Dylan's Chart-Topping Strategy

Starbucks, iTunes and MySpace help Dylan sell big

Bob Dylan
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Bob Dylan performs at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival April 28th, 2006 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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When Bob Dylan's latest album debuted at the top of the charts just after Labor Day, the sixty-five-year-old had Scarlett Johansson, YouTube and Martin Scorsese to thank for it. Dylan's Modern Times — which was almost universally praised by critics — was his first Number One album since 1976's Desire. But before the disc hit shelves, Dylan kicked off a multi-faceted marketing campaign built around an iTunes TV ad, a video starring Johansson, the launch of his XM radio show and even a MySpace page. "Five years ago, when Love and Theft came out, all these opportunities didn't exist," says Greg Linn, vice president of marketing for Dylan's label, Columbia. "To have people hear your music, you have to try other things."

To build buzz for Modern Times, Dylan took a page from U2's playbook and appeared in an iTunes commercial wearing a black cowboy hat and singing the laid-back rocker "Someday Baby" — and offered his entire catalog for $199, including forty-two rare tracks. Of Modern Times' 193,000 first-week sales, 10,000 were digital, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

His long-standing relationship with Starbucks paid off as well: After selling a combined 227,000 copies of his rarity CDs Live at the Gaslight 1962 and the No Direction Home soundtrack since they came out as exclusives last year, he sold 13,500 copies of Modern Times at the coffee chain in its first week.

Dylan's team hired Capote director Bennett Miller, who cast Johansson in a home-movie-style video for the lilting love song "When the Deal Goes Down." It premiered on AOL, where users watched it 100,000 times on the first day and quickly posted it on YouTube, where it racked up another 15,000 views.

Dylan had a high-profile head start for Modern Times, which made him the oldest living artist to reach Number One. Chronicles: Volume One was a best-seller; No Direction Home sold 100,000 copies of the soundtrack alone; and his XM show, Theme Time Radio Hour, which debuted in May, draws 1.7 million listeners a week. "For younger fans," says Lee Abrams, XM chief programming officer, "seeing him in the film or hearing him on the radio or reading a book about him raised awareness to check this guy out."

And in a move that appeals directly to young fans, Dylan now has a MySpace page, where "Mr. Tambourine Man" has been played more than 700,000 times. "The landscape of the musical world has changed," says a source close to the Dylan camp. "For a lot of years, Bob didn't get played on the radio. Now he's one of the most-searched people on the Internet."

This story is from the October 5th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1010: October 5, 2006
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