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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, October 02, 2008


I hope Sean Murdock won't mind my taking the comment he's sent in to my blog today and giving it the extra prominence of placing it here as a new posting. It's not that I especially like his prose style (says the sniffy critic) but he speaks for a lot of people here, and I thank him for taking the trouble to set it down in such detail and with such righteous energy. And I think he's right:

Someone on the Steve Hoffman Message Boards suggested that perhaps Sony's master plan was to:
1. Raise the cost of the 3 CD set to unreasonable heights.
2. Sell the 2 CD set for cheap ~ $15.
3. Months later, lower the price of the three CD set to ~ $50.
4. They get $65 out of us instead of $50 and we feel like we got a "deal."

My response was this:
That may well be their plan -- and if it is, how could anyone question (morally or ethically) fans who say "The hell with 'em" and download the entire thing for nothing?

I can't go that route -- maybe I'm too old, but I need to OWN the music I love, and I'm proud to do it -- but they've really pushed me too far with this one. It's a slap in the face to fans who have supported Bob with their loyalty (and dollars) for 10, 20, 30, 40+ years.

I bought all his albums (up until 1989) on vinyl. I bought them all again, and all the subsequent ones, on CD. I bought all the SACD remasters. I've purchased Biograph three times, Bootleg Series 1-3 twice. I bought Time Out Of Mind on CD and vinyl. I bought the deluxe Love & Theft (2 bonus tracks!) and the vinyl. I bought Modern Times THRICE over (CD, deluxe CD, vinyl). I bought the Japan-only live CD to get a small handful of songs new to CD. I've traveled far and wide to buy new releases at independent stores so I could collect promo EPs. I've paid extra through to get special trinkets, like the Carnegie Hall CD, the Radio Time CD, the Newport DVD -- and I'm pretty sure I got some kind of replica pop-up book a couple of years ago, but I couldn't swear to it, because I haven't looked at it since the day I got it.

Through all these purchases, I never complained once, never muttered under my breath, and never regretted my decisions. I was content to be both fan AND consumer, and I was fortunate to be able to afford to feed my habit. Heck, I even bought the "deluxe" Dylan set last year, which was COMPLETELY useless and which I haven't even opened. I may have gotten one of the above-mentioned trinkets as a bonus. Still, I did it willingly. I felt like I had an understanding with Sony: treat Bob's music with respect, make it available to me, and I'll pay a reasonable price for it.

Right now, that relationship is on shaky ground. I no longer feel like I'm Sony's partner in happy consumerism; this feels more like a back-alley mugging. Sony used to say to me, "Hey, here's something we think you'll like"; today they're saying to me, "Hey, sucker, where's your breaking point? How bad do you need that Dylan fix?" They've gone from pharmacist to pusher in one stroke of a bean-counter's keyboard.

The knee-jerk rebuttal to this is, "You're not being FORCED to buy it. You don't HAVE to have this!" This may be the thing that bothers me the most. Bob Dylan is a MUSICIAN; his primary function in the marketplace is to produce music that people pay money for. His music shouldn't be an "extra" or a "bonus" available only to those with an abundance of disposable income; his music should be the FUNDAMENTAL reason we are buying his products. Nobody -- NOBODY -- who buys the deluxe Tell Tale Signs is doing it for the picture book, or the vinyl single, or the poster; these people want the third CD, and for this "extra" Sony wants another $110. When I bought Bootleg Series 7 from Sony, I got the Carnegie Hall CD as a bonus -- a very cool "extra" that maybe cost $5.00 more than I would have paid From $5 to $110 for a bonus disc -- something has gone very wrong here.

Maybe this whole deluxe pricing scheme is a marketing experiment for Sony: "What's the very LIMIT of what we can get away with here?" If it is, our decisions as consumers become more important than ever. If we all run out and pay $130 for a 3-CD set, then they will do this again, and it will only get worse. If we hold off and refuse to give in, then Sony will know that they can't get away with it, and they will think twice before doing it again. But have they thought about what they might be losing in the meantime? I don't trust Sony anymore; we may patch things up, but it will never be the same for us. And Bob's not innocent in this either -- let's not kid ourselves, folks, he could have stopped this with a single muttered demand.

I started writing this as a simple rant, but now I'm trying to convince MYSELF not to cave in. The line has to be drawn SOMEWHERE, but fandom makes one weak. It's trite "wisdom" to point out that "fan" comes from "fanatic," implying that my devotion to Bob Dylan goes beyond rational thought. It's true, though, and with only a week left before release day, I'm stunned and bewildered that I'm still contemplating NOT owning a CD of Bob's music that will be legally available to me. To quote the guy who's trying to screw me out of $110, "Seven more days, all I gotta gotta do is survive." Sean Murdock


Anonymous John Carvill said...

I'm sure you're receiving plenty of supportive comments on this. Let me join the chorus. Although I can't boast quite as impressive a record of Dylan-purchasing as Sean, I reckon I've more than paid my dues. And I am rapidly beginning to think I actually won't buy this set on Monday.

