Why Did T Bone Burnett Record a Song With Bob Dylan That Only One Person Can Own? To Disrupt the Art Market


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At a recent intimate listening session for a new Bob Dylan record, there was a last-minute mention from someone in the control room of L.A.’s Village Studios that attendees should have their phones off. It probably went without saying, but producer T Bone Burnett added a note of incidental gravity: “Yeah, if this gets out,” he laughed, “my life will be over.”

You might hear that kind of hyperbole about not letting leaks get out at other listening sessions for new recordings, but it had a little more weight at this one. The record in question was Dylan’s brand new re-recording of the 1962 classic “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which is soon to be released to exactly one buyer. Made with a newly developed technology that represents a backwards-compatible improvement on traditional analog vinyl, the singular disc will be sold at auction at Christie’s in London on July 7 with an estimated listed value of £600,000-1,000,000, or roughly $735,000-$1.2 million. Hard to know how many hundreds of thousands of dollars that declared value might diminish by if a crude bootleg snuck out.

Anyone wondering if that six- or seven-figure sale is for real might ask: Did Dylan and Burnett not get the memo about music, like information, needing to be free, or worth a fraction of a penny on the streaming market? They sure did, and in a classic provocative counter-reaction, they’ve set out to prove the opposite.

“We started talking about this in earnest seven or eight years ago,” said Burnett of his conversations with Dylan about recording something exclusively for a new format and a very, very, very limited audience. “When music became commoditized to zero, I think we both said it would be easier to sell one of these for a million dollars than a million of them for $1.”

That’s not the only thing they set out jointly to prove. Burnett, for his part, also wanted to establish that Dylan could record a new version of a 60-year-old song that was as moving as the original — or more, possibly, given the weight of the intervening decades that Dylan brings what was a youthful anthem about the unanswerable. But will Dylan’s extended fan base ever have a hope of hearing it someday, or will that privilege just be reserved for a lucky high bidder? The answer to that one, friend, is… well, you know.

Variety got on the phone with Burnett to further discuss not just the Dylan recording itself, but the long-in-development Ionic Originals format, which is said to allow a more faithful rendering of real sound than vinyl LPs, with a unique coating that makes a disc practically impervious to analog records’ normal wear and tear. “We’ve got (Ionic test) discs we’ve played over a thousand times that are dead quiet at the end,” claims Burnett (whose record of Grammy wins includes album of the year honors for the “O Brother” soundtrack and the first Robert Plant/Alison Krauss album).

Here is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

People may have some questions about why this new recording is as limited an edition as it gets, with only one person destined to own this.

There are two things I think it is important to know for people who are concerned about the exclusivity of what we are doing. An Ionic Original is not a “copy.” It is an original recording. We are not contriving scarcity. This is actually scarce . It is a unique, handmade, original recording. We have all been conditioned to accept the terms of and react to things from the frame of mass production. This is not that.

We know you did a number of these new versions of his old songs with Dylan in the studio. Was the intent always to put these out one by one, as auctions, and not as an album or with any kind of mass consumption in mind?

Yes. This really started because recorded music has been commoditized to zero over the last 20-30 years. Because we work in an age of mechanical reproduction, musicians have had to accept the definition of the value of their music from the government, from corporations, from technologists, from record companies, from streamers. Well, in this case, we have taken matters into our own hands, and we control the means of production and we control the copyright. We’ll be able to explore: What is the value of a song? What is the true value of Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” 60 years after he wrote it, in this environment? And we’re gonna find out.

But the intention has always been to create a new one-of-one program. In fact, what I’m trying to do is enter a music space in the fine arts market. Because music is to the United States as wine is to France — it’s the most valuable and important part of our culture. And for the last 25-30 years, we’ve had parts of the audience telling us that we ought to put our music out for free. This is a chance for us as artists to work at complete autonomy. It’s something both Bob and I have done to the degree we could for our whole lives, but this is a chance now to do it not just for Bob, but for many other artists who are gonna do this with us, who’ve already signed up. With any luck, this is the way I’ll spend the rest of my working life, doing these beautiful one-of-one pieces of high art.

