As you know if you have access to the internet, three years after the Apple Corps – Apple Inc dispute was resolved, Apple Inc announced this morning that iTunes Music Store has exclusive rights to sell the entire digital Beatles catalog. Sources close to the deal indicate the licenses go up for renegotiation sometime in 2011. Until today, the Beatles were the single most important holdout in digital music, making November 16 2010 one of the more important dates in digital music history.

Some people love the Beatles, some do not. Some folks are obsessed with the Beatles, others are just agnostic. Thousands of passionate fans flock to Liverpool every August to make pilgrimage. Others just don’t understand why it’s interesting that Clapton’s guitar wept after the ultimate rock and roll wife swap with George.

But almost everyone who falls under any umbrella as lover, hater or agnostic probably still knows that the Beatles are an integral part of pop culture history.

More than just a noteworthy rock & roll band, they’re a creative musical phenomenon, under the strategic management of Brian Epstein. Etching a spot in history, the Beatles became THE prototype for ALL rock & roll bands to follow, even in the year 2010. Epstein dressed them in suits, put each distinct personality in front of cameras at all the right moments, and kept the Fab Four in the studio making records.

Whatever, I’m Not A Fan – This Is All Hype

Ok, fine. We don’t have to agree on talent. But historically speaking, blowing off the significance of the Beatles is a bit like saying you just aren’t that into Thomas Edison two seconds before you turn on a light.

Like it or not, the Beatles are the best selling band in the HISTORY of music. Even without any digital music for sale anywhere online, the Beatles are the #2 selling band of the last decade at 30 million records.

Who is ahead of the Beatles? The number one seller of the last decade is eminem, with 32 million albums, all of which are available for sale at any number of digital retailers. Em’s 32 Million includes digital sales. The Beatles 30 million does not. ┬áThe Beatles, without any digital product for sale, have outsold every artist that is alive and producing records.

Now, with only 2 members of the band still alive, the Beatles once again make history by partnering their art with digital culture for the first time. A fan like me can only hope for new and interesting LP features on the albums as iTunes expands its features for album art.

A fan like me, who owns 17 books about the Beatles, some over 1,000 pages long – and a lover of all vinyl, is sure to purchase a digital copy of a Beatles song at one point or another. Maybe I’ll be on vacation in Europe, and I didn’t bring enough music. (I can dream!) But, now, digital impulse buys are now as much a digital reality for the Beatles as they are for anyone else.

Digital Wins, Dinosaurs Lose

So let’s remember today as the day digital music won the fight against traditionalism. But is this the year digital sales will outdo physical sales? Whether or not the Beatles’ newly available digital catalog has a long-term effect on digital music sales is debatable.

One school of thought assumes that having the world’s number one selling band available in iTunes will cause digital music sales numbers to soar, increasing the perceived value of digital music overall.

However, there’s no way to tell if digital music sales, after predictably spiking, will plateau (as usual) or dip back to where they were before the Beatles became available in iTunes. Just last May, iTunes went from the source of 85% of all digital music sales to 70%.

Regardless of these percentages, even with the closing of Tower Records and the Virgin Store on Market Street, physical cds still outsell digital music, for low prices reached only by strong arming labels into financial oblivion, which doesn’t matter anyway because shelf space doesn’t exist for any artists other than the top 10 at each major label. On top of that crap shoot, when WalMart returns any CDs to a distributor, the label has to eat the dough.

Proponents of digital music ought to celebrate today and watch the graph around digital sales, because like it or not, there’s still a fuckload of people driving home from WalMart with a $9 John Mayer CD.

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  • keane

    Thanks for this post, Corey! I love reading your thoughts on the music industry. Spot on as always.

  • Michael Hession

    I am more a Beatles fan than a digital music fan, but I have been waiting for this release for years. I am not thrilled at what they ultimately offered — It includes the blue and white greatest hits albums (which offers nothing new) but not the Anthology soundtracks (which offers tons of unreleased stuff), and does not include any bonus rare tracks (and it’s not like they’re not around, I have a dozen vinyl boots of incredible outtakes) — but i agree with the position that the fact that they are now available in digital format is a huge deal. Now that the Beatles are in the fray, how can anybody legitimately argue against digital distribution. A generation that gets their stuff only digitally will be allowed to have a feeding frenzy. and they will. and stuff will change because of it. they will change because of it. the songs will change because of it. the sun and the earth will change . . . well, ok, not those. still, yahoo, Beatles. What you did (though flawed) is still better than nothing at all.

    That being said, I’m happy with my scratchy vinyl. Those pops and cracks are part of the song to me now. John Winston would agree.

  • SmallAxe

    Why on Earth should I care about digital music sales overtaking physical media? Why is this being cast as some kind of epic struggle that requires choosing sides?

    Who are these “proponents of digital music?” Other than those who stand to make a buck off of it?

    Sometimes I buy music digitally out of convenience, sometimes I buy physical media because of cool packaging or bonuses, or because I don’t want a lossy compressed file.

    I really could not care less how other people choose to buy their music. Wal-Mart, Amoeba, Amazon, iTunes, whatever, go nuts.

  • Michael Hession


    You ask “who are these proponents” of digital music” but then answer your own question by saying “Sometimes I buy music digitally out of convenience.” The answer, then, is you are. Before today, you didn’t buy Beatles music digitally out of convenience, or for any reason at all. It wasn’t there. Now it is. It offers convenience, etc. You want it. Now you have it. Yesterday, you didn’t.

    Also, the reason, I think, that it is an epic struggle as you say, is that, once digital hits a certain level of sales, it theoretically stops making sense for labels to manufacture physical product. so, i would think that, for someone like you who likes the option of both digital and physical sales, you would be interested in the backstory behind the reasons that physical music is becoming more curtailed and may continue to do so. but maybe not. we all have our own small axes to grind.

  • SmallAxe

    I take proponent to mean taking a stronger stance than just clicking “$0.99 Buy” on a lazy whim, but point taken, I do consume digital music.

    Has the lack of a digital option stopped me from buying any music that I wanted, Beatles or otherwise, in the last 10 years? No.

    My main gripe is with the last sentence, which seems to imply that the world will be a better place once the plebes can no longer get their hands on their hopelessly uncool CDs. Who cares if people still buy CDs? What makes digital so inherently superior? Why should we rejoice once digital sales eclipse CDs?

  • Corey Denis

    Hi Small Axe,

    I hope music sales increase across platforms that both exist and do not yet exist in the world. I hope art sells as much as each and ever artist and creator wants it to sell. As for Compact Discs as a medium, they are really a rather crappy highly degradable medium. The space for album art is incredibly tiny, and they are extremely heavy to carry, ship and deal with in general in large quantities.

    The stores that sell compact discs have extremely limited shelf space as compared to the world wide web, which has no shelf space limitations whatsoever.

    Those are just a few reasons why I care about technologies that transform the transmission and consumption of music.

    More specific to the article, as a Beatles fan, I clearly feel some excitement over the fact that Beatles music is now more accessible digitally, ready for consumption possibly even by younger generations who may or may not spend 70% of their music dollars at iTunes when shopping online. It’s exciting to me to watch it all pan out right here in San Francisco, where the Beatles played their last show.

  • renegade

    A lot of young people I know don’t like new music. Digital could get them interested in this 40-50 year old musak. Because I heard/have a lot of Beatle tunes, I like previously unreleased or remixes. So I guess I like new music or new old stock.