So Nov. 16, 2010. Never forget. By now you’ve surely programmed the date as a yearly “event” into your iPhone, an annual reminder of the day your music collecting habits forever changed.
Look, no love lost for the Beatles. Yay Beatles. And it’s about time Beatles songs are available on iTunes.
Now, not to be Cranky Man Cynic, but the development was treated with a wee bit more fanfare than necessary. Granted, it was not met with the same media shock as was The Beatles: Rock Band (GASP! Will future generations only know of Paul McCartney as a video game character?), but the topic dominated news and Twitter feeds, and nary a headline or story went without the phrase “finally on iTunes.” Sure, finally, but Nov. 16 has come and gone without changing the world, so forgive the #kanyeshrug on behalf of this writer.
In fact, here’s five reasons not to be excited.
1) Price. At $12.99 per album, EMI, Apple and Apple Corps. are putting a download copy of a Beatles album at a higher premium than just about every other album available at iTunes. Never mind the lack of costs associated with manufacturing, distribution and retail-placement, but the digital download has long been a cheaper and more convenient alternative to the physical CD. With most albums on iTunes selling at $9.99, the Fab Four’s move into the digital realm has come complete with its own Beatles Tax. What’s more, the cost of owning the actual CDs is cheaper, at least if you buy them from iTunes’ biggest online competitor, Amazon. We absolutely believe every music fan should own, say, “Rubber Soul.” If you want to buy it online, you can snare a $12.99 download, or a $7.99 remastered CD from Amazon. Something’s backward there. The file, the one dependent upon the user routinely backing up a collection and the one without many of the costs associated with creating and distributing the CD, should be the cheaper option.
2. Apple’s major-label-like hype. Plenty has been written about Apple’s grandiose marketing statements. “Tomorrow is just another day that you’ll never forget,” Apple told us the day before the Beatles announcement. Speculation immediately trended toward the launch of a streaming service, or perhaps a move to the cloud — something, maybe, that utilized some of the beloved features of LaLa.com (RIP). Nope — just the long rumored addition of the Beatles to iTunes.
But Apple’s Beatles hype signifies more than just a marketing mishap. When the iTunes store launched in 2001 it was something of a rebel. Digital marketing strategies were still in their nascent stages, and Apple essentially laid down the law: Digital singles cost 99 cents and digital albums cost $9.99. This isn’t going to go into the financials of record labels and pros and cons of Apple’s price points, yet will simply note that iTunes once made news for innovations, and this week begged for attention for simply adding more product.
3. Many already have the Beatles in their iTunes library. If this release uncovered troves of lost or rare Beatles material, by all means, hype it. Yet it didn’t. There were no treasures here on the par, for instance, of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story.” No doubt Apple will spur many impulse buys. Considering how prevalent Beatles songs are, expect fans to regularly grab digital downloads of songs such as “Yesterday” and “Let It Be.” Great. Availability on iTunes also means that those who have long considered adding some Beatles to their library can now do so with a couple of clicks. Also great. There are new revenue streams aplenty, and the Beatles catalog is always a consistent seller. It’s also widely available, and being late to a party isn’t always an excuse to make a grand entrance.
4. The Beatles need to stop being given a free pass. Last year’s remastered Beatles CDs didn’t go far enough, and this iTunes release doesn’t either. The Beatles are quite possibly the most important rock band ever, but that’s no excuse to simply keep releasing the same songs in different formats. Yes, even legends can take advantage of their fans. It was unfair to die-hards when last year’s remastered box set kept mono and stereo mixes separate, which forced fans to spend around $300 or more to hear both takes. If the Beatles keep finding ways to repackage the same content, then the extras need to start being content that’s never before been widely available. See the Beach Boys’ boxed set “The Pet Sounds Sessions,” which provides a detailed, four-disc look behind the making of one album. It may be for music nerds only, but its uniqueness extends beyond a Beatles-branded Apple-shaped USB drive.
5. Because it doesn’t really signify anything. The Beatles have been held up as one of the last great holdouts in terms of selling digital music. The announcement of the deal with iTunes simply indicates that longstanding royalty negotiations finally came to an end. There was no moral album-only stance, or any aversion to the digital world. In fact, the Beatles camp has long talked about wanting the deal to happen. If it had happened in 2002 or 2003, then maybe it could have been held up as a dramatic shift for the music industry. Yet there’s no underlying importance to this story, as it simply marks the conclusion of a complex business relationship among three parties with separate agendas.