Skip to main content

For the Record: How the Dylan Center Reinvents the Idea of a Music Museum

When some artists leave the road, their stuff keeps touring — or it goes someplace where fans pay to see it. The Bob Dylan Center suggests a smarter model.

For the Record is the new Billboard column from deputy editorial director Robert Levine analyzing news and trends in the music industry.

Like so much else, the idea of pop music tourism, at least on a mass scale, starts with Elvis Presley. A few years after Presley’s 1977 death, Graceland was becoming a financial burden on his estate, and Priscilla Presley had the idea of opening it up as a tourist attraction. She didn’t know what to expect, but tickets sold out on the first day. Graceland now attracts 500,000 visitors annually, and over the years the Presley estate has bought a nearby shopping center and added a resort, two restaurants, a museum and a separate space devoted to the King’s car collection.

Financially, Graceland is the envy of every legacy act or estate: Instead of a musician traveling to fans, fans come to see a musician’s stuff. (The King’s estate essentially turned his outlandish expenses into revenue-generating assets, which is accounting alchemy even by music business standards.) Artistically, though, Graceland is more about Presley’s stuff than his music. Most museum-style exhibits are like this — a few jackets, some guitars and exit through the gift shop — which is fine for the early rock and country musicians who considered themselves entertainers. But it doesn’t ring true for the generation of ’60s stars who considered themselves artists. People don’t want to see Pablo Picasso’s beret, they want to see his paintings — ideally with context about why they’re so important.

Related

From what I saw over the course of a preview weekend, the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Okla., reinvents the idea of a music museum, just as Dylan reimagined the role of a recording artist. Sure, there’s some stuff — including the leather jacket Dylan wore went he “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But the multimedia exhibits designed by 59 Productions use drafts and letters from Dylan’s personal archive to shed some light on his creative process. (Dylan’s archive was acquired by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which also funds the Dylan Center.) If you’re at all interested in rock music or pop culture, it’s engaging. And if you’re a hardcore geek — and here I should admit that I definitely am! — it’s completely fascinating. I loved reading 10 drafts of “Jokerman,” although the song still mystifies me.

The Bob Dylan Center
A general view of atmosphere in a gallery space at The Bob Dylan Center on May 07, 2022 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Lester Cohen/GI

The Bob Dylan Center isn’t a business by any means — it’s a non-profit funded by the Kaiser Family Foundation and other donors — and its location in Tulsa means it probably won’t attract the kind of crowds that Graceland does. But it’s worth thinking about what other artists could set up such exhibits — as a business or otherwise — and what they might look like. Certainly, the demand is there: No one can tour forever, even if they want to. (Dylan is still on the road and apparently wasn’t involved in the Center.)

There are enough serious fans to sustain dozens of these attractions. And the success of “immersive experiences” like the ones devoted to Van Gogh — have convinced consumers to engage with culture as a media exhibit. (As it happens, “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” is showing at the Graceland Exhibition Center through May 30.)

Inside Elvis Presley's World: Behind the Scenes at Graceland, Sun Studio and More
A fireplace in the interior of Graceland.

At least some companies that design multimedia installations agree — to the point that managers are starting to get pitches on their services. (From what I’ve heard they’re hearing from them as service providers, not as producers or financiers.) The kind of curation that once took place in box sets will now take place in museum-style exhibits, but it will involve much of the same information — explanatory text, concert video, and unreleased recordings and alternate takes.

Other acts have already put together respectable exhibits, even if they weren’t as extensive or intellectual as Dylan’s. For a half decade starting in 2013, “David Bowie Is,” organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, toured 12 museums — to great acclaim, since it was as smart and flashy as the artist himself. It worked because Bowie fans want to marvel at the star’s morphing personas the way Dylan fans want to pore over his song drafts. (“Dylanologists” are the fan army of Talmudic analysis.) The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd also sent their stuff out on the road without them.

Who’s next? I can think of a dozen artists who would have fans lining up for exhibits like these (think Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead or even newer stars like Drake) and another dozen who deserve a serious museum (James Brown, Miles Davis). It would be a mistake for them to try to follow Dylan’s approach. (I’d stand in line to go to a Zeppelin exhibit, but I’d want a presentation on the band’s live show — not drafts of lyrics about “the darkest depths of Mordor.”) But immersive media technology has all kinds of potential to bring together the context of a museum and some of the immediacy of a concert. Imagine a Zeppelin exhibit with concert video projected around you, mixed with old concert recordings in a club environment. It’s not the same as a concert, of course, but neither were the rock-themed laser shows I saw at planetariums as a teenager — which are, apparently, still a thing.

Using new technology in new ways isn’t easy. But some acts are already doing it — ABBA’s “Voyage” show opens May 27 in London. That won’t be about stuff, either — it’s a performance that combines advanced technology with real musicians — and it looks as well-suited for ABBA as the Dylan Center is for Dylan. More will follow. It’s easy to imagine an explosion of these kinds of projects, and, at least at first, many of them will make money. And some of them, like the best live performances, will also have real impact.