The Beatles on iTunes: If It Happens, Should We Care?

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From one Apple to another?
If the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and the New York Times are correct, Apple will announce a deal tomorrow to sell the Beatles' music through the iTunes store. What would such a deal mean? Should we even care? A few thoughts below:

- How big a deal is this? If you're Steve Jobs, a "huge fan" of the most popular music group of all time* and the head honcho of a company that shares a name with the firm the Beatles created (both have their Apples), the significance may be immense. Jobs has chased the band's catalog since the birth of the iTunes store. But the importance of the deal is probably more symbolic than anything else. It would lend mucho status to iTunes, the world's largest music retailer, to be the only online store selling the Beatles catalog. But, as several writers have pointed out, a download deal is unlikely to mean a major boost to either party's bottom line.

- How big a deal is this (Part II)? Aside from what it means for Jobs himself and the two parties, it's hard to see what's so exciting about being able to buy Beatles songs on the iTunes store. Sure, younger listeners buy their music online and might get deeper into the Beatles through iTunes, but chances are their parents already own the Beatles albums on CD or vinyl. And if there's any band whose records you want (should! need!) to own physical copies of, well, it's the freaking Beatles. 

- But aren't there problems? Selling the Beatles' songs one at a time seems, well, dicey -- more so than with other artists. Frankly, the thought of uninitiated youngsters hacking their way through the Beatles catalog one half-heard hit single at a time makes our crotchety old stomachs turn. And how would the store handle Beatles brilliance like the last eight songs on Abbey Road, which form a hugely important medley? Selling (or hearing) "The End" without the 14 seconds of silence, then the ever-so-brief "Her Majesty," then the sudden cut-off -- the end of the last album the Beatles ever recorded -- would taint the way future listeners hear the most important band ever. Entire interpretations of the Beatles' music -- hell, entire views on the meaning of life -- rest on how you hear the last few seconds of Abbey Road. But who's going to pay a dollar or more for those 23 seconds?

- So I can buy the Beatles' songs now. Is that all? Probably not. Apple would seem inclined to tie the Beatles announcement to another way to sell you a truly profitable device, and indeed, Billboard reports that is likely. But tomorrow's announcement probably isn't something cool and revolutionary, like a cloud-based streaming service. We'd be super-stoked if it was, but, says Billboard:

There will almost certainly be some kind of additional offers in play. We're expecting some kind of device integration, perhaps a Beatles-branded iPod or iPhone -- or even an iPad that comes with the entire Beatles catalog pre-loaded for some astronomical price. We think all the Beatles movies available to buy or rent. We're also hoping (but not too strongly) for some amazing iTunes LP or iPad-related special treatment of all the Beatles songs for a more immersive experience on that includes all sorts of multimedia from the Beatles archives, including lyrics and video.

- Why now? That's a tantalizing question given the rather odd timing of the announcement. Were one to pick a date to make a big Beatles announcement, one might have picked early last month -- Oct. 9 would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday. Nov. 16, however, is the anniversary of the Beatles' first U.S. TV appearance (not Ed Sullivan, though) as several have pointed out. But this seems like a weak connection. By way of trivia, Paul McCartney's post-Beatles album Band on the Run was reissued two weeks ago. None of the other Beatles have obvious dates of importance coming up, although the 30th anniversary of Lennon's assassination comes this Dec. 9. But maybe, as the WSJ hints, the parties just signed the paperwork last week?

- How much will it cost? The New York Times says many in the music industry on Monday "wondered if the Beatles would get a special pricing deal." The iTunes store currently sells songs for 69 cents, 99 cents, and $1.29. If the Beatles got a per-song price outside of that range -- which seems a likely form of a "special pricing deal" -- the significance would be titanic, not just for Apple, but for the music industry and the band's legacy. The Rolling Stones' songs, for example, sell for 99 cents or $1.29 on iTunes. If Beatles songs were to sell for a higher price -- higher than anything else in the store -- it would further shove this ionic band's status aloft. (That is, if there's anywhere higher to go.) We'd love to hear what Mick Jagger would say about the fact that Paul McCartney's songs are worth more than his. Oh, and if the Beatles got special pricing on iTunes, we'd get more empirical support for our side of that irksome, pointless Beatles vs. Stones debate. Not that we needed any.

- What song/album will you download first? Therein lies the problem, or why this Apple announcement might be just a big hot bag of hype: don't you already have the Beatles catalog -- or at least the parts of it you want?

*Sorry, Steve, but saying you're a "huge" Beatles fan is kind of like saying you're a huge fan of chocolate, or love, or sunshine. The statement may be true, but that doesn't make it meaningful.

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