How Columbia Records Discovered Bob Dylan

There’s much controversy as to what inspired John Hammond—Columbia Records’ all-time greatest A&R man—into signing Bob Dylan to the label. Some say it was Robert Shelton’s legendary review in the New York Times. Others claim Hammond already had Dylan in his sights when the review was published. Either way, on September 30, 1961, a 20-year-old Dylan found himself sitting signing on a dotted line that would over time make Columbia Records his home record label for what now amounts to five decades.

The Review That Changed It All

On September 26, 1961, as Dylan performed the opening set for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerde’s Folk City, Greenwich Village’s premier music venue, Robert Shelton of the New York Times was out in the audience, taking notes. Three days later in the Friday edition of the paper, his review of the show hit the racks. But rather than write up the main act, Shelton headlined his story, “Bob Dylan: A Distinctive Stylist.” Aside from the headline and the bulk of verbiage, Dylan even got the photograph, which pictured him in his black corduroy Huck Finn cap.

“A bright new face in folk music is appearing at Gerde’s Folk City,” wrote Shelton. “Although only 20 years old, Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play in a Manhattan cabaret in months… his music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth. Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.”

Enter John Hammond

Dylan didn’t escape Columbia Records’ John Hammond, a titan among American talent scouts. Although Hammond’s son, acoustic blues guitarist John Hammond Jr., had earlier mentioned Dylan to his dad, the singer and his godsend industry mentor didn’t meet until mid-September, a couple of weeks before the New York Times review even ran. The occasion was a rehearsal for folksinger Carolyn Hester’s upcoming recording session. At the time, Dylan was more well-known for his harp playing, and he was invited back in August to handle harp duties for her upcoming album.

At the rehearsal, as the musicians ran through her songs at Ned O’Gorman’s West 10th Street apartment, Hammond was in attendance and duly impressed by the young harp virtuoso. As Hammond recalled, “I liked what I heard of him there so much I asked him to come up to the studio. I didn’t know that he did much singing, but I knew that he wrote. So I asked him to come up and I heard some of the things that he did, and I signed him on the spot.”

Dylan’s First Record Contract

Despite the fact that Dylan met with Hammond the day after the Shelton review ran, as Hammond tells it, the article had nothing to do with convincing him one way or another of Dylan’s potential. He’d already decided to sign him well beforehand. Dylan’s copy, which was sent to him on October 26, was a standard contract giving Columbia five yearly options for which Dylan would receive a lousy two-percent royalty on any products released at the sole whimsy of the company, with no guarantees that anything would come of it.

“He put a contract in front of me, the standard one,” Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles Volume One, “and I signed it right then and there, didn’t get absorbed into details—didn’t need a lawyer, advisor or anybody looking over my shoulder. I would have gladly signed whatever form he out in front of me. He looked at the calendar, picked out a date for me, told me what time to come in and think about what I wanted to play.”

Hammond’s Folly

Dylan’s debut album was recorded in two three-hour sessions on November 20 and 22, 1961 with Hammond himself sitting at the producer’s helm, at a reported cost of just $402. Cutting 17 tracks and using 13, the album consisted of mostly cover songs, except for two originals, “Talking New York”, and “Song for Woody”. When it was released the following March, sales of Bob Dylan were astronomically low, moving under 5,000 copies in the first year, and prompting Hammond’s colleagues at Columbia to dub Dylan “Hammond’s Folly.”

The tag would not last long. Hammond’s nose, as time would soon prove, was right on the mark. Over the course of 1962, the writer in Dylan would blossom, making him one of the most original songwriting talents in the nation. In April 1962, “Blowin’ In the Wind” would get its live debut at Gerde’s Folk City, when Gil Turner performed it to a mesmerized audience. The song, which Dylan would record on July 9, 1962 for his next album, would score him his first #1 hit when Peter, Paul, and Mary released it in the summer of 1963. And the rest, as they say, is history.

As for Columbia Records, despite a short break in 1973-74 when he switched briefly to Asylum, Dylan has remained one of the label’s biggest cash cows, right up there with Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and other lucrative acts in the Columbia’s mass stable of talent.

Should Music Be Free?

