While they’re waiting for the group’s catalog to finally be made available for sale online, Beatles fans and scholars can amuse themselves by choosing the song that best describes the current state of limbo in the matter.
Perhaps it’s “It Won’t Be Long.” Or maybe “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Possibly “Wait,” or “When I’m Sixty-Four,” or “Anytime At All,” or even “Help!”
Certainly, “The Long and Winding Road” applies.
Here it is, early 2009, and the Beatles have yet to make their songs available on iTunes, Amazon, Zune, or any of the other major online music stores. Here are some key points along the timeline:
In 1066, the Normans invade and conquer England. The electric guitar is invented in 1931. The Beatles invade and conquer America in 1964. Led Zeppelin, one of the last holdouts, finally makes its music available online in the fall of 2007.
The Beatles continue to mull it over.
“I grew up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but the Beatles were a staple because my parents were Beatles fans,” said Eliot Van Buskirk, a staff writer for Wired.com who blogs about music. “With the formal shift to digital, there is a chance for the Beatles’ cultural message to be lost.
“The Internet is like Noah’s Ark of sorts: if you’re not here, you’re relegated to a more difficult access region of history," Van Buskirk said. “The Beatles are not in a position that they need to make money. From my point of view, it’s more about the cultural value they bring to the online store.”
The Beatles aren’t completely on an island. AC/DC is there with them. But Angus, Malcolm and the boys are still together, still recording, and still touring. They made a major distribution deal with Wal-Mart and moved more than 1.7 million units worldwide in the first week of release of their most recent CD, “Black Ice.” They have a high enough sales profile that the absence of their music online doesn’t have much of an impact.
But the Beatles? Their music likely will never land in a dustbin. But it could still get dusty.
“What’s gonna happen first: will physical retail die, or will the Beatles have their music on digital services?” asked Bob Lefsetz, a music industry insider and former entertainment attorney who writes a newsletter on music and other topics (lefsetz.com). “As Irving Azoff once said about the Eagles, they make more money in one live gig than they’ve made in the history of iTunes.”
Lefsetz also recognizes that, when it comes to the Beatles, it’s not about the money. “I think the Beatles should be on iTunes,” he said. “They should cement their place at the top of the food chain.”
Impossible to say what's at issue
What's holding up the works?
It’s impossible to say, since no one involved will make a definitive statement on the topic. The Beatles’ business entity, Apple Corps, has to agree to anything done by EMI, which owns the group’s recordings. And the two sides have yet to cut a deal. In the interim, every once in a while there is a rumor that the Beatles’ catalog is finally set to arrive online, sometimes with special extras, such as a “Yellow Submarine” iPod. Neither EMI, Apple Corps or iTunes would comment.
Sony/ATV holds the music publishing rights to the Lennon-McCartney catalog and stands to benefit if the group’s music goes online. But Sony is not an active player in the negotiations.
Glenn Frese, who is senior vice president of digital marketing and business development at Columbia Records, has nothing to do with Sony’s end of the Beatles’ equation. But he was able to speak generally about the importance of any major band having its music online.
“We have to reach fans wherever they are,” Frese said. “While we still have some great retail partners out there selling CDs, there are fans everywhere. We need to make the catalogs available so they can purchase wherever they want.”
There is a belief out there in music download land that this is all a ploy by the Beatles — by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, the two surviving members, and by representatives of the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison — to heighten anticipation for when the band’s songs do finally go online — if that ever happens at all.
“Neil Aspinall (the childhood friend of McCartney and Harrison) who ran Apple until his death, did so much to make the music of the Beatles special,” noted Steve Turner, a British music journalist and poet who wrote “A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song” and “The Gospel According to the Beatles.”
“He kept their tracks off compilations and made sure that each Beatles album was always fully priced. I think that excluding them from iTunes has been part of the same effort. It means that if you want to download their albums, you have to do it from a CD.
“The Beatles are the Picasso or Rembrandt of popular music and it’s in their interest and the interest of culture in general to keep their music special. So often this means restricting accessibility. The more available it is, the more we’re likely to take it for granted.”
And, Turner pointed out: “I think iTunes needs the Beatles more than the Beatles needs iTunes.”
Jonathan Cohen, senior editor at Billboard, somewhat agrees. “I think there is a huge amount of anticipation, primarily from the content provider side,” he said. “This is the last Holy Grail artist still holding out. In theory, there’s quite a bit of money to be made from the selling side. For iTunes and Amazon, it would be a big windfall for them.”
The Beatles aren’t completely out of touch and mired in the ‘60s. They’re not still trying to hawk 45s of “Rubber Soul.” They announced a deal in October with MTV and Harmonix, the people who make the “Rock Band” games, to create a Beatles version that is scheduled to be released later this year. So that at least will placate some younger fans who want more access to Beatles music.
“I think what they’re doing there is ingenious,” said Wired.com’s Van Buskirk. “This is a way to push their legacy into the future, and their estates and whoever make money. It seems like they skipped a step there, though. I hope their legacy doesn’t suffer as a result of stalling on iTunes until it doesn’t matter anymore.”
As Lefsetz so eloquently put it: “Do they have to be this (expletive) late? You ever hear of timing?”
Michael Baur is a professor of philosophy at Fordham University. Years ago, in order to help pay for graduate school, he was forced to sell his Rickenbacker 4001 bass guitar, the kind McCartney played around the time of the “Sgt. Pepper” recordings. He and his brother Steven, now a musicologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, once had a garage band and played Beatles songs, and later collaborated on a book, “The Beatles and Philosophy: Nothing You Can Think That Can’t Be Thunk.”
Naturally, when Michael Baur discussed the Beatles, he became philosophical.
“From my point of view, as someone who grew up listening to the Beatles and loving the richness of the music and the meaningfulness of the lyrics, it’s important to me and to others of my generation,” he said. “It would be a real shame if the music and the art are not made available for future generations, or if it’s difficult to get. Because it would be forgotten or lost, and there would be a real significant risk of the music being diminished.
“It’s important to maintain a continuous line of awareness from one generation to another.”
Baur, too, sees a marketing strategy at work in withholding the Beatles’ music from online sales. “What’s unfortunate,” he said, “is that because an important part of pop culture for the last 50 years is being handled as a commodity, it could well lead to a diminishing or a destroying of its importance as a cultural artifact.”
While everyone is waiting for the Beatles to join the download generation, perhaps it would be best to adopt the attitude of Turner, whose first published article was in the Beatles Monthly in 1969.
“I have all the Beatles’ songs on my iPod,” he said, “but I actually listen to them sparingly because I want to preserve the magic that I first felt in the 1960s in Britain when you’d hear a single on the radio on a Saturday morning and maybe you wouldn’t hear it again for another week.”
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Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.