The Beatles on iTunes: Tomorrow never knows

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So if my esteemed coworker Philip Michaels is correct, next week we’ll see the release of The Beatles’ catalog on iTunes. This news has literally been years in the making, and the excitement surrounding this potential announcement seems to be huge. Crowds are (virtually) forming outside the iTunes Store already… well, OK, maybe not. But you’d have to be sleep-surfing not to have seen some mention of “Beatles,” “iPod,” and “iTunes Store” over the last couple of days on hundreds of sites, including ours.

And here I sit, a child of the Beatles era—literally a child, as my first exposure to The Beatles came from hearing it played on my parents’ record player. (Anyone else remember those?) While there are clearly bigger Beatles fans in the world, I do enjoy their music, and presently have something over 30 of their songs in my iTunes collection. (I’m what you might consider a fair-weather fan, as I tend to prefer their more popular songs to the remainder of their catalog.) The Beatles created some amazing songs, and definitely helped change the future of music—with over a billion “units” sold worldwide, they have definitely left their mark. So with that background, you think I’d be thrilled to hear they’re on their way to iTunes.

The truth is, my reaction to the rumors has been more along the lines of “Umm, why does everyone seem to care so much?” The Beatles last released a new album, Let It Be, in 1970—37 years ago. Two of the founding members have passed on; there is no chance of any official new Beatles music. In an eight-year career, The Beatles recorded a total of 12 studio albums, comprising 183 songs (based on the original UK releases). If each song ran four minutes (generous by that era’s standards), we’re talking about a grand total of just over 12 hours of music. Very good music, yes. But not a lot of it, and it’s all quite old (“timeless,” right?).

If The Beatles’ music had been out of print, unavailable, or otherwise difficult to obtain in recent years, then I could understand the incredible interest in their release on iTunes. But that’s not the case at all—their entire collection was pressed to CD in 1987, and since then, there have been numerous special releases (such as The Beatles 1, a collection of their 27 No. 1 hits, and various box sets over the years). Between the continuing sales of the original recordings, and the generous licensing of the Lennon/McCartney catalog by joint owners Sony and Michael Jackson, Beatles music is probably more readily available now than it was when the band was together. So a shortage of sources isn’t the cause for the interest in the Beatles on iTunes. So what could it be?

I can really only think of two things… well, one thing that I actually thought of, and another that Macworld contributor Kirk McElhearn reminded me about. Kirk’s point is that The Beatles are really the biggest of the big in terms of the missing iTunes bands—having their content available would really drive home the point that digital music purchasing really is the way to sell your songs in today’s market. Over the last few years, the other missing big names have all come to iTunes, at least to some extent: Eagles, Rolling Stones, and Metallica, for instance, were all initial holdouts that can now be found in the store. If the Beatles are added to iTunes, I can only think of two relatively well known band names that would be missing: Led Zeppelin (who will be in the store with one album only, a new greatest hits collection, on November 12) and Radiohead. In that sense, yes, the addition of The Beatles is somewhat important. But really, the store has sold more than 3 billion songs from a catalog that’s in excess of five million songs: I think the iTunes Store has well established that digital sales are the wave of the future, with or without The Beatles.

The other thing that might be driving the interest in seeing the Beatles in iTunes is that their music would (most likely) be newly remastered for use on the store. As I understand it, their catalog was last remastered in 1987, in preparation for the initial CD releases. (Some individual tracks may have been remastered more recently for use on more recent collections; I’m not sure.) In the intervening 20 years, the technology of remastering has been greatly improved, and it’s quite possible that newly-restored Beatles songs would sound very much better than what we’re presently listening to. If you combine the remastered music with iTunes’ new DRM-free iTunes Plus, then that may be a product worth purchasing. However, as my collection was ripped from CDs, I’d probably choose to buy one track and compare its sound to my originals before I decided to upgrade my entire collection.

So how about it? Why is there so much interest in and excitement over the possibility of The Beatles’ music being available on the iTunes Store? And if the current round of Beatles-to-iTunes rumors turn out to be false… well, just think of this as getting a head start for the next time the rumor comes around!

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