Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Can The Beatles finally realise their ambitions?

In Richard DeLillo’s book The Longest Cocktail Party there’s an amusing passage around the release of The White Album (I think, from memory, I can no longer find my copy to check) whereby Apple Corps, the then recently formed Beatles operating company, were positively vexed by the album’s sales performance. The album – an expensive double – was comfortably installed at number one of course, but someone in the Apple camp had calculated that only one in ten households had bought the record. ‘One in ten’ seemed like an outrage – nine out of every ten households hadn’t (yet) bought it! The marketing plan – if such things existed in 1968 – became a ‘how do we get the other nine to buy it’.

Even in their heyday, The Beatles didn’t quite achieve ubiquity (indeed, another band on the EMI label – Queen – has sold more albums to date, worldwide, if my copy of Mojo rock trivia is to be believed). But the remarkable fact is, The Beatles have – as a commercial musical entity – never stopped striving for it and probably never will. Thirty years after the band split, 2000’s “1” compilation of the collective number 1 singles, broke sales records around the world and introduced the band to a whole new set of audiences. Throughout the nineties The Beatles had seen a steady renewal of interest, thanks to the rise of Britpop during that decade.

Now 2009 marks another landmark year in The Beatles commercial career, with the re-masters releases and the arrival of the band into the gaming world via Rock Band. The early sales analysis on the re-masters is impressive, with sales of 2.25 million in the first four days. See the country breakdown on Hypebot here. The campaign seems easily sustainable as Christmas approaches with those two juicy box sets to choose from – there’ll be plenty of fans who want to own both.

With the re-issue campaign being ‘insight-based’ I’m curious to know more about who has bought what of the re-masters – not just the country-based data. I’m intrigued as to whether the re-issues have found truly wide audiences as “1” did, or whether the majority of purchases have been made by the owners of previous recordings. What does the audiophile market make of the re-masters? Did they rate the stereo mixes or stick with the mono?

Also, I’m wondering if many consumers have been tempted to make their first CD purchases for a good while having otherwise ‘gone digital’ – or whether indeed the digital audience has shown any interest at all. Have any digital natives bought their first CD from this collection? If so, they may now understand what they’ve missed in never having a physical relationship with music.

Sifting through these beautifully presented packages (EMI & Apple have got this packaging decision right – no ugly jewel boxes - but attractive digipacks, with the Mono sets coming with a nicely replicated vinyl aesthetic). The Beatles records make so much sense as tangible objects. Playing back Revolver, The White Album, Abbey Road – I’ve found myself just staring at the back covers – something I haven’t done since I was a teenager, basically.

Among the Beatles’ many remarkable ‘firsts’ are breakthroughs so attached to the concept of albums – in physical form - it’s somehow hard to imagine a ‘digital Beatles’. The iconography of the cover art, the photogenic nature of the band, the sequencing of songs (alternating Lennon & McCartney-led compositions but throwing in the odd George & Ringo number in just the right spots), the fact that most of the albums are albums in the truest sense – with no actual singles taken from them at all.

Holding these products gives a sense of music worth the money – at a tenner a throw these packages and their contents are phenomenal value. This feeling is exactly (desperately) what music needs to instil in music fans – this sense of immense value from what we hold in our hands as the music plays. Can this ever be achieved with digital?

Perhaps it can, via ever more beautiful devices and with music as the killer application in those devices. But we have a long long way to go. The Beatles digitally, could deliver everything digital music so far lacks – an amazing library of context. I can imagine holding a device with which I could browse the incredibly rich vaults of artwork, photography and editorial as The Beatles’ music plays. For example, the absorbing stories of their songs as captured in Ian MacDonald’s remarkable book Revolution In The Head. That could add a new dimension to this music, but could it ever be achieved with all the rights clearances required? Would we buy it at a price that makes it all worthwhile?

Could the re-mastering process be applied to a lossless sound format for digital? If so maybe another new dimension is possible. But I guess these days, for The Beatles to finally achieve that modest ambition from 1968 to be in every household, it must come down to whether they get licensed for streaming – but I can’t see the value in that commercially for EMI & Apple. Why would they reduce a valuable, renewable asset like that to the common denominator of streaming?

The same reasoning lies behind a recent Sony decision to remove the Bob Dylan catalogue from streaming services. The classics live on forever, sell steadily and get a new lease of life every so often – a pattern that would be discontinued by availability on streaming platforms. Then again, every music fan – of any age - should hear these songs at some stage, especially now they have been re-tuned for the modern age and sound as fresh as they do timeless. For that to happen I guess The Beatles will need to join the great music library in the cloud, eventually.

Next: A new Pearl Jam album, followed by the return of Alice In Chains. Can any genre from the age of CD buying make a comeback before it’s too late?

post-note: Listening to the Beatles catalogue I had never realised how much their sound has influenced the music I've listened to most in recent years. If you are looking for a modern equivalent, try Elliot Smith, Spoon, I Am Kloot, Super Furry Animals, Brendon Benson - they all sound so much more Beatlesesque than anything from the britpop era.

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