Bob Dylan has just sold his entire 600-song catalog to Universal Music Publishing Group for an estimated $300 million. The move is highly symbolic yet hardly surprising.
The 79-year-old artist has always been a paradoxical and symbolic character on the American music scene. The sixties folk singer became a rebel of the counterculture that rejected the establishment and society’s Christian morals. His signature songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are a-Changin’” rallied protesters to support a toxic cultural revolution that changed America forever. Over the years, he projected an image of a pop icon, peace activist and free-wheeling anarchist that would overthrow the system.
Despite his revolutionary persona, Bob Dylan embraced the establishment at every step in his career. He signed huge contracts with major music labels, received the Nobel Prize for Literature (2016), got an honorary doctorate from Princeton (1970) and was the subject of many books and documentaries. The establishment did everything possible to facilitate his rise to fame.
Mr. Dylan’s Sellout Deal
Some might think that the sale symbolizes Mr. Dylan’s sellout to the establishment. After all, he made the decision now to take full advantage of Trump-era capital gains tax benefits. It appears that the idealistic minstrel with the quirky voice could not resist the temptation to cash in on his life accomplishments. His shameless surrender to the corporate world contradicts everything he stood for, if indeed he ever stood for anything besides himself.
This was no ordinary deal. It is probably the largest single writer deal in popular music history. The rise of streaming music has also made the market much more lucrative than in the past. Once again, the establishment has created much demand for Dylan’s music with high-profile use of his songs in advertisements, movies and even political events. Universal Music Publishing Group will now control all rights to the songs and will profit immensely from the acquisition for years to come.
The Product of a Postmodern World
However, the “sellout” might be better understood in the context of seeing Bob Dylan as a product of a postmodern world. He accordingly creates a reality according to his image and desires. His postmodern lifestyle follows no narratives, rules or expectations. Over his long and tortured career, he changes his character and appearance to fit the whim of the moment.
His is the whirling world of whatever happens. He lives comfortably inside contradiction and paradox. The $300 million deal is part of his conflicted personality where everything, even the most bizarre and extraordinary things, is possible.
Indeed, Bob Dylan has not changed over the decades but perhaps as he wrote, “the times they are a-changin’.”
The Sellout of the Establishment
The symbolism of his song catalog’s sale signals something much more alarming than the simple sellout of a singer who played the system together with his guitar.
The world is a changin’ much more than Dylan. The present culture has gradually adopted the postmodern anti-narrative that rejects restraint and persecutes moral behavior. Today’s Silicon Valley corporate establishment is much more anti-establishment than Mr. Dylan ever was in his heyday. It adopts every “woke” model and politically correct trend. It imposes on society an LGBTQ+ agenda that is much more radical than the sexual revolution in the sixties.
The present establishment is not opposed to but complicit with the postmodern world that has so destroyed what remains of the Christian order. If anyone is guilty of a sellout, it is the establishment that is “a-changin.’” All the official structures of society have sold out to postmodern chaos. Bob Dylan and the anti-establishment establishment merely sealed a deal that symbolizes their union.