My music promotion class discussed this question a week or so ago: is recorded music really just a free promo tool to that should be used to promote live shows? Their answer: unanimously, unreservedly – yes. That is certainly becoming the norm in this day in the music industry, but is that a good thing? When – and how – did recorded music become so invaluable to music fans? Well, let me tell you about another class discussion. The question this time was, “what are you looking for in the artists your PR company will work with?” The answers, in order:

  1. Swagger
  2. Fanbase (social media)
  3. Talent

As soon as they put talent third on the list, they were like, “wooooooooooow.” Here here. From there, a debate (ok, it was really more like another discussion) ensued about whether a diminishing requirement for talent has devalued recorded music and made it more dispensable for fans – younger fans in particular. Now, there is surely fantastic music being made today, but generally, are our standards too low  – or too far off-base – to let the good stuff get through? In other words, where is today’s Aretha Franklin? She probably can’t get anyone to listen.

In any case, I’d like YOU to weigh in on the discussion and share your thoughts about the value of music and making a living in today’s music industry. Should recorded music be free? Why or why not? Are we really looking for swagger instead of talent?

Impressing at Music Business Internships

Music business internships can be a great foot in the door if you have your sights set on a music industry career, but you’ve got to stand out from the crowd if you really want your internship to lead to a job. I know, like you weren’t stressed out enough, right? Well, here’s the good news – although music industry internships come in all shapes and sizes, there are definite ways to make sure your work gets noticed during your unpaid labor tenure that will translate into stellar recommendations – and maybe even paying jobs – for you down the line. Before you show up for your fun, exciting, coffee making, envelope stuffing first day of your music business work experience, commit these six tips for impressing to memory.

1. Speak Up

If you don’t know something, by all means, speak up and ask. Asking questions doesn’t make you look uncool, slow, dim witted or unhip. Rather, it makes you seem enthusiastic, engaged and eager to learn. Speak up. Ask about everything from business matters (“how far in advance of release do you usually start promotion campaigns?”) to the mundane (“how does this coffee maker work again?”).

Asking questions gets you a few things – face time with employees of the company hosting your music business internship, a good reputation for being someone eager to learn the ropes and real knowledge you will be able to apply in future music biz jobs.

Speaking up goes for mistakes, too. Flubbed something? Let someone know so they can correct it and you can learn.

2. Humble Thyself

Even if you have an encylopedic knowledge of music and all of your friends agree you’re simply the hippest cat in town, don’t go waltzing into some music business like you’re too cool for your internship. Yes, internships involve a lot of the less glamorous parts of music careers – the envelope stuffing, the mailing list merging, the inventorying, the running for lunch – and you should do it with zeal no matter how much you think you know about music. Here’s a music industry newsflash – most days of work in the industry are decidedly not glamorous. They involve work just like any other job. Be willing to do the mundane stuff, not only because it helps you learn the basics, but also because it shows everyone that you’re not one of those “wants to say (s)he works in music/doesn’t actually want to do any work” types. Most (all?) music companies would prefer to have someone willing to get the promo mailer out than someone who wants to sit around talking obscure music references while the work piles up any day of the week. Being humble helps.

3. Participate

Sometimes, at an internship, your job is to be quiet, listen and learn. Other times, you may get a chance to offer an opinion, make a suggestion or otherwise put your stamp on a project. When you get those opportunities, embrace them. If people are bouncing ideas around and someone asks if you have any thoughts, don’t let that stroke of genius brewing in your own mind go to waste. Take a deep breath and throw it out there.

Even if your idea gets shot down, it will show that you’re engaged, paying attention and able to apply what you’re learning. It also provides another learning opportunity for you. If your idea doesn’t work, hopefully someone will explain to you where it would fall apart – something you can apply to future work. And if your idea does work, well, that will definitely get you noticed.

4. Respect the Free

Perks like promos, guest list and merch are beautiful benefits for any music lover, but treat the free stuff with a little respect. Don’t take stuff you don’t really want, don’t take stuff for your friends, and don’t ask to get yourself and everyone you know into every show for free. Someone pays for all that – usually the company you’re working for and/or the musicians. There’s nothing at all wrong with enjoying these fringe benefits of music industry work. Even people with paid jobs do. Just don’t adopt an, “I’m doing all this work for free, so I’m taking everything I can carry out” attitude. 

5. Zip It

During your music industry internship, you may find yourself privy to information that your friends, family and the internet would love to know. Don’t share it. “Nuff said.

6. Be On Time

It might sound like a no-brainer (I really hope it does), but be on time for your shift. While we’re at it: be on time, dress appropriately for that particular company’s environment, don’t make personal calls, turn off your cell phone, adhere to any rules regarding breaks and work hard. Some music environments are very casual while others have a more formal, corporate air. However, respect dictates that even in a more laid back workplace you show up on time and dedicate yourself to working while you’re there. Remember, you’ve got a music business internship – do you know how many people want to be you? Make everyone glad you got the job. 

