Beatles Hit iTunes, World Fails To Care

Apple and the Beatles finally did a deal last week, and iTunes was flooded with new Beatles product as a result. To judge by this week’s Australian chart positions, no-one cared quite as much as was predicted.

The absence of the Beatles from iTunes has long been a cause for discussion. In part, it reflects the turgid legal history between the band and Apple over who has the rights to the Apple name, which was a record label for the Beatles several years before it was a computer company for Steve Jobs. In part, it reflects the determination of the surviving Beatles and Beatles’ widows to get as much money as they can. But mostly, it reflects that fact that any Beatles news is still considered a big deal by news media editors. Add Apple to that mix and it’s little surprise the press went crazy.

And while it might have been hyperbole of Apple to describe the announcement as a day “you’ll never forget”, it did garner an awful lot of media coverage. There were widespread predictions that Beatles tunes would flood the singles and albums charts worldwide, and lots of breathless repetition of the claim from Ringo Starr (direct from Apple’s press release) that “if you want it, you can get it now”. Both turned out to be wrong, despite Apple instituting what looked like a Beatles-only policy on the front page of the iTunes music store for several days last week.

To address the first and geekier point: while iTunes currently includes all the studio albums and singles which the Beatles released while active, it doesn’t include the three-part Anthology series of out-takes and rare recordings, the Live At The BBC radio recordings, or the remixed and Love albums. So it isn’t the complete Beatles catalogue.

The chart domination also wasn’t obvious. In Australia, two Beatles albums reached the Digital Albums chart (Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at 42 and Abbey Road at 43). Neither sold enough copies to make the regular top 50, which combines digital and physical sales. For individual tracks, nothing ranked in the Top 50 Singles chart or the Top 40 Digital Track chart at all.

One obvious explanation in Australia is that the pricing for Beatles content is a total rip-off. Individual tracks from the Beatles cost $2.19, single albums are $20.99, and double albums are $35.99. In the US, the same content costs $1.29, $12.99 and $19.99 respectively. Given the near-parity between the US and Australian dollar, it’s no wonder many people decided not to buy those tunes in this format. (Some might have used a US iTunes account instead.)

However, pretty much the same situation occurred in the UK, where old tracks reappearing on the charts is a much more regular occurrence and there was less whinging about the price. Just one track made the UK Top 40 (‘Hey Jude’), only only four made the Top 75. Placing four tracks in the charts is something of an achievement, but it’s not a unique one, even this week: Rihanna also has four songs in the UK Top 75. (The US charts aren’t out as I write this, but since the Hot 100 there factors in radio airplay as well as sales, the impact was always likely to be smaller.)

What does this tell us? Firstly, that Beatles fanatics already own all the material on CD, possibly multiple times, and aren’t racing to get it in another, lower-quality format. Secondly, that there hasn’t been an enormous queue of people whose only reason for not buying Beatles tracks was the fact they weren’t on iTunes. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise: the band hasn’t been active for 40 years, and a lot of other musicians have appeared.

Of course, first week sales aren’t everything either. From now on, if someone suddenly thinks “I really need my own copy of ‘I Am The Walrus’,” there’ll be an easy, legal way to get it online, and that will represent a pleasant trickle of income for the Beatles and Apple. But given the hype, a pleasant trickle seems a slightly disappointing outcome.

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