Bob Dylan’s Approach to Song Licensing Is Positively Surprising

Music supervisors praise bard and biz chief Jeff Rosen for making filmmakers’ dreams come true

Bob Dylan’s Approach Song Licensing Is
David Redfern/Redferns

Bob Dylan’s preeminence in the pop music pantheon is secure. But what of his place in the movies?

The more than 500 credits for Dylan songs in motion pictures and television certainly hints at the sizeable impact on those mediums by the man who is being honored by the Recording Academy as MusiCares’ Person of the Year on Feb. 6. And his Oscar win for “Things Have Changed,” from Curtis Hanson’s 2001 film “Wonder Boys,” proves it’s not just about the catalog.

Yet while other Baby Boomer-era songwriters of his fame and stature have made the licensing of their songs an arduous and expensive process, Dylan and his business team — not unlike the troubadour’s live performances — have continually defied expectations.

Given the importance of a catalog that stretches back more than 50 years, one could assume securing a Dylan track would be a potentially budget-busting proposition. But the pros who have dealt with the Dylan camp tell a different story.

“To me there’s been literally nothing more simple than clearing a Bob Dylan song,” says Thomas Golubic, the music supervisor behind such shows as “Breaking Bad” and its spinoff, “Better Call Saul.” Golubic is referring specifically to Dylan’s longtime manager and music company chief Jeff Rosen.

“I take Bob Dylan’s music very seriously,” Golubic says. “I think he’s America’s greatest songwriter. And a lot of times when you have artists who are so iconic you’re stuck with a lot of middlemen whose job is to get as much money as possible or to make it feel as important as possible. And with Jeff, he’s really straightforward. He essentially has Bob’s ear, and if Bob feels like it’s something that he supports, it goes through.”

Golubic and the producers of “Six Feet Under” used Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” during that HBO series’ last season, tied to the death of lead character Nate Fisher, the younger brother in the family undertaker business played by Peter Krause.

“I reached out to Jeff and pleaded my case and he just responded to the creativity and to the passion we had for that song and how it works,” Golubic recalls.

The song, written by Dylan in a similar context for the movie “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,” would normally have given Golubic pause. “I’m very touchy about utilizing songs that have been used elsewhere,” he says. “But in that particular case it just really worked and we felt that it was the right thing creatively, and Jeff made it easy. And once you have an approval from Bob, everyone else begins to play along. Sony was perfectly happy to work with us on that.”

Unlike a lot of his contemporaries from rock’s golden age, Dylan owns the publishing rights to his music, which is administered by Sony/ATV outside the U.S. His longtime label, Columbia Records, controls the master recordings. But as with most cases involving Dylan’s music, all roads lead to Bob. And Rosen acts as gatekeeper.

Randall Poster, the music supervisor whose credits include “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” cemented his relationship with Rosen on “I’m Not There” (2007), Todd Haynes’ kaleidoscopic meditation on Dylan in which a half-dozen actors riff on various stages of the singer-songwriter’s career. Poster, who produced the film’s soundtrack with co-music supervisor Jim Dunbar and Haynes, used a mix of masters and fresh covers by the likes of Eddie Vedder, Stephen Malkmus and Jim James.

“Jeff has incredible respect not only for filmmakers but for the art of cinema,” says Poster. “He works a unique catalog, there is none richer, because they’re songs that have been constantly interpreted and reinterpreted.”

While a lot of other artists are associated with a revolving door of handlers, the Dylan camp has been fixed for more than 25 years.

“There’s the constancy of Jeff, and the reliability of Jeff,” Poster says. “Oftentimes it’s not only you need the answer in terms of the financials, but you also need a timely response, especially when you’re trying to finish a movie. Jeff is always very quick to respond and is always looking to make it work.”

It’s often the most unorthodox projects for which Dylan/Rosen take a personal interest, managing to negotiate a fee that isn’t onerous.

The zero-budget “Bombay Beach” (2011), an unsettling yet lyrical documentary about a disaffected and desiccated community around California’s Salton Sea directed by Alma Har’el, used three Dylan songs, even if that seemed like a pipe dream to the filmmakers. Rosen had sent Har’el a link to Dylan’s catalog even though it was clear she was working as a one-woman crew on the film in its early stages.

One song that particularly stood out was “Series of Dreams,” with the lyrics “I was thinking of a series of dreams/Where nothing comes up to the top/Everything stays down where it’s wounded/And comes to a permanent stop.”

“I heard it in the car while I was driving” to the location, Har’el says. “I never had this feeling when you hear a song and you just feel it was almost written about the place you’re in. And there’s something so dreamy about the place, and on the other hand it makes you want to wake up and scream. So it was a relief for me to have Bob Dylan’s song in the film because I felt as if the lyrics explained the place better than I could’ve done.”

When asked how much she was charged for using the music, Har’el would only offer: “The money was very symbolic, I would say. And I really wouldn’t have done it without (Rosen). When he finds a project he likes, he really supports it.”
Adds Poster: “I think Jeff is always open to working within the scale of the production.”

While they are far from a charity organization, Rosen & Co. view films and television as a way to spread the gospel to the unconverted, or, as Poster sees it, “a great way to bring Dylan to an audience that is otherwise not getting their fair share of Bob.”

Just don’t expect any feedback from the man himself. In a way, the title of the 2003 film that Dylan starred in and co-wrote, “Masked and Anonymous,” could apply to the shroud of mystery that surrounds him in real life. Haynes never met Dylan before or after the making of “I’m Not There,” despite being given carte blanche use of the catalog. “I don’t think we ever got any real feedback,” confirms Poster.

Har’el, too, despite the goodwill shown her, is equally in the dark. “I sent him the DVD and I know he saw my film,” she says. “But I can’t tell you that I really know what he thought about it.”