In 1963, the Beatles made a simple promise: “It won’t be long till I belong to you.” Well, here it is, November of 2010, and they’re finally delivering.
Their music had been available for years, of course, on vinyl and compact discs, to the habitués of dusty record shops and retail chains. But the iTunes generation, comprised of those kids you bump into on the subway or the sidewalk, the ones who bounce their heads gently to a beat so as not to dislodge their earbuds, had been denied. If they wanted to hear “Dear Prudence” or “Lovely Rita,” they’d have to do so the old-fashioned way: file sharing.
But with Tuesday’s official announcement by Apple (the folks behind the counter at the iTunes store), EMI Group Ltd. and Apple Corps (the band’s company) that a deal had been struck, the catalog of the Fab Four is now available to be dispensed digitally to eager young ears. That interminably long and inexplicably winding road has come to an end.
“Not only is this news historical and long overdue,” said Peter Baron, a longtime executive in the music business who worked on the label side as well as MTV, “but its long-term effect on the next generation of Beatles’ fans is most important. Finally, a digital destination to discover and consume the biggest group of all time.”
One might ask, “What’s the fuss?” After all, today’s teenagers have heard of the Beatles, have listened to Beatles music and even have Beatles music on their iPods. Somebody buys “Revolver” on disc and passes it around. Or a kid takes “Abbey Road” out of his or her parents’ ancient metal CD rack and loads it into the computer. It’s not as if the Beatles police have created a totalitarian music state in which the melodic wonders of “Sgt. Pepper” were denied to the oppressed masses under 20.
Yet marketing is all about drawing consumers closer to the product. And the easier it is to obtain, the more likely it will fly off shelves.
“It’s obviously great for everyone,” noted Andy Babiuk, bass player for the Chesterfield Kings and author of “Beatles Gear,” the go-to guide for how the moptops created their studio magic. “But I think it’s actually a good move for hitting teenagers like 16 years and younger. That age group grew up with iPods, and they don’t go to stores to buy CDs.
“I see it myself, as I have four children in that age group. When the Beatles’ ‘Rock Band’ came out, it turned a lot of kids onto the Beatles, but they couldn’t go online and buy the music for their iPods. It’s weird because kids that age don’t want to carry around a CD, and vinyl is alien or some odd novelty in their eyes. So the Beatles on iTunes is a good move for turning on the next generation to the Beatles’ music.”
Will other holdouts follow suit?
Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, and it’s unclear whether other online services will carry the Beatles’ catalog. But iTunes controls approximately 90 percent of the online music terrain, so it’s safe to assume that Apple’s Steve Jobs is comfortable quoting a song by Badfinger (written by Paul McCartney), another band on the Beatles’ Apple record label: “If you want it, here it is, come and get it.”
And perhaps the Beatles’ iTunes breakthrough will grease the skids for other holdouts such as AC/DC, Bob Seger and Kid Rock.
But for right now, the most satisfying new music experience for Download Nation is the vast Beatles library, with all its enchanting cubbyholes and serpentine aisles. Young people won’t have the same Beatles’ experience their parents and grandparents had — fainting at airport arrivals, gathered around the television for Ed Sullivan, burning records after John’s “Jesus” comment — but the music will be the same.
Then again …
“The recent remastering projects, which have resulted in the massively successful reissuing of the stereo and — for true Beatles aficionados — the mono sets, as well as Apple artists such as Jackie Lomax, Badfinger and Mary Hopkin, have focused on high-quality sonic products,” said Gordon Thompson of Skidmore College in upstate New York, who is a music professor and author of the book “Please Please Me,” a look at the British pop-music industry in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
“These CDs, despite the lingering complaints of vinyl castaways, exquisitely provide a better sound than we had in the original releases. However, compressed files — no matter the claims of the marketing folks — remove sound,” said Thompson, who is also a walking encyclopedia of all things moptopian. “Most modern listeners fail to notice that the material in the middle of the spectrum gets squashed, while the highs and lows psychologically make us think we’re hearing something wonderful. The irony of 20th century audition lies in how we have stepped backward in our listening habits.”
Music producer Will Schillinger, the chief engineer at Pilot Recording Studios in Massachusetts, has recorded more than 40 bands at Abbey Road Studios, where most of the Beatles’ music was laid down. He owns more than 1,000 Beatles records, 400 Beatles books and hundreds of Beatles-related publications. So having the Beatles on iTunes may not change his life.
However, he is pining for better quality sound. “One of my big concerns and hopes for the future,” Schillinger said, “is for the Apple Computer (Corp.) to begin to offer these and other music files in high definition formats. As it is, CD quality AIFF or WAV files are presently unavailable through iTunes.
“Of course the technology exists to yield an even greater resolution of 96k/24bit or even better yet SACD (Super Audio CD) a format developed by Sony and Philips Electronics,” Schillinger pointed out. “A stereo SACD recording can stream data at an uncompressed rate of 5.6 Mbps using a process known as Direct Stream Digital, four times the rate of a Red Book conventional CD. We have the capability for vast amounts of storage. Why sell us a much-degraded form from the original vinyl we grew up loving so much? Perhaps the future will yield yet another Beatle box set HD release. Here’s to hoping.”
First things first. Let the downloading begin, although not everyone is jumping up and down in celebration like four lads from Liverpool in “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Lamented Andrew Loog Oldham, a longtime figure in the music business who once managed the Rolling Stones: “The Beatles on iTunes. Now the world is no longer round. It’s average.”
But for the masses — especially the teenage masses — the world just got a little bigger and a little better.
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com.