In his memoir Testimony, Robbie Robertson recalls the first time he played a new song called “The Weight” for Bob Dylan. “This is fantastic — who wrote that?” Dylan said. When Robertson replied that he had, Dylan “shook his head, slapped me on the arm and said, ‘Damn! You wrote that song?’” Robertson wrote.
That exchange would just be the beginning of a peculiar relationship between Dylan, Robertson and one of the most enduring standards of classic rock. Yesterday, Universal Music Publishing acquired Dylan’s catalog of 600 songs, for a price rumored to be around $400 million. To the surprise of many, the deal also included Robertson’s “The Weight,” prompting much speculation: Wait, did Dylan co-write the song? Did he own it? Why is “The Weight” even there?
In fact, contrary to initial reports, Dylan didn’t just own the copyright to “The Weight” but to all the other original songs on the Band’s entire first album, Music From Big Pink, sources confirm to Rolling Stone. That means all those publishing rights from the Band’s debut are now in the hands of Universal, as part of the Dylan deal.
The story starts in Woodstock, New York, where Dylan had relocated in 1967. He was soon joined there by his backup band, the Hawks, later the Band, who began writing their own songs (as well as accompanying him on what came to be known as “The Basement Tapes”). At the time, Dylan and his manager Albert Grossman owned a publishing company, Dwarf Music, and asked the Band to sign aboard for their own songs. According to Robertson, at least two members of the Band — Rick Danko and Levon Helm — “took convincing,” feeling it “might be an unnecessary measure.” But in the end, the entire group signed with Dwarf.
As a result, every tune on the Band’s milestone 1968 debut Music from Big Pink — including four written by Robertson, “The Weight,” “Caledonia Mission,” “Chest Fever” and “To Kingdom Come” — was owned and administered by Dwarf Music. In what amounted to a typical publisher-songwriter deal, Dylan and Dwarf received half the income from the song, with the other half split five ways between the members of the Band, at least in the beginning. Starting with its second album, the Band left Dwarf and started its own publishing company.
Used regularly in soundtracks and commercials, “The Weight” has since become a classic rock touchstone, famously heard in The Big Chill and Easy Rider and covered by hundreds of artists including Aretha Franklin, Garth Brooks, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Staple Singers, and the combo of Eric Church and Chris Stapleton. The Big Pink arrangement, though, has remained in place in all the years since, providing Dylan and the Band with a steady source of revenue, depending on the usage. Although Robertson is credited as the sole writer of the song, the other members of the Band, or their estates, equally split revenue from record sales or the use of the original master recording in films, ads and TV. As far as income on the songwriting side, Robertson eventually bought out the publishing of his bandmates Danko, Manuel and Garth Hudson (at their request), so he earns the bulk of that income, with Helm’s estate still receiving a one-fifth cut.
That income varied from year to year, depending on the song’s usage. Estimates differ, but “The Weight” could easily pull in a few hundred thousand dollars in a year in which it’s used in an ad or film, although considerably less if the income is only derived from record or streaming royalties.
Last year, Robertson entered into a new agreement with Primary Wave Music Publishing, which now administers all of Robertson’s post-Big Pink songs songs, including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” all the way up through his solo albums. (Primary Wave also recently bought the rights to Stevie Nicks’ catalog for an estimated $100 million.)
The Primary Wave deal does not include “The Weight,” of course. But that hit marches on: Attesting to the lasting appeal of the song, Robertson cut a new version of it, accompanied on video by musicians from around the world — from Ringo Starr and Lukas Nelson to Japanese guitar virtuoso Char and Congo soul singer Mermens Mosengo. As Robertson told RS earlier this year, “After I wrote it and we recorded it, it did have a sense to me of a timeless quality”; sure enough, the video has since been viewed over 14 million times.
Thanks to this week’s Universal handover, industry sources wonder if the song’s placement in ads and on soundtracks will increase exponentially. Although Robertson and the Band were generally kept in the loop when such deals were made with Dwarf Music, that publisher technically did not have to receive their permission to drop the song into a movie or commercial. In 1994, Dylan approved the use of the original recording of “The Weight” in a Diet Coke ad, and while the Band signaled their approval and benefited financially thanks to the inclusion of their original performance, a spokesman for Robertson at the time said, “It’s there, and it’s not like Robbie is overjoyed.”