Sunday, January 25, 2009

iPod, therefore iAm

As 2008 drew to a close, the New York Times ran an article about music sales for the year ( ). It discussed the decline in CD purchases, and the increase of digital music sales. There was one very interesting fact: The fourth and fifth best selling albums of the year ( cannot be downloaded from iTunes. According to the article, AC/DC and Kid Rock are opponents of downloading, yet still managed to sell approximately two million copies each of their new releases. (The number one album of 2008 sold less than three million copies). In the case of AC/DC, it is all the more impressive as their album "Black Ice" is a Wal-Mart exclusive.

The Beatles, of course, are one of the last holdouts -- not only in the world of digital downloading, but of CD re-issues in general. All Fab solo albums are now available on iTunes, but the actual Beatles catalogue is still in limbo, as the Beatles' Apple cannot agree to terms with Apple iTunes. I assume the re-issues are being stalled by the problems with iTunes, as albums such as 1968's "White Album", are known to be ready for re-release. Paul recently said that there was a stickling point with the iTunes deal, but noted that the Beatles were a special act, and should be treated as such. I'm sure anyone reading this would heartily agree. For a while, the Beatles were shy about releasing any albums since Billboard did not deem the 1980 U.S. album "Rarities" as a major new release, but a curiosity aimed at obsessive Beatles fans. Everything the Beatles do now (in most cases) must be bigger and better than anything else -- failure is not an option. It needs to be a global event. Additionally, it takes an army of promotion soldiers to make this happen. This must be well thought out before it is executed.

If the Beatles do agree to a deal, there are some interesting concerns. Will individual tracks be available? Will "Maggie Mae" cost the same as "Hey Jude"? Will "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End" count as one song, or three ? I'd suggest that the albums be sold only as whole entities, and that the singles, like "Love Me Do"/"P.S. I Love You", or "Lady Madonna"/"The Inner Light", be available for the plucking for those not wanting to invest in a whole album. Also, all different album AND single configurations could be offered: mono, stereo, U.S., U.K., etc, so that fans could pick and choose what version(s) they want.

What the success of the AC/DC and Kid Rock albums shows us, however, is that The Beatles do not even need iTunes. A truly spectacular Beatles re-issue product, with improved sound, bonus tracks, mono and stereo mixes, detailed liner notes, and an additional DVD or Blu-Ray disc of archival footage, would get people into whatever record stores are left, to purchase the ultimate Beatles musical experience. Can you imagine going to pick up a copy of "Magical Mystery Tour" on CD, complete with the original booklet, the mono and stereo mixes, as well as the original television special AND "videos" of "All You Need Is Love", "Penny Lane", "Strawberry Fields Forever", and all three versions of "Hello Goodbye"? And then they could hide the "1967 Christmas Record" somewhere on the disc in an "Easter Egg"! Or how about the U.K. "Help!" album, with additional songs like "I'm Down", "Bad Boy", and "Yes It Is", and then have the original "Beatles at Shea" documentary included, as well as the appropriate promotional films ? And just think of the possibilities of the "Let It Be" album!

I've read many stories, mostly on-line, about fans' frustrations regarding the upgrade of the Beatles catalogue. A couple of years ago, the Fabs even brought someone on board specially to oversee this venture. Paul also mentioned that they wanted to make sure it was done properly. This is an important point. A couple of years after CDs had initially caught on, the Fab's catalogue was rush-released in 1987 and 1988 in order to capitalize on the twentieth anniversary of the "Sgt. Pepper" album. The sound was mediocre, the packaging unimaginative, the bonus tracks non-existent. At the time, the Beatles were still squabbling, and not in control of their own legacy. These CDs are the versions we are currently stuck with.

Good things come to those who wait. How lucky are we that we have the "Anthology" series of the mid-1990's instead of the original proposed single album version of out-takes from the 1980's ? Do we really want to repeatedly buy a re-issue of a re-issue, as fans of David Bowie, Elvis Costello and others have been "forced" to do (even if they were done expertly) ? The Beatles are still one of the biggest acts in the world, nearly four decades after splitting up, and deserve to be presented in the marketplace in a series of impressive, definitive, content-filled packages. However, The Beatles' Apple needs the have all four parties in agreement for something to be released, while all four are also busy simultaneously merchandising and promoting individual solo careers and catalogues. Then they have to partner up with EMI, retail outlets, etc., all of whom want as big a piece of the Apple Pie as they can get. So there must be negotiations that are as tedious as they are time consuming. Of course, if the deals don't work out, then Apple has to start all over again. Besides, there has been a steady supply of "new" Fab products released since "The Beatles at the Beeb" appeared in 1994. Aren't we better off with the "Anthology" series than remastered compact discs of albums that are readily available ? These things take time. Life is what happens when you upgrade your catalog.

Anyway. as the core Beatles fans get a little bit older and a little bit slower, we eagerly, if a bit impatiently, await the next installment of a proper Beatles re-issue campaign. Of course, the Fabs appeal is cross-generational, and there's no sign of their popularity diminishing any time soon. Let's just hope they finally get it together while we are still around to enjoy it. Maybe they can release the entire catalogue as a big box set, and call it "Eight Arms To Hold You". Or "I Want You (She's So Heavy) ? "It's All Too Much"? "The Gray Album"?

And if you think you've been waiting a long time, think of the poor Neil Young fans who are enduring, again, yet another potential delay in the never-ending saga of his ambitious, two-decade old "Archives" project! (Thrasher's Wheat site: )


Roving Gambler said...

Interesting post. There are always people who want to stop "progress" or who don't like change. It would seem there are two complaints. Making it too easy to copy their songs or inferior quality. Each of these are bogus. But, their choice. Technology will march on regardless. The more interesting trend is single-outlet sales, ie. AC/DC, Eagles, Springsteen, etc.
You showed up on Google's news reader so that's cool.
I have a music news site at Lakin Report. Let me know if you come across anything you think I should know about.

iMADEtheBBC said...

The Beatles in iTunes is a pointless exercise in my opinion. It should come after a proper overhaul of the catalogue.

After Apple Corps have put out the remasters and a 5.1 compilation only then should they bother with iTunes.

The only things that an iTunes agreement will do is, one, boost the credibility of iTunes and two put some more cash in the Apple Corps box.

From a negotiation point of view Apple Corps have the upper hand. They don't need iTunes thank you very much. A physical reissue of the remastered back catalogue along with blu-ray releases of the movies and promo video compilations will yield more revenue for Apple Corps and , more importantly, address the Beatles legacy.

Right now the folk that the Beatles want to keep onside are the retail industry. The world is changing fast and the most important partner to Apple Corps is in turmoil.

Apple Corps: you better get the finger out or you might find your negotiation position in freefall.