Bob Dylan and Chrysler – A Tarnished Legacy

Bob Dylan and Chrysler – A Tarnished Legacy   by Dr. Richard Niles

When Bob Dylan did a TV commercial for Chrysler, many of my generation recoiled in shock, as if Bambi had been found guilty of dealing crack to the bunnies in the forest.

Dylan revolutionized lyric writing and changed the consciousness of a generation. Having heard Dylan, no songwriter ever approached his craft in the same way. His words had the power to change. It could be said that Dylan’s influence still has some sort of impact on everyone in western culture. Again and again, he produced spellbinding language that altered forever our idea of the role of the performer and the purpose of songwriting. His vision raised our awareness of who we were and who we could become. He made it the purpose of art to reevaluate politics, religion and culture.

And suddenly we were presented with our divine poet doing a car ad. Were we wrong to follow a spiritual compass that could go so haywire? Dylan was our “weather man”. Yes, our culture has become increasingly fundamentalist. Politics and the media are even more unashamedly based on the “greed is good” philosophy than it has ever been. But, Bob, you’re the guy who wrote Blowing In The Wind. Are you really telling us this is “the way the wind blows” now?

Although Dylan wrote, “not much is really sacred”, his words were regarded as such by people like me, growing up in the 1960s. When he said he didn’t want to be regarded as a prophet, he was quite obviously being disingenuous.

Dylan’s songs specifically targeted “advertising signs that con you into thinking you’re the one…” He stated “propaganda all is phony”. Is not advertising a type of propaganda? Is advertising not one of “society’s pliers”? (And all those quotes are just from one song!)

So when Dylan does an ad, especially one with such a clichéd and jingoistic message, those old enough to be profoundly affected by his work in the 60s are bound to be disappointed. I can’t decide whether it’s worse to think he agreed to read an ad man’s copy or that he actually wrote this inane drivel himself!

If none of this bothers you, maybe you did not spend hours pouring over Dylan’s poetry, searching for insights. I did. Maybe you did not get strength from his words as you walked home after a bad day at school. I also analyzed his lyrical techniques, his use of imagery and oblique contrasts. I read Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot simply because Dylan mentioned that they were “fighting in the captain’s tower” in Desolation Row.

And Dylan, this literary giant, this profound prophet does a cheesy car ad? Why? Money? Obviously not. Dylan’s enormous catalogue of hits and covers by many major artists through the years would be enough to ensure that Dylan’s great grandchildren will never have to work one day of their lives. Nevertheless, many say he has “sold out” by doing this ad.

No one ever accused any artist of selling out because they made money from their songs and performances. But the meaning of the term ‘selling out’ is that a person has abandoned their moral principles in return for gain. If morality is an outmoded concept, we are all doomed to an amoral world where greed is justified. The thing that bothers me is not that Dylan did an ad as much as the way it was done—that he has abandoned his art and its moral standpoint by buddying up with Chrysler.

Chrysler chose Dylan because he is regarded, quite justifiably, as a cultural icon. In the ad, Dylan intones, “You can’t fake true cool.” Advertising relies on misdirection. So when he says this, it directs our attention to his legacy—away from the fact that he is advertising for Chrysler. The ad uses clips of Dylan in the 1960s to reinforce the idea that Dylan is “true cool”. But those of us who knew him in the 60s are not so easily fooled. The cinematography of the film tries to say that Dylan now, advertising for a car manufacturer, is just as “cool” as Dylan in the 60s.

The problem for Dylan, and Chrysler is, as Dylan says in the ad, “You can’t duplicate legacy.” You can’t expect anyone with half a brain to believe that the Dylan who wrote “It’s All Right, Ma” is on an equal plane of coolness as the Dylan who spouts crude nationalistic slogans walking through rows of shiny cars. No matter how well lit this is, the glossy images are not fooling me.

As sensitive artists, we must be very careful not to confuse the ART with the person who creates it. We are affected by great art and expect the human creators to live up to the ideals expressed by their art. But the art is just one aspect of the artist’s humanity, perhaps the best. It is not so much Dylan’s decision to do a car commercial that is upsetting. It is that he is wasting his breathtaking talent as a wordsmith on a mediocre, jingoistic script expressing the most banal of sentiments. Dylan may be very flawed as a man, just as Dylan Thomas was an alcoholic. But when he devalues his ART, a body of work that is breathtakingly innovative, and incalculably influential, he damages his reputation as an artist. It also diminishes our capacity to appreciate his art without thinking of this distinctly lowbrow ad.

One last point. Everyone has their own moral compass to follow. I don’t think it’s healthy for me to judge someone else by my standards. But I think it’s essential for everyone to have their own principles to judge themselves by. I think he has let himself down. If Dylan’s songs came from his heart, it is sad to think that this heroic, beloved iconoclast could abandon his own spirit for the rewards of jumping on the Chrysler production line. I hope they gave him a nice ride.

©2014Niles Smiles Music

Arranging and the Royalty Issue

Arranging and the royalty issue by Dr. Richard Niles

An excerpt from “The Invisible Artist – Arrangers In Popular Music (1950-2000)” In this work, the author has transcribed 222 musical examples of the work of some of the most influential arrangers in pop and examines their significance.