I emailed Sony/Columbia, the gist of it being pretty close to what is being said here - that a lot of keen Dylan fans would take the view that they were not willing to be ripped off and therefore they would buy the 2 CD set and download the 3rd CD. And fair enough. But the danger - for Sony or whoever came up with this vile piece of misbegotten marketing - is that once you take that step, and a lot of people who normally wouldn't dream of illegally downloading rather than buying a DYlan release are going to be taking that step, then why not just download all 3 CDs? If you can't buy this release in full, without feeling cheated and sullied by teh experience, then why buy only part of it? Naturally, I received no reply to my email, not even an acknowledgment. Maybe it's because I suggested that whoever devised the great wheeze of offering a 'deluxe' package at a 'deluxe' price, which consisted of a 7 inch single and a book of Dylan single sleeve reproductions, ought to be disciplined for taking drugs at work?

Where is Jeff Rosen in all of this? He's been rightly praised for his work on the Bootleg Series, but this is a massive blunder which could well backfire.

Here endeth the rant.

11:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I won't be buying the 3 disc set, even though I want that third disc very badly. I'd feel like an idiot if I paid 100 dollars for one disc. The book to me has zero value. If someone offered me the book for free I'd have no interest in it. Not having that third disc is going to be torture for me, but I just can't pay that price. If Sony had a package in mind at a high price for an fanatic like myself who sees Dylan as the apex of human artistic endeavor, the end of the line of everything that came before, and a culmination that in a sense signals the begining of a long decline which overlaps Dylan's career, they could have given me something for my money. How about an 8 disc set with multiple takes of everything, something only a really dedicated fan would be interested in. I'd pay 150 for that happily. What Sony should really do is issue all of Dylan's albums in two formats, the albums as they are currently formated, and a version called "sessions" which would include all outtakes as well as solid alternate takes. That way we could all go out and buy the entire catalogue again, but feel good about it. Pat Ford

1:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Michael,

Homer here, as you know we talked about this before and you quoted me and my correspondents in our initial outrage. An update for you = rather worryingly although many more agreed that they wouldn’t pay Sony the dirt money for the (alas) forever sullied set, some have already caved in.

A good friend of mine (and yours) wrote a splendidly argued letter to Sony (also no acknowledgement) pointing out exactly why he couldn’t countenance buying the 3 cd set. This was a month ago. he ordered it this week. He was not alone in this volte-face. Perhaps Sony are onto a winner financially despite their moral negative equity. Hard to believe…but I’m beginning to wonder.

PS The 3rd disc'll be the best, of course! And put Dylan further into bootleg history as the fastest download ever....but still, evidence begins to show that Sony might turn a pretty penny too as insanity prevails...

PPS How desperately sad to be writing re this and not the finer points of the performances.

9:51 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Thanks to all here for the comments. To be brief and to begin at the end, your last comment, Andy, is right of course - though there has been plenty of reviewing of the set that has not included discussion of its pricing.

The key thing seems to me to be just this: it doesn't matter whether or not fans cave in and buy the 3-CD set when they've told themselves not to. Nothing changes the stark fact that the pricing of the set is contemptible.

And yes, John, good question: Where is Jeff Rosen in all of this?

9:20 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said... Homer's point, the 3rd disc is the best! (Naturally) The pricing of the 3 Disc set is indefensible. However, perhaps the two individuals he referred to will be fevershly burning the said third disc in order to share the music with friends. I'm sure many will purchase as a collective.

You are correct though - the pricing is contemptible.

9:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

part 3:

4:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Gray,

I was surprised and flattered to see that you posted my comment at all, let alone as a blog entry. I've been checking back here for TTS talk, but I obviously missed this a couple of weeks ago. I'm feeling quite sheepish about my righteous anger, though, because I'm forced by conscience to admit that I broke down rather easily and bought the deluxe set. My will held up for three entire days after the release date before I couldn't stand it anymore.

It may not even matter that I was easily able to justify the cost; I got it from Amazon for only $49.99, thanks to $50 in promotional gift certificates that I had neither asked for nor earned. I was not motivated by eagerness to hear the music; I had ripped the NPR stream and received MP3s of disc three from a friendly stranger who had read my anguished ravings on the Steve Hoffman Music Forums board. Instead, I was motivated by FEAR -- fear that the $99 price tag wouldn't last, and fear that it might never go down any further. Ironically, the only time I've ever purchased music out of FEAR was back in the days when you had to find and buy ACTUAL bootlegs, before the Internet made everything free.

Granted, I'm pleased that I paid what I consider to be a very reasonable price for the set, but I'm disappointed that I rang up a sale for Sony that might help convince them that this was a great idea. I hope that the deluxe set doesn't sell well, and I hope that Sony is forced to lower the price eventually, for the sake of those who were stronger than I. Let me be clear that if I hadn't had a way to pay less than $50 for this, I never would have bought it, but I WAS able to get it cheap, and my desire for the real, genuine CDs overrode my moral objections. That is my failing, but to be honest, I haven't thought about it much since I tore open the box.

Sean Murdock

PS -- Sorry you don't like my prose style! Keep in mind, though, that it was written as an Internet posting and not a critical essay. Any further tips or critiques would be most welcome.

8:58 pm  

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