For you, it’s the ultimate eliminating-the-middle-man, as well as elevating value through true exclusivity.

Was it Wu Tang Clan that sold the record to the guy Martin Shkreli? [The hip-hop collective sold the sole copy of an album, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” at auction to Shkreli in 2005 for $2 million.] That was the beginning of artists taking control of their own work. But that was just a CD they sold, and CDs are infinitely reproducible. This is an actual one-of-one. This [acetate] medium that we are selling this on is the medium that all discs are made from, but in making all the other discs, that disc is destroyed. Instead, we’re safeguarding it with this Ionic deposition. And we’re going to sell these one-of-ones, and we’re going to change the parameters of what a piece of music is worth.

What’s been your history with Dylan? People know you went on tour with him in the ’70s, and you have guitar credit on at least one ’80s album, but is this the first time you’ve officially produced him?

Yeah… I met him at Jon Taplin’s wedding in 1970, and then he invited me on the Rolling Thunder Revue show, which was my first tour [in 1975]. I was thrown into the deep end and I never got over it. I never recovered. And it’s been all downhill since then.

You know, Bob produces himself, of course. If I were actually gonna produce an album with him, I don’t even know what I would do. This was a very specific thing we were doing. But no, I had never…. We’ve collaborated . I just look at this as one more collaboration. I was playing guitar, like I always do. [Laughs.]

The basic track with you and Dylan was done at the Village Studio in L.A. before embellishments, right?

No, we did it in an undisclosed location. But it was mixed at the Village. … It went from Los Angeles to Nashville, back to Los Angeles to be mixed. I accompanied him at the time [on electric guitar], and then we took it to Nashville and put on Dennis Crouch on bass, and Stuart Duncan played this sort of ghostly violin that’s back there. … And then we brought Greg Leisz back in and he played a mandolin part. [Don Was is also officially credited for bass, although his part may not have survived Crouch coming in.]

When people heard he was recording his old songs, it sounded like it might be a full album, they wondered if it had something to do with or even was the same thing in some way as his “Shadow Kingdom” streaming special.

No, we did this before “Shadow Kingdom.” We didn’t do a whole album’s worth of songs. We were just cutting some specific songs that he chose to record for this format, for this program we’re on right now.

Can you say how many songs you cut with him?

Let me not say that right now. [Laughs.] Let’s just say we recorded a set of his classic songs, that he chose.

“Blowin’ in the Wind” was the obvious one to start with, as an initial auction item?

It’s a historic song, to premiere this new technology. It’s the song that kicked things off for Bob. And there’s no bigger song than this. “You Are My Sunshine” is not as big as this.

Why does that song still loom so large?

Nobody has any idea what it means, but everybody knows it has something to do with civil rights. But what does it mean that the answer is blowing in the wind? Does it mean it’s blowing toward you; does it mean it’s being blown away from you? It doesn’t dictate a meaning. And that’s the beautiful thing Bob’s always done. He’s always proposed the right questions. That’s much more valuable than somebody giving you answers, especially the kind of people we have giving us answers these days.

In a way, it’s been a hit since the 1840s. This is kind of a rewrite of “No More Auction Block,” which is a beautiful old song from 1865 or so, following the Civil War; it was rewritten at the height of the folk school in the ‘40s as “We Shall Overcome” by Zilphia Horton. But they’re all rewrites of “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” which was written in 1843 or so. You could hang the whole history of the United States from the Civil War to now on [variations on] that one song, between “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  I want to say it is a holy song. And every time, I’m playing with Bob, I think it’s a holy experience playing with him.

It’s a beautiful version. What can you say about what he brought to the song now?

