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Has Bob Dylan got a bit too close to the Bone?

27 May 2022

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

‘Don’t criticise what you can’t understand,’ sang Bob Dylan in 1964 – though at that time he probably hadn’t heard the phrase ‘exclusive in-person listening experiences’. That is how Christie’s is hyping its upcoming sale of a new recording of Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ – the first the veteran strummer has made of the song since he first recorded it 60 years ago.

Yes, gather round, Dylan acolytes, wherever you roam – as long as it’s in shooting distance of Los Angeles, New York or London, on a few set dates in June and July, and you manage to snap up one of the slots – for a ‘listening experience’ that is, apparently, like none before it. For sale is the launchpad for a new kind of analogue disc: an ‘Ionic Original’, brainchild of T Bone Burnett and his company NeoFidelity Inc.

Formerly the guitarist in Dylan’s band, Burnett, who has produced albums for everyone from Roy Orbison to Counting Crows, as well as the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, has been hitting back against the compression of recorded sound in the digital era for some time. He’s described the Ionic Original as the ‘pinnacle of sound’ – though Rakewell can’t help think that, made by painting a layer of lacquer on to aluminium and etching a groove into it, it sounds quite a lot like a cross between a CD and an LP. ‘It can be heard by putting a stylus into the spiral and spinning it,’ Burnett helpfully points out. Still, if this is a case of reinventing the wheel, it has at least spawned a positively numinous photograph of Burnett, wearing dark glasses as though to shield his eyes from the shining glory of his creation.

Crucially, each Ionic Original will exist in an edition of one. Burnett, who will oversee distribution, describes this as ‘reset[ing] the valuation of recorded music’, but Rakewell can’t help feeling there are questions to be asked. Isn’t this more like a kind of musical NFT, restricting supply to artificially drive up the price of a single recording (Christie’s estimate is £600,000–£1m)? Will the rest of us ever get to hear Dylan’s new recording? And how does the idea of an ‘exclusive listening experience’ square with the collective ethos of folk music? The answer, my friend…

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