Talent over Hype

Martin Scorsese's recent Bob Dylan documentary offers a fascinating glimpse of an anti-marketer whose outstanding music won fans anyway

Talent over Hype

Martin Scorsese's recent Bob Dylan documentary offers a fascinating glimpse of an anti-marketer whose outstanding music won fans anyway

Top entertainers are also entrepreneurs, and the most successful ones have long employed sophisticated branding and promotional techniques to entice fans to pay big bucks for their concerts and their CDs and DVDs. Elvis Presley made soppy love-story movies, the Beatles held cutesy press conferences, and the Rolling Stones initiated seemingly endless glitzy world tours.

Given that tradition, it's truly an eye-opening experience to watch Martin Scorsese's recent documentary about the rise of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. Dylan is clearly a different sort of entertainer-entrepreneur than his contemporaries because he's almost antipromotional, and that's what makes the documentary so fascinating.

Like many baby boomers, I grew up enjoying Dylan's music but always felt confused about his persona. He would disappear for years and then reappear with a new album. I can't ever recall having seen him interviewed. His concerts seemed to pop up haphazardly, with little advance promotion.


  Scorsese's film does a wonderful job of clarifying the forces behind Dylan's emergence as a star during the 1960s. In so doing, Scorsese makes a strong case for the value of talent and innovation over branding and promotion -- shades of Apple (AAPL) vs. Microsoft (MSFT).

In the film, we see Dylan confront three career turning points -- moments when, rather than seizing an opportunity to promote himself, he makes unexpected, often unpopular choices.

The first comes during the Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests of the early and mid-1960s. Dylan became identified with those movements because of songs such as Blowin' in the Wind. But at a time when performers like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, & Mary were making names for themselves via their association with the protests, Dylan eventually disassociates himself from the movements, refusing to participate with his then-girlfriend, Baez.


  Another turning point comes during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Dylan decides to flaunt his transition from pure folk singer to folk-rock artist. That change came at a particularly sensitive time in music -- a time when the Beatles and other British groups were revolutionizing rock 'n' roll.

To the folk singers Dylan hung around with, the emerging rock stars were heretics, and their symbol was the electric guitar. So when Dylan performed at the festival with an electric guitar, many of his peers were outraged.

In the film, folk icon Peter Seeger says that if he had had an ax, he "would have cut the wires" to Dylan's guitar. After that performance, Dylan pressed on, even though he was roundly booed by many of his fans, some of whom shouted out "traitor" and "Judas" at his concerts.


  The most surprising displays of disregard for marketing and self-promotion come at several of the press conferences Dylan conducted during concert tours in the U.S. and abroad, when he appears intent on pushing his fans away. Unlike the endearing Beatles, Dylan clearly has no use for the media. At one point, a reporter presses the reluctant star to explain his meteoric rise in popularity. Dylan repeatedly hesitates, and finally snaps at the persistent reporter, "You want me to jump up and say 'Hallelujah' and smash the camera...? It happens."

At another press conference, he's asked, "Why do you sing?" He responds, "Because I feel like singing."

To the follow-up question -- "Do you have anything special to say through your singing?" -- he again refuses to play along and says, "No."


  Following a London concert, a young couple approach his limo and through an open window, politely ask for an autograph. He refuses, saying "You don't need my autograph." They try to convince him, and he continues to refuse, at which point the young man says in exasperation, "What's wrong with you, eh?"

That might be the main question many would ask of Dylan. Except for one thing. His music really is outstanding -- so it markets itself. And perhaps therein lies the business lesson -- true talent and innovation can win out in the absence of skillful branding and promotion. A refreshing lesson.