Bob Dylan’s signed and handwritten lyrics for his revolutionary track ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ failed to attract a single bid at a recent auction. The hit, penned in June 1965, had a starting price of $125,000; a far cry from the $2,000,000 an unidentified buyer spent on four pieces of Dylan’s scribbled lyrics back in 2014.
‘Like A Rolling Stone’ appeared on the album ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ the same year it was written. The song faced harsh criticism from Dylan’s label for its length and electric sound. Its initial rocky start on radio stations came after they only aired the first three minutes of the six-minute song. Against all odds, it climbed the charts and soon became a worldwide success with Rolling Stones magazine going on to rank it first on their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list.
While the failed auction could be blamed on the initial listing price, it’s not at all uncommon for musicians’ memorabilia to be auctioned at astronomically high prices. George Michael famously bought the piano on which John Lennon had composed ‘Imagine’. The instrument that still bears Lennon’s cigarette burns was bought for a staggering £1,670,000 at an auction in 2000. Michael donated the piano back to the museum where it had previously been held as he firmly believed it was “not the type of thing that should be in storage somewhere or be protected, it should be seen by people”.
Private buyers who “protect” still dominate this exclusive market in music memorabilia. It’s been reported that a lost archive spanning the entire career of the Beach Boys, containing handwritten lyrics and scores, was found in a storage facility in Florida. The archive was said to have been sold for £7,000,000, while the original manuscript of the Eagles’ hit ‘Hotel California’ was estimated to have been privately auctioned for between £1,000,000-1,400,000 in 2016. Researchers George Newman and Paul Bloom found during their study of three auctions that private buyers who pay high prices to collect objects such as music memorabilia believe they will feel closer to individuals like Bob Dylan by possessing the work of their idols’ hands.
However, this makes you ask the question: is auctioning off important pieces of music history to private buyers the right thing to do? A lot of the items sold hold a great deal of importance and significance, but they are stored away from the public’s eye for the foreseeable future. Was it the right thing to do for George Michael to donate the piano back to the museum? Or should the concept of the free market be at play, allowing wealthy individuals to possess virtually anything they’re willing to pay for? While it must certainly be a special feeling to get one’s hands on a culturally significant item such as Bob Dylan’s lyric sheet, these pieces of living music history should perhaps be preserved and made available for the entire world to see.