Digital Top Stories

The Beatles arrive on iTunes: The story

By | Published on Wednesday 17 November 2010

So, there you have it, The Beatles catalogue has finally arrived on the internet. Well, it arrived on the internet about twelve years ago, but now it’s legal. After 24 hours of wild speculation as to what Apple’s promised-on-Monday “big announcement” might be, the IT giant revealed all at 3pm yesterday, though by that point everyone was pretty damn certain that this time, once and for all, Steve Jobs would have a Beatles-related statement. Especially when the Fab Four’s catalogue popped up on the iTunes store just after lunch.  

Paul McCartney, the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison, a man from Apple (the iTunes maker that is, not Beatles organisation Apple Corps), the biggest cheese at Beatles record company EMI, and even chiefs from the BPI and Official Charts Company were all on hand to deliver statements to waiting journalists, though it was Ringo Starr who probably summed up the occasion best with his official quote: “I am particularly glad to no longer be asked when The Beatles are coming to iTunes”. 

The arrival of The Beatles on a legitimate download platform has been a very long time coming. That one download store would have to pay a premium to secure the Fab Four’s valuable catalogue at launch always seemed to be a given, and Apple was always the most obvious contender for this: its dominance in the market being attractive to the surviving Beatles, and it being known that Steve Jobs was a big fan willing to go the extra mile to secure one of pop’s most prized catalogues for his music store. 

That said, the revival of an old trademark dispute between Jobs’s firm and The Beatles’ own company over the use of the Apple name, rekindled when the IT outfit launched iTunes and stepped into the music space, hindered things for a while. So much so, for a time it was much mooted that one of iTunes’ competitors, a Microsoft or similar, might do a Beatles deal to score a win against the digital music market’s dominant player. 

But Apple v Apple was settled in 2007, though without any talk of the Fab Four coming to iTunes. Because, of course, the real reason for the delay wasn’t the Apple trademark squabble, but decade’s worth of politics between EMI and Apple Corps, who together control the Beatles catalogue. Ambiguities in EMI’s contracts with The Beatles meant the label couldn’t just license the band’s music to iTunes et al without Apple Corps’ agreement, and the Fab Four’s company used that fact to its advantage. Negotiations on the matter were slow and tedious. Whether it was EMI or Apple Corps being unreasonable depends on who you ask. 

In the end, as is often the way with these things, it took the right combination of chiefs to rise to the top to make the deal happen. It’s been widely assumed that since former Sony exec Jeff Jones took over as top man at Apple Corps, replacing the company’s long term chief, the late Neil Aspinall, that an agreement between them and EMI on digital was much more likely. However, insiders say, it took Roger Faxon to be appointed top man of EMI’s recordings division for a deal to finally be struck. According to Billboard, the Fax man had “get the Fab Four on iTunes” very high on his agenda once he had control of EMI Music earlier this year. 

And so here we are. The Beatles are on iTunes, which has exclusive rights to sell the band’s digital catalogue until an undisclosed date in 2011. All of the remastered albums, released on CD last year, are available to download as full LPs or individual tracks. If you opt for the former you get some iTunes LP multimedia gubbins thrown in too, while the £125 Beatles box set comes with other stuff as well, including a 1964 concert film. 

Cynics will question which Beatles fan exactly it is that doesn’t already have the band’s entire back catalogue ripped to their PC and iPod, not least from last year’s remastered CD releases. But it seems certain completists among the band’s fanbase, of which there are many, will want the rarity content being bundled in here, while the more tech savvy of that community will also be attracted to the multimedia widgetry. 

Though it remains to be seen just how big an impact the Fab Four will have on the charts this weekend. They are yet to break into either the top ten in the single or album chart on iTunes, though they have multiple entries lower down in both. But either way, whether or not this exclusivity deal will pay off financially for Apple Inc, it seems certain EMI and Apple Corps will both enjoy a nice cash boost. And the iTunes people probably see the whole Fab Four tie up more as a useful PR push, coming at a time when the a la carte download market looks like it may have peaked. So, everyone’s a winner.

Whether or not Tuesday 16 Oct 2010 will be a day to never forget, as Apple promised on Monday, remains to be seen. It might be. With streaming services gaining increasing momentum in both the US and Europe, this may well go down in history as the last big party for the iTunes-style digital music service, before the ‘access’ model finally supersedes the ‘ownership’ system in digital. Watch this space, I guess. 

PS: What does this mean for the other digital hold outs in planet rock? Nothing probably, but Rolling Stone have collected past comments on the digital world from six of them: AC/DC, Garth Brooks, Kid Rock (a holdout in the US only), Bob Seger, Def Leppard and Tool –