The Beatles on iTunes is big news not to get excited about.
Yes, Apple finally has welcomed history’s best-selling music-makers onto its digitaldownloading service after years of speculation, rumors and litigation, but who outside of the deal’s principals is super energized about the news? This isn’t for the diehards.
We bought the revamped stereo CD reissues a year ago, and the true geeks among us also ponied up for the “Mono Box.” We treasure our precious vinyl as well.
Meanwhile, a lot of “the kids” own many of the songs via “The Beatles: Rock Band.”
Does that leave a sizable number of people who will appreciate the convenience of being able to buy individual Beatles songs without full-length CDs or video games attached? Sure.
But the Beatles’ belated boarding of the digital-download bandwagon doesn’t represent the kind of progress for which the band became known during its intense, relatively short duration. It represents compromise.
The predigested statements from the two surviving Beatles were telling. “We’re really excited to bring the Beatles’ music to iTunes,” Paul McCartney was quoted as saying Tuesday. “It’s fantastic to see the songs we originally released on vinyl receive as much love in the digital world as they did the first time around.”
Vintage Paul: polite, diplomatic, not saying much.
Now to Ringo Starr: “I am particularly glad to no longer be asked when the Beatles are coming to iTunes. At last, if you want it, you can get it now.”
Translation: Happy now? Leave me alone!
What you don’t hear is the kind of gushing that accompanied last year’s reissue of the entire Beatles catalog in its first major upgrade/remastering since 1987. Then, the talk was all about the immediacy of the recordings, how you felt like you were in the studio with the band, whether the mono or stereo mixes were superior, whether the engineers had been reverent enough.
The question — and the quest — was whether we were hearing the world’s greatest group as it was meant to be heard, at last. No one will be asking that about the iTunes versions, which, with their 256 kilobits-per-second transfer rate, will pale sonically next to the CDs, even those subsequently burned onto your computer using Apple’s own Lossless encoder (with an 810 kbps transfer rate).
Snagging the Beatles was a huge victory for Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who in a statement Tuesday predictably declared, “It has been a long and winding road to get here.” (Bet you won’t hear him say, “You never give me your money.”) The Beatles and Jobs’ company were in litigation for years, mostly over whether Apple Computers (and later Apple Inc.) infringed upon the trademark of the Beatles’ label, Apple Records, and company, Apple Corps, both established in 1968. According to a 1981 settlement, Apple Computer agreed to stay out of the music business, but when Apple Corps sued the computer company again in 2003, arguing that iTunes represented just such an incursion into the music business, the Beatles’ company was unsuccessful and wound up reaching a confidential settlement with Apple Inc. in 2007.
With that legal hurdle out of the way, rumors began swirling about the Beatles’ catalog finally becoming available on iTunes, and speculation intensified with the CD reissues last fall. Monday, at long last, Jobs teased that Tuesday would be a day “you’ll never forget.”
The Beatles music appeared on the iTunes store at 10 a.m. EST, with songs priced at $1.29, single albums at $12.99 and double albums (such as the White Album) at $19.99. Amazon responded by charging even less for Beatles CDs, with “Abbey Road” and other single discs at $7.99 and the White Album at $11.99.
Blogosphere reactions to Apple’s move didn’t match Jobs’ hype, with Forrester Research analyst Mark Mulligan characterizing the hoo-ha as “further depressing evidence of the old geezer skew of digital music buyers.” But Leander Kahney, editor and publisher of the Cult of Mac Web site, called Apple’s acquisition “symbolically important.”
“It is a big validation for Jobs and his vision of iTunes as the model for digital music distribution,” Kahney said.
The Beatles certainly had been the highest-profile iTunes holdout, with AC/DC, Garth Brooks, Kid Rock, Bob Seger, Def Leppard and Tool still declining to distribute their music via the Apple service.
But Jobs’ triumph has come at the expense of something the Beatles stood for: the album.
Albums primarily had been seen as the obligatory wrapping for singles and filler before the Beatles established the album as popular music’s highest form of expression. Beatles albums demanded to be enjoyed from beginning to end, all while you admired the cover art and packaging.
iTunes and digital downloading have thrown us back into the singles era, as listeners cherry-pick the songs they like, load them onto their computers and iPods and ignore the rest. CD sales have plummeted, and Apple’s new MacBook Air laptop doesn’t even include a slot for discs. No one likely has done more to kill the CD than Jobs.
So the Beatles’ iTunes arrival may be happy news for musical tourists who care more about convenience than sound quality, who prefer their own mixes to an album’s sequence and who don’t miss cover art or the sheer tactile pleasure of holding an album (a record!).
But when an advance primarily caters to the dispassionate, it’s tough to work up much more of a reaction than: Life goes on, bra.