Opinion: Shelter from the storm

  • Bob Dylan performs with The Band at the Forum in Los Angeles in 1974. Dylan’s entire catalog of songs, which spans 60 years and is among the most prized next to that of the Beatles, was acquired by Universal Music Publishing Group. Jeff Robbins/ AP File

Published: 7/24/2022 8:33:05 AM
Modified: 7/24/2022 8:30:03 AM

Bill Pribis of Concord is a former lawyer and a current English teacher.

I love music. And I love television. I would like to think my musical tastes are more refined than my television tastes. So it is rare for my two loves to clash in a commercial way. For example, I have never heard the music of one of my favorite artists, Bruce Springsteen, used to promote a product or service in a television advertisement.

A few days ago, I had the television on in the background as I performed some mindless but necessary tasks. The show that was on broke for some commercials. Suddenly, I heard a familiar rhythmic acoustic guitar chord riff accompanied only by a bass guitar. “It can’t be,” I thought to myself.

But then an unmistakable voice sang:

“Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood.

When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud.

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.

Come in she said I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.”

Bob Dylan’s timeless classic, “Shelter from the Storm” was being used in an Airbnb advertisement. The ad targeted Airbnb’s “Camping Category.” While the song played, the television screen showed still images of Madison Avenue’s current version of the perfect couple (and their adorable dog) who had used the company’s services to plan a camping getaway during a “wide open weekend.”

In 2020 Dylan sold his entire catalog of songs, some 600 of them, to Universal Music. The estimated sale price was $300 million. I don’t know the particulars of the deal and I presume that, while he’s still alive, Dylan might continue to have some say in how his music gets used. However, we can rest assured that Universal Music didn’t pay $300 million to ensure that “Blowin’ in the Wind” is never heard in a Gas-X commercial.

Universal did not buy Dylan’s music to protect it from exploitation. They expect to make money on their investment. Lots of money. I expect we will hear Dylan’s music used for commercial purposes a lot more in the future.

And this might just be the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Artists who have recently sold their catalogs to for-profit corporations include Barry Manilow, Chrissie Hynde, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, members of Fleetwood Mac, and Neil Young just to name a few. And yes, this list includes Bruce Springsteen. The Boss sold the rights to his music to Sony Music Entertainment in 2021 for $550 million. “Glory Days” indeed!

What does this mean? When you listen to “Shelter from the Storm,” Dylan’s lyrics are a canvas upon which the imagination can run amok. Who or what is “the storm”? Who or what is “she”? What is this “shelter” that is being offered?

You get to decide these things for yourself. You get to decide them in ways that are personal and important to you. That is the case with any well-crafted song or poem. It is one of the reasons why a song or poem can be so powerful and beautiful.

But now, a team of marketing experts will decide these things for us. “The storm” is the prospect of another boring weekend at home. “She” is the almighty Airbnb. “Shelter” is a warm and comfortable place to stay during a fun camping getaway provided by Airbnb.

“Nonsense,” you say. “Just keep using your imagination, nobody’s taken that away from you.” I’d like to think that is true. But I fear my simple mind is no match for the marketing experts who will be coming up with increasingly clever and effective ways to use my favorite music to sell things to me. No matter how hard I try to do otherwise, forevermore shall I associate “Shelter from the Storm” with a camping getaway provided courtesy of Airbnb.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some old guy waving his fist and yelling “Get off my musical lawn you corporate fatcats!” First, I do not fault these artists in any manner for what some might describe as selling out. There are so many reasons these catalog sales make sense for the artists. Why would Bob Dylan want to burden his heirs with the responsibility of managing his music? Why shouldn’t he cash in while he is still alive and can have a voice, albeit a presumably limited one, in how his music is used in the future? And hasn’t he earned the right to do whatever he wants with the fruits of his lifetime of creativity?

Second, the optimist in me sees some good coming of this. Perhaps some 14-year-old who has never heard of Bob Dylan sees that Airbnb ad. “Who is that singer?” they wonder. They investigate. They discover and fall in love with the music that helped shape how an entire generation of people saw the world.

Perhaps that 14-year-old simply leads a richer life for their discovery. But maybe they are inspired by Dylan’s music to do something that helps change the world for their generation. And maybe commercial use is the most surefire way to keep these songs alive for years to come.

I hope that my optimism is well placed. I hope that some good comes from corporate control of the music that has been such an important part of my life. But I just know that no matter what, a little part of me will die the first time I hear the distinctive drum and guitar riff that opens Springsteen’s “Born to Run” as a Nike sneaker ad comes across my television screen.

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