Bill Pribis of Concord is a former lawyer and current English teacher.
I love music. And I love television. I would like to think that my musical tastes are more refined than my television tastes. It is therefore rare that my two loves clash commercially. 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 commercial.
A few days ago I had the TV on in the background while I was doing some crazy but necessary tasks. The show that was airing broke for some commercials. Suddenly I heard a familiar rhythmic acoustic guitar chord riff accompanied only by bass guitar. “That’s not possible,” I said to myself.
But then an unmistakable voice sang:
“It was in another life, a life of toil and blood.
When darkness was a virtue and the road was full of mud.
I came from the desert, a formless creature.
Come on, she said I’ll protect you from the storm.
Bob Dylan’s timeless classic, “Shelter from the Storm” was used in an Airbnb ad. The ad targeted Airbnb’s “Camping category.” As the song played, the TV screen showed stills from 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 details of the deal, and I suspect that while he’s still alive, Dylan could continue to have a say in how his music is used. However, we can be sure Universal Music didn’t pay $300 million to ensure “Blowin’ in the Wind” was 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. A lot of money. I think we’ll be hearing a lot more of Dylan’s music being used commercially in the future.
And that may 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, 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 it mean? When you listen to “Shelter from the Storm,” Dylan’s lyrics are a canvas for the imagination to run wild on. Who or what is “the storm”? Who or what is “she”? What is this “refuge” that is offered?
You decide these things yourself. You can decide them in ways that are personal and important to you. This is the case with any well-crafted song or poem. This is one of the reasons why a song or a 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 cozy place to stay on a fun camping getaway offered by Airbnb.
“Absurd”, you say. “Just keep using your imagination, no one has taken it away from you.” I’d like to think that’s true. But I’m afraid my simple-mindedness won’t measure up to the marketing experts who will find ever-smarter and more effective ways to use my favorite music to sell me things. No matter how hard I try to do otherwise, I will forever associate “Shelter from the Storm” with a camping getaway courtesy of Airbnb.
Do not mistake yourself. I’m not some old man waving my fist and yelling, “Get off my musical lawn, you corporate fatcats!” First off, I don’t blame these artists in any way for what some might call a sellout. There are so many reasons why these catalog sales make sense for artists. Why would Bob Dylan want to impose on his heirs the responsibility of managing his music? Why shouldn’t he cash in while he’s still alive and can have a say, albeit presumably limited, on how his music will be used in the future? And hasn’t he earned the right to do whatever he wants with the fruits of his creative life?
Second, the optimist in me sees some good in it. Maybe a 14 year old who has never heard of Bob Dylan sees this Airbnb ad. “Who is this singer ?” they wonder. They investigate. They discover and fall in love with the music that helped shape the way a whole generation of people saw the world.
Maybe this 14-year-old is just living a richer life for his discovery. But maybe they’re inspired by Dylan’s music to do something that helps change the world for their generation. And perhaps commercial use is the surest way to keep these songs alive for years to come.
I hope my optimism is well placed. I hope the corporate control over the music that has been such an important part of my life will bring some good. But I just know that no matter what, a small 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 pops up. on my TV screen.