I believe Bob is very much a past master of second nature, and I do believe singing those classic American songs [on his three albums of covers of Sinatra-era tunes in the 2010s] was a step for him. He treated those songs with great reverence. And I think when we were doing these recordings, the idea was that he was going to sing them with the original melodies and treat them with the same respect that he treated the Irving Berlin songs or Jimmy Van Heusen songs, which he hasn’t always done. He’s been more about never repeating himself. First of all, he hadn’t been on the road for a couple of years when we did these recordings., so his voice was clear and strong and beautiful. And then I think he was also coming out of that place, where he could treat his songs with the kind of respect he treated the American classic songs.

And you believe this new format is the best place to represent that?

Let me tell you this. I started in 1965. I got out of high school and bought a recording studio with a couple of friends, and in that recording studio, we had this beautiful old Altec board, and we had two two-track mono Ampex machines, and a Neumann lathe, which would be a prized lathe today. I’m sorry I don’t have all that equipment today. But I started cutting acetates in 1965, and they’ve always been the best-sounding medium. Musicians have always said, “God, I wish the record sounded as good as the acetate.” And they never have, because a vinyl record is down about three to five generations from an acetate. It’s the best-sounding medium.

You’ve said these Ionic Original discs are too expensive to produce en masse. What is the most expensive part?

There’ve been at least eight years of research and development, and that’s been the most expensive part. I think we’ve got them down to a place where we can begin to do a whole series of these with different artists. And through doing that, I hope we’ll be able to begin to do limited editions, with more artists. The idea is to put more power into the hands of artists.

A lot of fans out there may appreciate some of the principles of what you’re doing, but they’re also wondering: What’s in it for us?

Well, you know, “what’s in it for us”… I don’t really care! I have to say, I’ve been told for 30 years that I should give my stuff away. So what’s in it for me , if I’m just gonna give myself away? You know, I don’t like to play live. I’m a recording artist. I like working in a studio. I like working in private. It’s not that I don’t care about or even love those people, but at this point, that’s not my concern This is about high art. I’m just not interested in mass culture. I never have been — other than the Beatles, maybe, or something like that when I was a kid. But I find a lot of lunacy and contempt out in mass culture. I find very little love in mass culture — true love. I find a lot of narcissism. I find a lot of people trying to draw attention to themselves. The thing I’m interested in now, and have always been interested in, is how art is made and how it survives.

The fine arts space analogy is interesting. One difference, though, maybe, is that if there is a classic painting, there still may be like a snapshot of it in a catalog or something, where the average person will go, “I don’t own the painting, but at least I’ve had the enjoyment of seeing what it looks like.” Here, people may worry: “I’m never going to get to hear this in any form.”

They shouldn’t worry about that, because there are thousands of Dylan recordings they can hear for free. Listen, that will work itself out in time. I can tell you, when Cézanne was painting eggs to Provance painting of landscapes, he wasn’t thinking, “Oh, man, I hope everybody gets to see this!” or “How is everybody gonna get to see this?” He was just thinking, “How do I get this down? How do I get this on this thing?”

All of that will get worked out over time, I would think. But that’s not what we’re doing right now. We’re doing a specific thing, recording music at the highest possible level, and preserving it at the highest possible level.

Whoever wins this at auction, he or she won’t own complete rights, but will they be able to play it for other people?

Yeah…

There’s no legality where he has to just keep it to himself?

No, he can play it anytime he wants to. It’s his. Right now, we own this Dylan recording, Columbia owns the copyrights, and Universal Music owns the publishing, so it’s all split out that way. Universal Music can’t do anything with it, Sony Music can’t do anything with it, and we can’t do anything with it, other than sell it. And the person who buys it will be in the same position we are. We own this recording, but we can’t copy it and we can’t distribute it; all we can do is sell it. And that’s what he can do. But we can play it for friends. We do want to make sure that nobody records it.

Is it possible that someday people would be able to hear it in the new Bob Dylan Center that just opened, or some sort of space like that?

