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Will The Beatles’ Debut on iTunes Help or Hurt Their Legacy?

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This past summer, Yoko Ono expressed her doubts about The Beatles ever making their iTunes debut. “Don’t hold your breath…for anything,” Ono told Reuters in August 2010. Music fans collectively exhaled when Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the big news on Tuesday, November 16: “We love the Beatles and are honored and thrilled to welcome them to iTunes,” said Jobs in an official statement. “It has been a long and winding road to get here. Thanks to the Beatles and EMI, we are now realizing a dream we’ve had since we launched iTunes ten years ago.” Single albums can be downloaded for $12.99 each, double albums for $19.99 each and individual songs for $1.29 each. 2009’s remastered box set can be purchased for $149.

Not surprisingly, iTunes racked up initially strong sales. As of November 17, 28 of the top 100 tunes are by The Beatles, they also make up 16 of the top 50 albums, including four in the top 10: Abbey Road, The Beatles (White Album), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and The Beatles Box Set. Interestingly the highest ranking Beatles song is the George Harrison-penned “Here Comes the Sun” at number 19. Both Apple Inc. and Apple Corps Ltd. must welcome these figures, as they were embroiled in a protracted battle to reach this point.

Apple and The Beatles’ corporation, Apple Corps Ltd., have waged war over copyright issues for years. According to the Chicago Tribune, Apple Corps asserted that Apple Computers (later Apple Inc.) infringed upon the Beatles’ company’s trademark. In 1981, the two parties settled, with the agreement that Apple Inc. would never enter the music business. However, Apple Corps sued Apple Inc. again in 2003, arguing that iTunes violated the previous agreement. Once more, the two companies reached a settlement in 2007, but disagreements over pricing kept the Beatles off iTunes for an additional three years. If they did not wish to purchase CDs, fans resorted to downloading songs and albums illegally, and they posted frequent, often frustrated comments on iTunes asking them why The Beatles were still unavailable digitally. After briefly considering establishing their own online store, the surviving Beatles and their families obviously decided that “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

This development may be welcome news to those who prefer convenienceThe Beatles—after all, no physical storage is needed, and the step of converting CDs to the MP3 format is avoided. Sound purists grumble that the MP3 format compresses sound and cannot equal the sound of a CD or even vinyl. In addition, most Beatles fans already own the entire catalog, particularly the stereo and mono box sets. The Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro argues that the digitalized Beatles best suits “musical tourists” who want just the hits, similar to many who purchased 2000’s immensely popular 1 collection. However, one question remains: will The Beatles’ music actually suffer because of iTunes?

Since iTunes became the dominant online music retailer, younger fans purchase singles more than entire albums. Singles cost less, and some music fans want just “the hits” rather than an entire album containing songs they may not like. In addition, iTunes and iPods (among other MP3 players) allow listeners to create their own playlists consisting of songs they like. The New York Times’ Jeff Leeds calls this phenomenon “cherry picking,” and it has led to a decline in album sales. Many current artists such as Rihanna or Katy Perry understand this trend, and create discs filled with potential singles. Critics generally do not discuss their work in terms of “concept albums” or works that must be heard from start to finish in order to understand any overreaching themes.

However, The Beatles pioneered the concept album. Previously albums were considered to be vehicles for singles, often throwing in filler tunes as well. But the Fab Four showed that albums could be considered complete works of art, a collection of songs that work together to create a mood or communicate a message. Cover art was carefully considered and designed to enhance the disc’s overall theme. 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band set the standard for concept albums, from the cover art to the concert motif, complete with crowd noise between songs and the messages of freedom, experimentation, and psychedelia running through each track.

While not specifically concept albums, Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Abbey Road function as complete works, with no “filler” tracks to be found. Each of the aforementioned discs contain “the hits,” and iTunes customers could conceivably download only the most well-known tracks, such as “Yellow Submarine,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Something,” and “Come Together,” just to name a few. But what about tracks that may not have reached number one but still represent some of their best work?

Consider “The Word,” which practically predicts psychedelia, and the rocker “Wait,” featuring trademark John Lennon and Paul McCartney harmonies. Both from Rubber Soul, they were not released as singles but stand up with any of their hits. From Revolver, “Taxman” represents some of Harrison’s best songwriting and guitar work, while “Tomorrow Never Knows” remains one of the most inventive, sonically fascinating songs ever recorded. Sgt. Pepper contains underrated gems such as “Good Morning, Good Morning” and the delicate McCartney ballad “She’s Leaving Home.” Finally, how can one single out tracks from Abbey Road? The medley demonstrates The Beatles at their best, displaying their exquisite harmonies (“Sun King”) and ability to rock out like no other band (“Polythene Pam,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” and “The End”).

Quite simply, downloading single tracks from these classic albums ruins the overall effect. Sgt. Pepper works as a whole, with each song building upon the other to create a transformation from long-held morays to the new ethos. Revolver’s songs range from lovely ballads to R&B tributes to sonic experiments, illustrating the group’s progress as musicians. Rubber Soul achieves a similar effect, with the band demonstrating the effect of the folk movement on expanding their sound. Finally, Abbey Road functions as The Beatles’ last hurrah, with each song better than the other. When the dueling guitars battle and Ringo Starr pounds his drums on “The End,” it’s as if the group understood that they would never record together again, and wanted to go out in style. The coda, “And in the end/The love you take/Is equal to the love you make” perfectly summarizes the sixties and the group’s impact on music and culture.

