Bob Dylan selling his back catalogue for £225m should come as no surprise: Anthony Clavane

Oh Bob, how could you? In one of the biggest music publishing deals in history, Robert Zimmerman has sold his soul to the devil.

Bob Dylan performing on stage at the Hop Farm Festival in 2010. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Bob Dylan performing on stage at the Hop Farm Festival in 2010. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Or, rather, sold the rights to his songwriting back catalogue for a reported £225 million.

Dylan is no longer the messiah. He is a very naughty, and very rich, 79-year-old. This week’s news that he has cashed in on 600 of his tracks has sent shockwaves throughout the globe.

Not really. A few people were shocked, maybe. And certain sections of the media, and his devoted fan base, were appalled. There was weeping and gnashing of teeth on websites. Bobcats and Dylanologists took turns to tweet their dismay.

Letters were sent to The Guardian. Keith Flett wrote: “The early Dylan, influenced by the Trotskyist Dave Van Ronk, would have written a song about it.”

There was a leader in The Times describing the deal as a “landmark moment”. And the Daily Mail was most upset. “For fans of the freewheelin’ king of counterculture, it is the supreme irony,” wrote Alison Boshoff. “Bob Dylan, who wrote perhaps the ultimate protest song in Blowin’ In The Wind, 
has sold out to the Establishment.”

Has he? Really? Apart from Dylan nuts and clickbait opinion writers, did anyone actually bat an eyelid when they heard about the singer-songwriter’s Great Betrayal?

What about all those other bands and artists, including Blondie, Elton John and Barry Manilow, who have sold the rights to their songs? No-one accused them of selling out.

Dylan, of course, is different. He was the great hope of the hippie generation, hailed as the voice of radical protest, a messiah even.

He was an important enough figure to appear on stage alongside Martin Luther King Jr, having sung A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall and Masters of War, when the civil rights leader delivered his 1963 ”I have a dream” speech following the historic march on Washington.

He is the only musician to be awarded the Nobel prize for literature.

His Bobness is, or was, a man above such petty materialistic concerns as cashing in on his music.

Actually, he has never been slow to do this.

His songs have always appeared in commercials, helping to plug Greek yoghurt, Chrysler cars, Cadillacs, Pepsi, Apple iPods, and IBM computers. He has his own range of whiskeys. Endorsements, merchandising tie-ins, adverts for Victoria’s Secret lingerie – you name it, Dylan has plugged it.

And he has always been a rule-breaker. A confounder of expectations. Someone who seems to take great delight in upsetting purist fans, as well as the critics.

When he arrived on the Greenwich Village scene in 1961, he outraged the cable-knit-sweater folkies by pretending he was a truant from a travelling carnival rather than a nice, middle-class Jewish boy from Minnesota.

At one folk festival, Pete Seeger allegedly demanded an axe to cut the microphone cord after Dylan “went electric” during the second half of his set.

The following year, at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, he was infamously denounced as a Judas by a heckler in the audience. His crime? Playing his songs with an electric, rather than acoustic, guitar. What a scoundrel.

Over the years, he has upset his fans by constantly changing direction, failing to explain himself, refusing to conform to romantic notions of the rebellious, anti-establishment singer-songwriter.

I have to admit – as a self-confessed Dylan nut myself – I have not liked some of his transformations. I even stopped buying his albums during the Born-Again Christian era, especially when he felt moved to deliver fire-and-brimstone sermons at his gigs.

But His Bobness abides. 
Up until the pandemic, he was the hardest-working person in showbiz, playing between 100 and 200 gigs worldwide every year on his never-ending tour.

In a few months time he will be 80 and, as his biographer Howard Sounes, has revealed: “He has a very large family he is very close to. Now they are set up for life.”

Throughout his six decades in music, Dylan has entertained and inspired in equal measure, earning the love and admiration of several generations.

People are going to be listening to him for the rest of eternity.

Who would begrudge him his nest egg?

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