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Times Really Are A-Changing: Columbia Releasing Dylan Bootlegs

It’s no wonder that ever since Columbia Records’ marketing wizards got wind of Bob Dylan’s upcoming album, they’ve been playing around with the ad line: The Greatest Music You’ve Never Heard.

The slogan isn’t far from the mark. For more than two decades, pop fans have been avidly collecting Dylan bootleg albums. But now, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s 1961 signing, Columbia has gone to the vaults and put together its first official unreleased-Dylan career retrospective. Due out March 26, the three-CD boxed set features 58 Dylan gems and will be backed by one of the company’s most ambitious marketing campaigns in recent history.

Titled “The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991,” the collection includes: “Hard Times in New York Town,” from a 1961 Minnesota hotel tape; “Talkin’ Hava Nagilah Blues” from the “Freewheelin’ ” sessions; “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” a poem recited live at a Town Hall concert; a 1963 piano demo for “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ”; an early acoustic version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; a segment of “Like a Rolling Stone,” in 3/4 waltz time; a 1970 version of “If Not For You” with George Harrison; “Catfish,” a 1975 tribute to pitcher Catfish Hunter, and “Blind Willie McTell” from the “Infidels” era.

“For someone who’s always been a Dylan fan, it’s the dream package,” says Steve Berkowitz, Columbia’s director of marketing and development and a proud owner of Dylan’s “Great White Wonder” bootleg. “These are unreleased masterpieces.”

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What finally persuaded Dylan to make these long-lost tracks available? How much was he involved with producer Jeff Rosen in compiling the songs? Is it possible that Dylan’s (check one: bizarre, brazen or mangled) “Masters of War” performance on the Grammys could be included as a bonus track?

Don’t expect any answers from notoriously protective Dylan insiders. Rosen refused to discuss the project at all. Dylan media handler Elliot Mintz notes: “Bob hasn’t told any of us what his reasons are.” Even Berkowitz appeared nervous about speculating on Dylan’s role in the project.

“The Dylan camp works very independently from us--things just get delivered to us,” says Berkowitz. “I believe that Jeff had been working on the project for several years, but Dylan has complete control. Columbia doesn’t decide what goes on his records. Bob Dylan decides.”

What Columbia does decide is how to sell the discs. “We’re looking at who Bob Dylan’s audience is now, who was his audience and who I wish was his audience,” Berkowitz says.

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The latter audience, says Berkowitz, largely consists of people in their 40s and 50s who no longer visit record stores or read Rolling Stone, but who still remember how much they loved “Like a Rolling Stone.”

For them, “The Bootleg Series,” even at a CD list price of $45.98, is an irresistible pop jewel: “It represents the guy they remember and love--the old Bob Dylan.”

To reach them, Columbia will buy ads in mainstream publications (like the New York Times Magazine), ‘60s-survivor magazines (like the Utne Reader) and TV outlets ranging from Sunday-morning news shows to the Arts & Entertainment channel. To reach a younger audience, Columbia has assembled a music video featuring never-before-seen Dylan footage (including a clip of him riding a horse) that will debut later this month on MTV and VH-1.

Columbia is also sending a promotion-only single, “Series of Dreams,” to radio next week and preparing an electronic media kit of archival Dylan footage that will go out to local news and entertainment programs. “The marketing of these projects has become far more of a science than ever before,” says Berkowitz. “We can pinpoint a lot of key audiences. And with this project, the market for us is so wide we can go in dozens of different directions.”

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