. Yet, it is big news to us here at ClassicRockHistory.com because in the end we are music fans first and Bob Dylan’s music has meant the world to us. Th last thing we want to see is the song “Blowin’ In The Wind,” being used to promote The Weather Channel.
It is important to note that Bob Dylan’s deal to sell the publishing rights to his entire catalog of songs he has written to Universal Music Publishing does not include the rights to his sound recordings, meaning Dylan’s classic records. If Universal wants to license the the song “Highway 61 Revisited,” to a company selling legal marijuana, it can only sell the song to be recorded by someone else. Universal can’t use Bob Dylan’s original recording. Of course, we know they will probably record a sound a like. Hopefully Universal Music Publishing will be respectful with the way they utilize Bob Dylan’s catalog. Universal Music executive Lucian Grainge called Bob Dylan one of the greatest practitioners of the art of songwriting. If Bob Dylan’s music and legacy is held in such high esteem by Universal (which obviously it is or they would not have spent the reported three hundred million dollars to buy the catalog) they would be smart to be very careful in which the way they license his songs. Music fans who respect the art can be very vocal when a beloved song is sold to sell cars or computers. And speaking of computers, Bob Dylan took a lot of flack when he appeared in those IBM commercials a few years ago. And of course there was the Victoria Secret campaign which really had us scratching our heads.
There was a time when we really got on artists when they sold their songs for commercials. Rock stars have been doing it for years. Some more than others and some not at all. It kills me to hears Elton John’s legendary song “Rocket Man,” being changed to Rakuten to sell retail goods. In recent years, the change in technology and the way people acquire music has ended the cashflow for many songwriters. Nobody buys music anymore. Think of all the record stores that have closed down in the past 20 years. Even huge chains like Tower Records have gone away with what now seems to be like a long time ago. Streaming giants like Spotify and Apple music pay artists very little in royalties. I know major artists who make a tenth of a penny on every download of their songs. In the past ten years, musical artists have depended on touring to make money. However, the Covid-19 nightmare has even taken that away from musical artists.
Does Bob Dylan need the money? Well we don’t know anything about his finances and of course its none of our business. Yet his songs are. They are all a big part of our lives, at least for those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 70s. Great art should be remembered as great art, not art used to sell hamburgers or beer. All we can hope is that Universal utilizes Bob Dylan’s songs in a respectful manner. Yet, they did supposedly pay 300 million for his catalog, so they are not just going to park them in the corner. They are going to use those songs to make money. Be prepared to hear some cringe worthy commercials using songs that have defined the American landscape of history over the past sixty years.