Five Ways to Get Music Experience in College

Do you need a degree to work in the music industry? It’s a question that aspiring music business types turn over time and again, and the truth is: college is great – and experience counts. So, what if you don’t have to choose between hitting the books and learning the ropes? Good music industry degree programs help their students get hands on experience, but if you’re knee deep in another major or your school doesn’t offer such a program, that doesn’t mean you have to miss out. In fact, no matter what you’re studying, college provides tons of chances to create your own music industry opportunities and get your hands dirty. If you’re looking for ways to learn the music biz ropes while you’re still in school, consider the following options.

1. College Radio

Get ye down to your college radio station – stat. College radio is an excellent place to learn all sort of things about the music industry, from how promotion works to what makes a good PR campaign to the ins and outs of labels, release dates, live shows and more – and that’s before you even get to learning how the actual radio station operates! Working at college radio, on air or behind the scenes, will also allow you to immerse yourself in music and learn about genres and artists you might not have otherwise been exposed to. That is worth its weight in gold in and of itself. Did I mention you’ll also make contacts who can help you get music industry jobs? Go to your college radio station. Find out how to get a show. Find out how to intern. Stuff envelopes. Hang up posters. Organize promos. Heck, make the coffee. Get a foot in the door and keep it there.

2. Student Union

You know what a lot of colleges have at their student unions? Musicians playing. And where there are shows, there are opportunities. Those shows have to be booked. Those shows have to be promoted. Someone has to run the sound and lights. Someone has to run the door. Be one of those someones. Whether you’re an aspiring promoter, venue manager or sound engineer, there is plenty of experience to be had at the student union. Plus, like college radio, this is a chance to make contacts. If you’re the person who answers the phone every time a certain agent calls about booking their acts or the person who calls the local paper to secure some promo – and you do a good job at these things – then those phone calls you field could turn into connections for future work.

3. BYOB (Be Your Own Boss)

You are on a college campus. You are surrounded by musicians. What these musicians frequently lack is someone to organize stuff for them. You know, call the local club and book them a show. Design and print flyers for the show or new release. Keep an ear to the ground about opportunities. Yes, we’re talking about informal management here, and even a little promotion. The cool thing here is that everyone wins. You’re not being paid, so big deal if you flub your first call to the venue about booking the gig. You’ll learn from your mistake, and the band gets the benefit of having someone organized on the front lines for them. Again, you’ll make contacts doing this work, plus, you’ll notice a funny thing happens. Once you, say, book one successful gig, you’ll wake up the next morning as the most popular kid on campus. Every musician will want your help, which means more experience and contacts for you, plus eventually, the potential to actually make some cash.

4. Internships

Just about every college has a department that helps students land internships, and with any luck, your school’s internship team can help you investigate and apply for music related internships at labels, music publications, radio stations, television stations, agencies, management companies, promotion companies – you name it. Don’t wait until May to try to locate a summer internship – start asking your advisor about opportunities at the start of the year so you don’t miss any important deadlines. If your advisor can’t help, ask them who can. Check with your campus career center. Ask a professor. Don’t assume your school can’t hook you up with music internship opportunities just because you’ve not aware of any specific programs. Someone on your campus can help. Knock on doors until you find them – that in and of itself is good music industry experience. 

If there simply isn’t any appropriate internship program on campus, branch out on your own. Most major labels and many other music related business advertise formal internship programs on their websites – research them and apply. Alternatively, create your own internship. Is there an indie label, venue, studio or other music related business near your college? Maybe they are so small they haven’t considered interns – but maybe if you ask for some experience, they’d be happy to let you swing by and get some. Work hard, make a good impression, and it could lead to good things for you. 

5. Work in a Record Store

“Record store,” you say, “what is a record store?” Yes, granted, many record shops have locked their doors in the face of hard times in the music biz, but college campuses have a way of keeping their community record stores active. Don’t think that working in a record store means just scanning bar codes every day. You can learn tons about the music industry from behind a record store counter. You learn about distributors, release dates, PR campaigns, in-store performances, pricing – and of course, lots and lots of music. Any record store is good experience, but if you can land a job at a mom-and-pop shop, all the better for you. Smaller, independent shops tend to give their staff more responsibility than chain stores that tend to have more developed hierarchy structures. In other words, your local indie shop may need you to place an order with a distributor, call a band manager to confirm an in-store and price some used vinyl all in a day’s work, while a larger store may leave those jobs to people a little higher up the chain. However, any experience you can get – grab it.