Yeah. So, say somebody buys it and he wants to put it in the museum. Then the museum can put a display together and people can hear it there. I don’t know. I mean, Cezanne didn’t have a museum when he was painting. He was just painting, and that’s what we are doing. And this will probably end up in a museum at some point, or maybe the Library of Congress or something — who knows. I’m sure all of this stuff will come out in time, because that’s how things work out.

You’re right, there are snapshots of the Mona Lisa. But the apocalypse, the sonic catastrophe, that we’re facing is that all music for two decades now has been distributed at such a low level, of an MP3 or a stream, except for a couple of higher definition streams. But an MP3 is the sonic equivalent of a Xerox of a Polaroid of a photograph of a painting. It’s that far removed from what you actually see when you see a painting. So this piece of work we’ve done here, if people hear it, I want them to hear it the way we made it sound. I want them to hear it at full force.

Maybe people just want an assurance of “Well, maybe in 10 or 15 years, at least, there’ll be a way for me to hear this.”

It may be in a year or two — I have no idea. But that’s out of our control. We’re only trying to take care of this one thing. And what we want to do, at the end of it, is open up a music space in the fine arts market, because music is our finest art in the United States, and it’s not treated that way. It’s treated like any other commodity, like a jar of mayonnaise. I reject that. [Laughs.] This is a full rebellion against mass consumerism.

It’s not that I don’t want people to hear it. I think this is the best record I’ve ever made in my life, so I want everybody to hear it. For my ego and my sense of “I would like everybody to like me,” this is a sacrifice. I mean, you heard it. Bob sounds good. The band sounds good. The song’s great. And I have to say, I think it’s the best thing that I’ve ever been involved in. It’s the best singer, the best song, great musicians, the sound is killer. I’ll say this: I’ve never done anything better, to be sure.

You know, the other day I was watching a swan float across a pool. And I wondered, why does that swan float across that pond? Because that’s what he does. He doesn’t float across the pond to get the approval of onlookers.

We are making music the same way the swan floats across the pond. We are making art. Music is an art. Recorded music is an art. This is not for the mass audience. The mass audience has told us what they want: they want music for free. If the audience has trouble with what we are doing, then they have to check themselves out.

You’re saying that making a philosophical statement about music having real value and as much value as any other kind of art or medium or sport or anything else is as important here as making a lot of money in an auction.

What you just said is the core of it. It’s a philosophical statement. And I think a movement, too. I mean, there are a lot of people coming [to do something similar] after Bob, I can tell you that already. I can’t talk about it, because it’s gonna get interesting starting July 8th, I would think.

Although you’re clearly interested in analog over digital, you’ve indicated there is a possible digital element that can be added to Ionic Originals, right?

Oh yeah. There’s several interesting aspects to this that we haven’t even talked about. One of them is that, because we can put colors in this coating, we can store digital information on top of this as well. So we can store Blu-ray discs on the disc; we can store holograms; we can store metadata. It’s possible that we would be able to store a film of the record on the disc, so that while you listen to the disc in analog, you can see the film of the disc on your screen. There’s tremendous potential along the way, and hopefully if we are able to help develop a music space in the fine arts market, then all of these things will come after. Because the research and development for all of that is way more expensive than the research that we’ve already done.

You said there could be limited editions of these eventually and they don’t always have to remain one-of-ones? If these are truly acetates, it’s hard to imagine making a hundred of them.

No, we could do it, but that will take setting up a factory. And if we’re successful with the one-of-one program, then we will be able to set up that factory and we would be able to do a hundred acetates. But that will be expensive, too. I mean, when people are mastering their records, it costs quite a bit of money just to cut an acetate for that purpose. But these specialized acetates are really expensive.

Eventually through this process, thogh, I do think — maybe not this year but by next year — we’ll be able to start doing limited editions. With, say, Gillian Welsh, I think a limited edition of her and David (Rawlings) singing “Everything is Free”… I’ll just say a hundred signed and numbered Ionic Originals would be very, very attractive to a lot of people that love her music. Hopefully for people that aren’t major cultural presences [like Dylan] but that are still significant, that don’t sell millions of records, but coul…

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