I cannot imagine listening to only “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “With A Little Help from My Friends” and feeling that I thus understood Sgt. Pepper’s significance. The album is meant to be heard from beginning to end, to be considered as an entire work. Young fans perhaps experiencing The Beatles for the first time may receive a skewed education by just downloading the hits. By hearing the discs from beginning to end, the listener can better understand how the four men grew as singers, songwriters, and musicians, and how they managed to capture an era’s zeitgeist. Otherwise new fans will learn only a fragmented history and be deprived of the experience of listening to entire works; it would be akin to reading only certain chapters of a book rather than the entire text.

Clearly The Beatles had to enter the digital realm, as online stores such as iTunes have dominated music sales. Virtually everyone has an MP3 player, and the convenience factor is hard to deny. Today’s teenagers barely remember a time when downloading was not the norm. Therefore, in order to reach younger fans, The Beatles had to strike the deal with iTunes. But will their legacy ultimately suffer? Will online retailing diminish their albums’ overall impact, thus damaging their original artistic intent? In the 1960s, The Beatles managed to break down barriers and create new standards for music; now they must do the same in the online environment.

For a limited time, is streaming The Beatles’ 1964 Washington Coliseum concert. View it on the Apple site or through iTunes.


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About Kit O'Toole

  • Michael Kearney

    I’m afraid that a lot of this ‘artistic intent’ on the part of The Beatles is entirely in the collective imagination of critics. Even while together, all four Beatles disdained the version of themselves that had been stuck to them by critics. It is, in part, their evasion and transcendence of the neat summations that have been spread around the ‘critosphere’ throughout the intervening years that has enabled them to stay in the fantasies of their listeners rather than their own or those of mediators.
    There ARE no Beatles concept albums. There are no albums at all. The Beatles made ‘Long Playing Records’ in Mono until ‘Abbey Road’one side of which was, by Paul at least, conceived as an artistic whole.

    That’s about it. The Beatles sisnt have time for this analysis when they made the recordings. There weren’t even any terms for ushc analysis.
    So while I like your piece, I’m afraid it’s irrelevant to The Beatles.
    The beatles have a magic which is contained in every track as well as groups of tracks and any encounter with any part of their whole tends to lead to more encounters (and there is their the perennial and formidable McCartney marketing to consider too!)

    Theirs is no ‘legacy’
    It is alive

  • Jules

    Kit, I appreciate what you are saying, but I respectfully disagree. I hate the idea of setting up rules for listening to music. When I was a teenager (in the late ’80’s) I picked out my favorite tracks on my mom’s Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road albums. I made my own mix tapes fromm song I recorded off the radio. Now I have every Beatles album (I do allow them to play on my iPod in shuffle mode), and they are my favorite band. I would have never listened to them at all if it hadn’t been for those individual songs I liked. Same goes for the Stones. I listened to my mom’s Hot Rocks album throughout high school. Now I have almost all their albums as well.

    I would never say someone can’t like “Come Together” unless they listen to all of Abbey Road and appreciate the fact that it was the last album they recorded together.

    What about songs like “Hey Jude” and “Day Tripper” that were not on albums. is it okay to buy those by themselves because they were always meant to be singles?

    If iTunes brings the Beatles to future generations they I am fine with it. Some will get interested in buying complete albums and some will just enjoy the few tracks they like. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  • Declan Meehan

    “”Taxman” represents some of Harrison’s best songwriting and guitar work ” – Harrison didnt play the lead guitar on Taxman – Was all McCartney’s work.

    Think they only allow the 62-70 singles as downloadable single tracks and download the complete albums only

  • Kit O’Toole

    Thanks to everyone for your comments! I figured this would provoke some controversy. :) Just a few general thoughts:

    1. Sorry, I should have clarified “Taxman”: yes, Paul played the awesome lead guitar part, but George’s pounding rhythm guitar really drives that song. I also neglected to mention that Paul’s bass on that track is one of his finest moments.

    2. I agree that if iTunes brings younger fans to the Beatles, that’s great. I’m just concerned that it will be too easy for new fans to skip over some excellent songs that were technically never hits.

    3. I was also concerned that the songs from the Abbey Road medley are being sold as individual tracks. How can one listen to just one fragment without hearing the whole thing? I just don’t think you get the same effect.

    Just my two cents!

  • El Bicho

    The albums will always be there for fans and selling singles back in the 1960s didn’t seem to hurt them. While I am not saying it will, so what if selling digital singles hurts The Beatles’ legacy? Who does that really affect other than the band members and estate trustees?

    Also, not sure “pioneered” is the right word as Sinatra made concept albums a decade before The Beatles did.

  • Beth Ann

    I sort of have to agree with Jules in a really general way about not putting “rules” on how to listen to music. However, I also want to mention that the experience of downloading music (and even, to an extent listening to a cd) changes the experience because of the absence of liner notes. I know that notes do appear on cds, but I can no longer read that fine print! What I’m trying to say is that people who end up really caring passionately about the music they listen to seem to be the geeky types that used to read the old album covers over and over again. Those people are still around, so why not provide some of that experience for them when they download ONE song, so they get some idea that they might be missing something by doing so? What Kit wrote about the idea that this music is connected and should be listened to as a whole piece is getting lost, so the artist needs to manipulate the medium to compensate, right?
    Okay…back to work.

  • Kit O’Toole

    Thanks for your comments, and Beth Ann, thanks for summarizing my arguments better than I could! :) FYI, Beatles Examiner is running a poll gauging reaction to the Beatles on iTunes; check out the results.

  • lucyintheskywithrubies

    Paul also played the great lead guitar and bass on his own song,Another Girl on the Help album,and on John’s Ticket To Ride too!