This October, Columbia Records (part of the Sony media conglomerate) is releasing Tell-Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006, a collection of recordings by Bob Dylan that are different from recordings issued on the seven studio albums he released in that period. (To wit: Oh Mercy (1989), Under the Red Sky (1990), Good As I Been To You (1992), World Gone Wrong (1993), Time Out of Mind (1997), "Love and Theft" (2001), and Modern Times (2006).
Defining Tell-Tale Signs beyond those facts is slightly more complicated; a state of affairs that transcends this grab-bag collection of outtakes, re-versions, and random live recordings, and is a symptom of the chaos brought about by the online music revolution of the last few years.
Tell-Tale Signs is, at the very least, two completely different artifacts: a double CD with 27 tracks sold in retail and online stores for $18.99, and a triple CD with 39 tracks only sold as an “Exclusive Deluxe Edition” along with “a hardcover picture book of singles covers from around the world,” a 7” vinyl single (2 tracks already included on the CDs), and, while supplies last, a “Theme Time Radio Hour” (Dylan’s satellite radio show) poster by comics artist Jaime Hernandez. The Deluxe edition retails for $129.99.
To complicate matters, the 27-track version is also available as a quadruple 180-gram vinyl LP set, as an online download (if you pre-ordered the album through iTunes—for $17.99—they also throw in a live version of Time Out of Mind’s “Love Sick” unavailable anywhere else), and—for a week before the release date—as a free audio stream from the NPR website, where it aired after ads for Jackson Browne and urbane jazz from Verve Forecast.
Once one gets through this confusing mess of digital and hard-plastic versions, knick-knacks, and dubious photo-essays on memorabilia, what it boils down to is that those interested in buying Tell-Tale Signs have to opt between paying 20 bucks for 27 tracks or 130 bucks for 39.
Obviously Sony, Columbia, and Dylan’s management are collectively confident that there are enough completists and insane Bobheads who will shell out the extra Benjamin for those 12 tracks they can listen to while they flip through pictures of the singles from around the world and, presumably, cry over their credit situation. (Allegedly, when a journalist asked someone from Dylan’s “camp” about the ridiculously expensive 3-disc set, he was told that they were confident the music would eventually reach all fans through illegal downloads.)
As soon as this release strategy was announced, the Dylan forums on the Internet (like the one at the popular expectingrain.com) lit up with irate would-be customers and others mocking those irate would-be customers. After the free NPR stream was announced, forum user “smoke” wrote, “Do I understand this right? We can now get the 2 disc version legally and for free—and still have to pay $120 for that third disc? Figures…anyway, great marketing idea on their part.”
From the UK, another poster weighed in with, “Lately I’ve been considering do[wn]loading all three cds instead of downloading only the third, as I had originally planned. My feeling is that Sony and Bob have broken the ‘social contract’ between artist/record company and the LOYAL audience/hard core fans. Record companies need to be told, they are digging their own graves.”
This notion of a “social contract” between customers, labels and artists that has somehow been violated by the $129.99 retail price of Tell-Tale Signs is quite popular on the forums. These formerly law-abiding, CD-buying Dylanites see the 2008 collection of outtakes as the Intolerable Act that pushed them once and for all into the jolly life of the cyberoutlaw. “Best price and what Sony should expect from all of us for pricing it that high:” wrote one poster over a JPEG of a waving pirate flag. “Jelly-Faced Woman” retorted with a call for collective action and solidarity. “When it’s released,” s/he wrote, “we can all hook everybody up with the complete 3-CD set for free. We’ll private message one another to keep this website out of trouble. Bob the kleptomaniac has shamelessly stolen so much of others’ material for his music and lyrics that we have the right to steal from him.”
For some, however cheerful they were about the illegal downloading, this apostasy went too far: “I highly doubt Bob is responsible for this price tag,” protested “AWA.” “I highly doubt Bob has much to do with this release at all other than saying ‘yes’ when they asked him about it.”
The Malibu Mafia
“AWA” might have a point. Much like Elvis was sheltered from the demands of his fans and the world by an entourage known as “the Memphis Mafia,” Dylan relies on a group of close advisers, employees, and friends that filter anything that would distract him from his real interests: his family life, touring, and occasionally getting into a recording studio. We can call these trusted consiglieri the singer’s “Malibu Mafia,” after Dylan’s home away from touring since the 1970s.