What Dylan Said – Plus a Challenge To Record Companies (and You)

A lot of people have commented on music piracy, including me, but nobody's done it as succinctly as Bob Dylan in his latest Rolling Stone interview. After knocking modern records for their bad sound, he said:

"I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, 'Everybody's gettin' music for free.' I was like, 'Well, why not? It ain't worth nothing anyway.'"

That boy better be careful. He's spent forty years refusing the title of "voice of a generation." If he doesn't want to be a spokesman he shouldn't talk so much sense.

I know people from nineteen to ninety who would rather hear Rabbit Brown, captured on an old wire recorder, or Aretha Franklin recorded as a room full of men glared at one another in the Alabama heat, or some kid from Tupelo who paid five dollars to record "Old Shep" for his mother.

Or four street kids from London who were corralled, coutured, and captured on tape by a clothing salesman with aspirations. Or a melancholy ex-con with from the California heartland who could sing like Lefty. Or an underground rapper who rents studio time in Harlem to throw down rhymes of revolution. Or a teenaged mom who made her own first record, a double-tracked hymn to honky tonks.

I also know a lot of people who don't know what they want. They just know they're not getting it.

People are still making some fine music here and there, but Dylan's onto something. The sound isn't right. That's partly because it's digital, which I guess is Bob's primary complaint. But I think the other reason the sound is wrong is because the music isn't coming from the dark corners of the country, or of the soul, anymore.

People always tried to make money in the music biz. That's nothing new. But nowadays anybody with a Mac G4, Pro Tools, and a few effects can duplicate the sound of every other record on the radio.

It's like trying to paint the Mona Lisa with a xerox machine. It's mass production for the masses. Gone is the accidental genius that came from microphone bleed, or strange room acoustics, or a sponge underneath the guitar strings.

Computers aren't hard. Soul is hard. Bill Gates can't sell you that.

In the drive for perfection we lose inspiration. Brenda Lee once compared later recording techniques with the early days. "Back then," she said, "if everybody started and ended at the same time it was a take." Some great records got made that way.

Once in a while a friend will ask me to play on a studio recording. If it's a rock and roll song and I'm asked my opinion, I always suggest making it dirtier, rougher, more emotional. I usually don't get asked again.

But I'm not here to whine, I'm here to make a suggestion. My last piece on the music industry slammed the RIAA for opposing a device that would allow you to "TiVo" a music show on XM Radio, play it a limited number of times, then order the songs you heard electronically.

The music industry should embrace this kind of technology. More people will hear music, want it, and buy it. Their greatest salesman? Bob Dylan, whose XM Radio show builds each episode around a theme. He mixes songs from all different styles - songs that are all in some record company's vaults.

Shows like Dylan's are the wave of the future. It's New Media 101: "narrowcasting" to specialized segments and selling to them. Use the Internet to search out those corners. Find people who love baseball songs, or train songs. Find people who are addicted to the music of Blind Alfred Reed. People who like contemporary/traditionalist Hungarian folk music. Devotees of early-twentieth century Southern preaching. Folks that love power-punk, and would go crazy for that band that never got the big marketing push.

The big record companies have tons of this stuff going to waste. It's not making a dime. I'll repeat an offer I've made before: let me go in there and distribute some of it through the Internet. You won't make the kind of money you make off Jessica and Britney, but you'll make some - with a terrific profit margin. (Won't that be refreshing?)

And you'll reduce the hunger for illegal downloading, the restlessness and pent-up pressure, by giving listeners some interesting dark corners to explore while they're soundsurfing. That's what matters most: the more interesting stuff you can download legally, the less desire to download illegally - and the more money goes back to musicians and songwriters.

(By "soundsurfing" I mean browsing the Internet for something new to hear. I know lots of people who do it, so that's what I call it.)

A lot of people might want to step in and serve as advisors to this kind of effort. Ry Cooder. David Johansen. Quentin Tarantino. My friend Peter Case. Martin Scorsese. Elvis Costello. Dylan himself.

They know what treasures are hidden in your vaults, Mr. & Ms. Record Company Exec, and they love them. It couldn't hurt to ask them.

And there's a lot of creative things that can be done to sell these tracks. Run ads in railroad magazines. Sell political songs through political mailing lists. Do a deal with Yahoo! News to offer a song for sale in every news story, that relates to that news item. Somebody ought to try it.

Hell, it doesn't have to be me. I hope that someone gets the shot, though. Don't do it for the money, record companies, but as a defensive move. You'll only make a little, but you'll reduce your losses by a lot more.

How do I know this? Just a hunch. But I'm pretty sure I'm right, and what can it hurt to try? Think it over.


EXTRA CREDIT CHALLENGE: I took some of Dylan's theme shows and tried to pick one good song for each. I encourage commenters to stretch out a little and do the same. Show me what you got.

Here are my picks:

For "Eyes": Unseen Eye, Sonny Boy Williamson
For "Cars": Pink Thunderbird, Gene Vincent
For "The Devil": Whiskey Is The Devil in Liquid Form, the Bailes Brothers
For "Rich Man Poor Man": Workin' For The Man, Roy Orbison
For "Flower": I Overlooked An Orchid (While Looking For a Rose), Carl Smith
For "Summer": School's Out, Alice Cooper
For "Divorce": His and Hers, John Anderson
For "Wedding": There Goes The Bride, the Derailers
For "Father": My Old Man, Roseanne Cash
For "Jail": 52-46, That's My Number, Toots & the Maytals
For "Coffee": Caffeine Nicotine Benzedrine, Gary Stewart
For "Drinking": Pink Champagne and Candlelight, Ed Bruce
For "Mother": Mama Didn't Lie, Jan Bradley
For "Weather": Wasn't That a Mighty Storm, the Rev. Sin-Killer Griffin and congregation of Alabama chain-gang prisoners