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For the Record: Could the New Bob Dylan Recording Sell for More Than $1 Million?

T Bone Burnett produced a version of "Blowin' in the Wind" that will be auctioned off this week. Can his new company make the music biz more like the art world?

Three weeks ago, in a studio in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, I listened to a Bob Dylan record that could sell for more than a million dollars on Thursday. It’s not a collectible copy of an old release, but rather a new recording of “Blowin’ In the Wind” produced by T Bone Burnett. In fact, says Burnett, sitting in the studio as the record plays, it’s not really a copy at all. It’s a unique “Ionic Original” disc made by his new company, Neofidelity – a one-of-a-kind record that uses a process Burnett patented to deliver higher quality audio than normal vinyl.

And at least for the immediate future, hardly anyone will get to hear it.

That’s a shame. Dylan sings the song like he’s lived with it – maybe even in it – for 60 years, which of course he has. Backed by a small band that includes Burnett on guitar, Dylan delivers what was once a bold challenge from an angry young man with the hard-won wisdom of an artist who’s done a lot of living. It could be the definitive late-career take on the song that made his reputation. “From my point of view,” Burnett says after it plays, “we were doing this for history.”

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Initially, that history will be in private hands. On July 7, Christie’s will auction the recording, which it estimates will sell for between £600,000 and £1 million (or about $725,000 to $1.21 million). The disc is being sold as a physical object, so whoever buys it won’t have the rights to distribute it.

“I feel that heartbreak as a player and a producer,” Burnett says. “But I want to develop music as a fine art.”

It’s a fascinating notion – one that implicitly challenges the value we place on recordings. Music has always been a business of copies – licensing them, selling them, and now streaming them. And in the digital age, once making perfect copies became both easier to do and harder to regulate, music has become cheaper – and, Burnett believes, devalued. Neofidelity is intended to provide an alternative, at least for creators who think of their music as art.

“I was responding to the idea that music should be free,” Burnett says. “Dylan sells paintings for a million,” he points out. Why should his recordings be worth any less?

Presentation matters, of course. At a time when music is ubiquitous and low-fidelity, Burnett wants to sell records that are scarce, with the best possible audio. He spent years looking for a medium that was better than standard vinyl until he settled on a process he patented that involves a disc much like the acetates used in record production, treated with “ionic deposition” to make them more durable. The idea is to offer analog sound with the quiet and durability associated with digital.

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Right now, the process is expensive. But that makes it easier for Neofidelity to sell the discs as art. “What’s the definitive version of a song worth?” Burnett asks. Finding out means turning the music industry’s usual economics upside-down. Both Dylan’s first recording of “Blowin’ In the Wind” and the song itself are worth so much because they’re so widespread. But this disc is valuable because the music on it won’t be widely available — Universal Music Group and Sony Music have the rights to the composition and the recording, respectively, so it can only be distributed with their permission. (In the long run, “I expect this to end up somewhere where the public will have access to it,{” Burnett says, but a museum seems more likely than an online service.)

For Burnett, creating a new way to value recorded music is part of the point. “We’ve all been conditioned to accept the terms of, and react to things from the frame of, mass production – this is not that,” he says. “I want to break free of the parameters of musicians since the age of mechanical reproduction, where the government and broadcasters and tech companies tell us what music is worth.”

Burnett likes to reference “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a 1935 essay by “Frankfurt School” cultural critic Walter Benjamin that makes the case that copying devalues the “aura” of an original piece of art. (By this logic, digital reproduction would arguably devalue art even more: If a vinyl record could be seen as a degraded representation of a studio recording, what does that imply about a stream that has no physicality at all?) The idea of an Ionic Original disc is that it’s just that, Burnett says — “a unique, handmade, original recording.”

There will be other originals — Burnett recorded a few more songs with Dylan, and he hopes to work with other musicians, too. “Many artists could put together an edition of 100,” he says. Eventually, he could even use the ionic deposition process to produce high-quality limited-edition copies of iconic albums.

For now, though, Burnett is focused on new recordings. It’s a shame that more people won’t hear them. But they ought to listen to what Burnett has to say.

For the Record is a weekly column from deputy editorial director Robert Levine analyzing news and trends in the music industry. Find more here.