For Fab Four, a long and winding road to the iTunes Store
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
The Beatles, their surviving heirs and their misguided management finally turned in their Flat Earth Society membership cards Tuesday, allowing the sale of their music as digital downloads on Apple's iTunes Store. La-dee-freakin'-da.
I'm sorry - were you expecting congratulations here?
This absurdly overdue development happened shortly before 10 a.m. - slightly in advance of the vague prediction posted on Apple's home page Monday.
Apple now offers all 13 remastered Beatles studio albums and the three major post-breakup compilations as multimedia-enhanced "iTunes LP" downloads, plus a $149 "box set" that includes all those releases and a video of the band's 1964 concert at the Washington Coliseum. (You can watch that last item free in iTunes through the rest of the year.)
Individual songs cost $1.29 each, while single albums sell for $12.99 and double releases cost $19.99.
Apple's news release only cites that concert film as an exclusive. But the Fab Four's work doesn't show up on Amazon's MP3 store, Apple's main rival in the digital-download business. You can, however, continue to buy their CDs off the Seattle retailer's site - in some cases, for $3 to $5 less than what Apple charges.
That seems a fitting conclusion to this band's history of digital denial.
It's been almost seven years and seven months since the iTunes Store opened for business as the iTunes Music Store. The Beatles would have looked like visionaries to join Apple in this venture, and I'm sure Apple chief executive Steve Jobs would have given every black turtleneck he owns to have them. But they held back.
Three and a half years ago, Apple announced that it would stop requiring "digital rights management" restrictions on iTunes downloads - just a few months after Apple and the Beatles' Apple Corps record label had settled a long-running dispute over their similar names and logos.
The Beatles would have been hailed as pioneers for following up on that resolution by bringing their music to the Internet free of DRM shackles (even if that credit properly goes to the independent labels that never sought DRM in the first place). But they stayed aloof.
Just a year and a half ago, Apple banished DRM entirely from the iTunes Store's music inventory. But the Beatles picked that very day - as if they were flaunting their obstinance - to announce they'd be digitally remastering their catalogue for another re-release on CD.
In September of last year, the band licensed its music for inclusion in the Rock Band video game. But download sites continued to stock only the occasional cover version of their work.
On Tuesday, the Beatles finally ran out of excuses for not letting downloaders give them their money. Alas, seven years is a long time to cede the market to file sharers and CD swappers who readily provided something that they would not. Is there anybody left online who doesn't already have all the Beatles MP3s they want?
This is a point that often gets overlooked in entertainment circles: The market continues to function even if the logical and rightful supplier of a product refuses to participate. The ease of duplicating and transmitting digital data ensures that somebody else will fill that vacancy.
You can mope about the massive copyright infringement that results from this dynamic, but the best way for artists to reverse it is to get into the market themselves.
Now that the Beatles have finally ended their tiresome, we're-too-good-for-the-Internet act, perhaps that change of heart (or the money they'll make off iTunes downloads) will lead to a similar rethinking among the lesser musicians who have also boycotted the download market.
That doesn't justify any media celebrations or heartfelt baby- boomer ruminations over a band's decision to let its customers pay them. It certainly doesn't merit Apple's overclocked hype machinery, which had its home page promising visitors that Tuesday would be a day "that you'll never forget."
We probably will. And in the end, the Beatles will remain great artists. They have, however, proved themselves to be lousy capitalists.