When Dylan discovered electricity—part two

Lightning 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.

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  1. Sacramento musician and talent agent Gene Thorpe, who taught me what little bits I know about performing music, always said that mediocre players with great stage presence will get booked ten times as often as great players who don't schmooze well. He proved it with a string of bands he mentored: average players who took his performing advice and made their musical living for a couple decades in northern California.

    I've seen it in our businesses: I don't have to be the very best or have the latest skills. What I have to do is be competent, and really care about every person I work with.

    1. Yes, the schmooze factor is important. I built a career around it in the 70s and early 80s in Connecticut. A fellow rock musician, Kim, confided to me years later that he was genuinely impressed that I always got the best gigs at the best clubs. "We were always amazed by how you far you went with so little...um, ya know...talent." The highest compliment! I think.

  2. you might also want to check out this article in the New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/16/the-elvic-oracle?mbid=nl_151111_Daily&CNDID=25252406&spMailingID=8241555&spUserID=MzI0MzE1ODE2NzkS1&spJobID=801069215&spReportId=ODAxMDY5MjE1S0 about Sam Phillips, a new books about him by Peter Guralnick’s “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll”.. who and the invention of rock n roll and the transition from R&B/ "race music."

    And "In order for a music for young people to come into being, young people have to have a way to play it. The jukebox was one delivery mode: kids could listen to the music in a diner or an ice-cream shop, someplace outside the home and in the company of other kids. More significant, as Ennis points out, were several inventions. The 45-r.p.m. record—the single—was developed by RCA and marketed in 1949. Soon, RCA introduced a cheap plastic record player, which played only 45s and sold for twelve ninety-five. This meant that teen-agers could play “their” music out of their parents’ hearing. They did not have to listen in the living room on the family phonograph.

    In 1954, transistor radios came on the market. Kids could now carry the music anywhere, including to school. A robust national economy in the United States after 1950 meant that teen-agers were staying in school longer than they had in the nineteen-thirties or during the war years. High school became an important social space. Material conditions therefore existed for a quasi-autonomous “teen culture,” and rock and roll beautifully fit the bill."

  3. Be unique. Be bold. Be disruptive to the status quo. Bernie, Donald, Ben? Maybe the sequel to your long awaited business lessons from rock could be political lessons from rock.

    1. I could have a heap of fun with that, Dick. And if I decided to push that on this blog I could quadruple my readership in a week. But for reasons I don't quite understand I prefer reflective dialogue these days. (Not much of that on display last night, I'm afraid, but hope springs eternal.) I alluded to one of the pols you mention in my earlier post on the Dunning Kruger effect. http://businesslessonsfromrock.com/notes/2015/10/dumb-dumber-and-dunning-kruger/ Now that I think about it, this month marks the 35th anniversary of the campaign launch of the first "people's candidate." http://businesslessonsfromrock.com/notes/2010/11/ask-not-what-money-can-do-for-you/ I may post on that next.

  4. Why haven't you mentioned Pete Seeger? According to an interview I heard, Wald devotes a section of his book to Seeger.

  5. It's aggravating me how management talk is making everything hollow. At my school more attention is paid to how we do things together in a organization than to what we do for and deliver to children. Content is a dirty word these days. If Dylan did not have anything to say, if he had not the vision to make future out of the past (he usurped tradition and made it into something worthwile for the here and now and even for generations to come. That was what distinguished him most. The way he did it surely enabled him to come accross even more, his cool rebel nature cut through the crap and had a message. Whatever method you have, if you're lacking content you'll fall short.

    1. Hans, I don't live in the childhood educational world, but I'm always interested in it. I assume you're referring to curriculum. If you check back in, say more.

      Drawing from the world of music, the world's top rock/pop acts—including The Beatles and Dylan—had the greatest content. (Also known as "songs.")

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