IA CoverSmallIn the U.S. arrangers have the opportunity to be recognized by the Grammy  Awards in two categories—Best Instrumental Arrangement and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists. At least winners and nominees can use this to promote themselves and bring in more offers of work. In Britain and the rest of the world there is no such award.

The financial rewards of an arranging career are limited. Arrangers are paid a fee for each job. It’s not huge. Keep working, get jobs in every week and you can pay the mortgage. Arrangers receive no royalties unless they write an arrangement of a public domain work. Copyright consists in a melody and lyrics of a song. But even though I have only transcribed the arranger’s work, the instrumental parts, a variety of publishers own the rights to all the transcriptions in this book. In the eyes of the law, the songwriter and publisher own the rights to every note an arranger writes.

So arrangers have no residual income if a song is a hit and, to be honest, they’re not happy about the situation.

A perhaps unexpected example of this is the case of Sting and his song “Every Breath You Take”. Since its release in 1983 the song has earned Sting approximately $40 million. After the Police had been working unsuccessfully on the song for six weeks, guitarist Andy Summers contributed the instantly recognizable guitar arrangement—an arrangement that, to use Richard Carpenter’s words, “makes the song”. The rights to Summers’ arrangement are owned by Sting and his publishers.

When Puff Daddy released “Missing You” in 1997 using only Summers’ guitar accompaniment (not Sting’s vocal) all the royalties went to Sting and his publisher. Summers got nothing, a situation he described as “the biggest rip-off of all time.” Drummer Stewart Copland added, “So Sting’s making out like a bank robber here while Andy and I have gone unrewarded for our efforts and contributions.”

If wealthy superstars such as Copeland and Summers are upset about the situation, imagine the feelings of the average ‘journeyman’ arranger who, if foolhardy enough to ask for co-writing credit, will be fired and probably never work again.

But are arrangements really considered worthless? In a 2013-14 case the Marvin Gaye estate sued Robin Thicke, T.I. and Pharell Williams for infringing copyright on Thicke’s track “Blurred Lines”, saying that it contained “elements” of Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up”. The only elements relevant to copyright law are the melody and lyrics, neither of which were used in  “Blurred Lines”. But Thicke didn’t sample Gaye’s track. He merely programmed a similar bass and percussion, elements of Gaye’s backing track. Thicke’s instrumental backing track is using part of Gaye’s arrangement in which there is no copyright. So, even though the lines are still slightly blurred, the case has been dismissed as of this writing.

This question of backing tracks/arrangements has another relevance. Since the 1980s it has been common for producers and programmers to record a backing track and ask someone (usually a singer or songwriter) to write a ‘topline’ over it. The producer, now in his role as songwriter, then offers the ‘topline writer’ a small percentage of the writer’s share of the song and usually none of the publishing royalties.

But if an arranger supplies a backing track (as they often do) to a songwriter who gives them a recording of their melody and lyric (a ‘topline’) the arranger is offered no credit or royalties whatsoever.

First, let’s get rid of misleading terms. What is called a ‘topline’ is in fact the melody and lyrics. The word ‘topline’ is one of those words calculatedly devised to be demeaning to the person who is actually writing the song. Posing as the main songwriter, the producer/arranger is merely asking someone for a ‘topline’. It sounds better than asking someone to write the song for them.

When I signed a publishing deal with Rondor in 1990 they asked me to write with DJs. I was expected to write melody and lyrics to their backing tracks. I said, “If I’m writing the melody and the lyric, I’m in fact writing THE SONG and I’ll expect 100% of the writer’s share. I don’t mind splitting the publisher’s share.” They were shocked at my attitude. I was told this was how songs were written today and I was “living in the past”. I replied, (rather heroically, I thought), “I’d rather live in the past than die in the future because I let someone rip me off.” Rondor dropped me.

If the backing track/arrangement is legally part of the song, the arranger deserves royalties—and I should be a multi-millionaire. And so should Paul Riser for writing the brass intro to “Dancing in The Street.” And so should John Altman for writing the whistling melody in “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.” But if the law states that every note of the backing track/arrangement is owned by the writer of the melody and lyrics why should any self-respecting “topline” songwriter share writing credit or royalties with the creator of the backing track—the arranger—the person whose work has no value in copyright law?

As Motown arranger David Van DePitte pointed out, arrangers were not under salary and were paid a fee for each job. If an arranger also plays on the track or conducts, they receive a usage fee as a musician. But they are being paid a royalty for their performance, not for their writing. So the songwriters, publisher, artist and record label all receive income for a hit record for a very long time while the arranger, according to current copyright law, receives nothing.

Can we really say that arrangers are undervalued when the music business seems to value them enough to ensure publishers’ ownership of the rights to their arrangements?

Beyond what the law states, is it morally just or, to use a legal term, reasonable that arrangers have no rights whatsoever to their own work? I am too biased to answer that question but readers may draw their own conclusions. Whatever I feel, after 40 years in the business, I don’t expect the law to change anytime before the next Millennium.

©2014Niles Smiles Music