Universal Music Buys Publishing Rights to Bob Dylan Catalog

rights to dylan's 600+ songs sells for estimated $300 million

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Bob Dylan sold his entire song catalog to Universal Music, The New York Times reported. The legendary singer-songwriter has penned more than 600 songs and their rights now belong to Universal. Dylan’s early career made him a folk music hero.

Harmonica on acoustic guitar
Bob Dylan’s album “Song to Woody” was a tribute to Woody Guthrie and consists of Dylan performing alone with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. Photo By michelangeloop / Shutterstock

According to The New York Times, a new world record in the music industry have just been set by Bob Dylan and Universal. “On Monday [December 7], the Universal Music Group announced that it had signed a landmark deal to purchase Dylan’s entire songwriting catalog—including world-changing classics like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’—in what may be the biggest acquisition ever of the music publishing rights of a single songwriter,” the article said.

“The deal, which covers Dylan’s entire career, from his earliest tunes to his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, was struck directly with Dylan, 79, who has long controlled the vast majority of his own songwriting copyrights. The price was not disclosed, but is estimated at more than $300 million.”

Born Robert Zimmerman in 1941, Dylan became one of the most legendary musicians in history. It started with his meteoric rise as a hero of the downtrodden with protest songs and other folk music.

Song to Woody

As a young man in high school, Robert Zimmerman played rock and roll music. Before long, though, he was bitten by the folk music bug—the first step on an important journey.

“He was particularly drawn to the lyrics of Woody Guthrie. And in 1961, he arrived in New York City and made a pilgrimage to visit Guthrie, who was hospitalized at the time with Huntington’s disease,” said Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. “He modeled himself after the famed balladeer and as someone whose music would tackle the serious issues of the day.”

When Robert Zimmerman moved to New York, he changed his name to Bob Dylan and performed traditional folk songs in Greenwich Village. His performance at Gerde’s Folk City opening for the Greenbriar Boys caught the ear of a New York Times music critic named Robert Shelton, whose positive review attracted the public to Dylan’s signature nasally rasp and nimble guitar picking.

His debut album, Bob Dylan, featured 11 traditional folk covers and two originals. Among the covers were “House of the Rising Sun,” which would later be famously performed by The Animals; and “Man of Constant Sorrow,” nearly 40 years before its revitalization in the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? One of the two original songs, “Song to Woody,” was a tribute to Woody Guthrie. The entirety of the album consists of Dylan, alone, performing with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica.

Bob Dylan’s Blues

His sophomore release, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, premiered in 1963, opening with the world-famous original “Blowin’ in the Wind.” This, along with other originals like “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” helped cement Dylan as a songwriter and protest singer.

In August 1963, Dylan performed with Marian Anderson; Mahalia Jackson; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Joan Baez at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall for the March on Washington,” Dr. Kurin said. “They provided musical selections prior to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”

Dylan’s performance included his original composition “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” written about the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Dylan had recorded it just three weeks earlier for his third record, the notably bleaker and more uniform The Times They Are a-Changin’. That album’s title track is among Dylan’s most famous as well.

Crowds loved Dylan’s plain aesthetic of poetry, simple guitar chords, and expressive harmonica. Finding him to be genuine and with a concern and fondness for the world, the public soon likened him to the voice of their generation. He wasn’t so sure he wanted the job.

“As Dylan’s career progressed, he began to express reservations about his own status within the American folk music movement,” Dr. Kurin said. “In 1964’s ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe,’ he seems to reject the role of the people’s balladeer. In the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan experimented with musical styles and themes, venturing into love ballads, irony, and a more electrified sound, later termed ‘folk rock,’ that disappointed traditionalist fans.”

He stepped down from his seemingly messianic position in the emerging counterculture of the 1960s, but Dylan’s records have continued to sell. His most recent release, Rough and Rowdy Ways, was released in June.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Richard Kurin contributed to this article. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture

Dr. Richard Kurin contributed to this article. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. In this position, he oversees most of the Smithsonian’s national museums, libraries, and archives, as well as several of its research and outreach programs. Dr. Kurin holds a BA in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo–The State University of New York. He earned both his MA and his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.