Still reading—and still ruminating on—Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties. This is fast becoming my favorite history book on anything related to rock, folk, or blues. This dude knows his subject.
(No, I don’t get any perks or payoffs from honking books. I don’t know Elijah Wald personally except for bumping into him at a Boston radio station where I was performing 20 years ago.)
The point I made in my last post—that Dylan has something to teach business (or art or entertainment) about the value of being distinct—bears further elaboration. What made Dylan so fascinating to so many was not just his uniqueness but how threatening his uniqueness was. In “The Times They Are A-Changin’” Dylan warns:
"Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside ragin’
It’ll shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’."
One can be unique and still be inconsequential and harmless. Or one can be unique and be disruptive and a serious threat to the status quo. Dylan was a "dent maker"—to use Steve Jobs' term. At least in the 60s. (I haven’t been able to make as much sense of his later identities and incarnations, but that's ok. He did more with those first five years of his career—and those first seven albums—than anyone else has done before or since, with the exception of The Beatles.)
The cultural impact that Dylan made is well appreciated: he helped rally a generation of youth against racial discrimination and against the war. But the economic impact he made has been underestimated: he upended the music business model of the time and scrambled the field of pop and rock music providers, whose influence is still felt today. Dylan's music elevated the importance of the song lyric and gave employment to a new breed of poetic singer/songwriters (Simon & Garfunkel, Donovan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, to name but a few). And the rise of so many lyrical songwriters HAD to crowd out other talented writers, who didn’t fit the new zeitgeist. Dylan—like The Beatles and their British brethren—became bulldozing agents of "creative destruction" (in more than one sense).
The comparison to companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon that have been "dislocators" in their industries, with their game-changing products/services, should be obvious enough.
A few more lessons from the book...
Dylan, in his desire to not have his voice be pleasant-sounding musical wallpaper, cultivated a rough, bluesy, and sometimes abrasive vocal style. (He apparently had a sweet-sounding voice as a teen that he seemed determined to NOT develop.) A Time review of his performance at the Monterey Folk Festival, captured the public sentiment: “At its very best, his voice sounds as if it were drifting over the walls of a tuberculosis sanitarium.” To Dylan, being pleasing, agreeable, or "respectable" had to be avoided at ALL cost.
It’s fascinating to me that Dylan’s early record producer, John Hammond, was initially more impressed by Dylan’s attitude than by his musicianship, according to Wald. Dylan himself revealed, “I played all the folk songs with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude. This is what made me different and allowed me to cut through all the mess and be heard.” (My emphasis.) Candid stuff! In retrospect it’s obvious that this Greenwich Village folk singer (who passed himself off as a down-home musical drifter) was executing what we might call a deliberate market strategy. He knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going. His Macdougal Street audiences in 1961-1962 became his focus groups.
Meanwhile, Jim Kweskin (of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band) observed of Dylan: “He was magnetic. At the time, to me, it was more his presence than it was his music. I liked his music, but what was special was his personality.”
This is remarkably similar to the account that Beatles’ engineer, Norman Smith, gave me eight years ago (as captured in an earlier post) as to how The Beatles managed to land a major record contract despite their musical shortcomings at the time: “They had such personality, such originality.”
Having a uniquely distinct personality/identity (dare we say "brand"?) matters. And if you’re even a little threatening to the status quo, all the better.