Bob Dylan’s music has sparked controversy and set trends. It also has made him a very rich man.
But unlike his musical contemporaries whose lifestyles of conspicuous consumption make headlines, Dylan, 56, prefers a seemingly more understated approach.
His strategy of such conservative investments as real estate appear to coincide with a relatively inconspicuous professional lifestyle of touring, releasing a steady stream of albums and primarily letting his music do the talking.
His musical strength is evident as the sales tally of the Dylan catalog albums is a staggering 59 million units worldwide, with 30.2 million in the U.S. alone, and counting.
The numbers are especially potent when backdropped by the fact that just a handful of the poet’s hundreds of songs reached chart-topping status and as a result are seared in the public’s consciousness. And his tunes are infrequently used in films or TV, which can spike an album’s sales through the additional exposure.
But it’s not for lack of a demand for Dylan’s songs: Film and TV music mavens often try to get the tunes for A-list pics. Dylan doesn’t let just anyone use his musical nuggets; the studios have to pay handsomely for the privilege.
Blood on the soundtracks
The singer is one of the industry’s few giants — among them Paul Simon — who own 100% of the publishing rights to his songs, so he can charge a king’s ransom for the right to place a Dylan song in a film.
The Warner Bros. pic “Forever Young” for example, used the Dylan chestnut of the same name for its title track, but the studio didn’t get it for a song. Such uses typically earn a superstar artist who owns music publishing rights more than $500,000 compared with a rate less than half that for a hit song by an artist who does not control a song’s use.
Dylan, a 1988 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and a three-time Grammy Award recipient, is center stage in the music industry again with his latest album, “Time Out of Mind,” his 41st album and the latest for Columbia Records. It is the first release of all-new material by Dylan since 1990. But don’t call the disc a comeback, because Dylan never left.
“The record has the kind of depth of field that hasn’t been heard in a long time; foreground information and background information,” says producer Daniel Lanois, who co-produced the album with Dylan. “It’s a most serious work, but not without its landscapes of underlying humor.”
Though he hadn’t released an album of new songs in four years, his last two albums, “Good As I Been To You,” (1992) “World Gone Wrong,” (1993) allowed him to stretch creatively. A third, “MTV Unplugged,” (1995) presumably introduced him to a younger crowd via MTV, though it didn’t spark the same result as the music cabler’s recent resuscitation of the Eagles’ or Fleetwood Mac’s careers.
“Time Out of Mind” is being billed by many as his best since the 1975 masterpiece “Blood on the Tracks” – which also ranks among his bestselling albums at more than 2 million copies.
While many of Dylan’s discs sport sales tallies of around 500,000 copies, his “Greatest Hits Vol. 2” set stands as his career top seller. It currently boasts a sales tally of more than 5 million copies sold as of Sept. 8. Dylan’s first “Greatest Hits” package checks in at more than 2 million copies, while such offerings as “Before the Flood,” “Desire” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Slow Train Coming” are among the singer’s discs that top the 1 million unit plateau.
And a perusal of country-by-country sales tallies shows Dylan has fan strongholds in England, France, Germany, Italy, Holland and Brazil, in descending order.
Still going strong
Millions of Dylan discs have reached consumers in those territories. And there’s no evidence Dylan’s popularity is waning abroad as “Time Out of Mind” bowed in the top 10 in the U.K., Germany and Sweden when it was released Oct. 27.
Unlike many of his contemporaries who launch mammoth roadshows only during presidential election years, Dylan’s incessant touring – he seems to work every year – is a marked contrast.
So far in 1997, his 28-city outing has logged revenues of more than $4 million with an average night gross of more than $150,000. And he’ll likely repeat the schedule again next year, and each set of shows will sell out within hours after being put on sale.
Dylan’s four-night stand at the intimate El Rey Theater in Los Angeles later this month (Dec. 16-20) is one of the year’s most anticipated shows. And the $40 ducat price makes it one of the most accessible to audiences interested in seeing a cultural icon up close.
Just like a mogul
With the bow of Dylan’s own Egyptian Records first album “The Songs of Jimmy Rodgers,” last July, Dylan’s place in modern music continues to solidify, landing him the role of music exec.
When Dylan strapped on an electric guitar more than 30 years ago he gave the folk revival new authority and established the model for future writers of rock songs.
While Dylan’s greatest gift may be his song crafting ability, his legacy continues to be his inspiration to thousands of scribes who endeavor to create intelligent, emotional rock songs.