I’ve never been a Bob Dylan fan, and the Nobel Prize winner’s sale of his archive to Universal Music changed nothing about that. In fact, sing as he might about how The Times They are a-Changing, Dylan’s deal, worth an estimated $300 million to him, changed nothing about anything.
But it could have been different.
Dylan, pre-sale, had assets worth an estimated $200 million. Post-sale, he’ll have half-a billion. If he lives to 100, he’ll have to spend $25 million a year for the rest of his life to spend it down. More, if he invests.
Come the holidays, Dylan may write some checks to charity. That’s nice. People who have money and give some away can help those in immediate need. But they’re not changing the times.
The times, and the tax code, mean that those with capital assets are taxed more leniently than those who live off wages. Dylan will pay a maximum of 20 percent on the gains from the sale of his music. The wage-earner doing well will max out at 37%. The tax code rewards charitable donations, but every deduction claimed shrinks what’s available to pay for public services like schools and hospitals and libraries—all things that just might help those without wealth get a leg up.
Charity doesn’t change the times. Redistributing assets does. As Marjorie Kelly of the Democracy Collaborative says, “Every economy is defined by who owns and controls assets.”
What else could Dylan have done? Since 1966, the commercial rights to the song “We Shall Overcome” have been held by a fund at the Highlander movement training school in Tennessee. Highlander has played a role in every times-changing movement from Rosa Parks to Stacy Abrams.
Anyone can sing the song, but the song’s commercial use is overseen by a community board, and whatever you think about private copyrights, the royalties have funded decades of grants to Black artists/activists selected democratically.
“It’s not complicated to replicate what we’ve done,” says Ashlee Woodard Henderson of Highlander.
But it is game-changing. Donated to a movement organization, Dylan’s publishing rights could have fueled change-makers in perpetuity. Now, how about even one song?
I nominate The Times They Are a-Changing. What assets are you shifting this season?