"We Can Work It Out?" 2009 Passes, Still No Beatles on iTunes

Back during the 2008 Macworld Convention in San Francisco, I made friends with a guy named JC, who turned out to be the Apple iTunes Content Quality Czar. Once he told me his title at Apple, my first question was about the Beatles and iTunes: our meeting was just on the heels of Apple and the Beatles settling their infamous logo issue, and he assured me that their song catalogue would be up on iTunes “sometime in 2008.” That was two years ago, and still no progress has been made to add the most influential pop group of the 20th century to the world’s most relevant music retail repository. For a long while, other highly influential acts, like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Radiohead, were also holdouts from iTunes. But at the beginning of 2010, only the Beatles remain absent from the ubiquitous iTunes music inventory, and recent comments by the executors of the Beatles brand show no immediate signs of joining the roster.

Apples and Apples: A Brief History of the Struggle

The Beatles and Apple Computer have had a tumultuous relationship ever since Steve Jobs flipped the bird to Microsoft in the 80s and started his fledgling company. The Beatles have always been rigorous defenders of their brand: their copyrights are notoriously exclusive and expensive, which is why you hear less of the Beatles in commercials, on radio, and elsewhere than other heralded bands of the 60s. When Apple Computer got its start in 1981, The Beatles were quick to respond, and immediately sued Jobs to safeguard their Apple logo and brand. Apple computer then paid $80,000 in 1981 to use “Apple” as its own logo, with the only caveat that they would stay out of the music business. Back in these days, iTunes, the iPod, and the entire sub industry of iPod accessories were just a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye.

But as digital audio technology began to progress in the 1990s, Apple Computer couldn’t afford to stay on the sidelines with music and computers. Seeing it as an opportunity to flank Microsoft and the PC world, Apple began to invest in music technology, prompting yet another lawsuit from the Beatles cadre in 1991. That lawsuit would drag on until 2007, when the second lawsuit was settled, giving all Apple-related trademarks to Apple Inc. (the computer company) who in turn licenses those trademarks back to Apple Corps. (the Beatles’ company).

Fast-forward to 2007, when I met JC the Czar — everyone at Apple and iTunes felt rather confident that settling the brand dispute meant that a Beatles iTunes release was imminent.


Beatles Dominance & the iTunes Edge

So, where does the issue stand today? In the past year or so, we’ve received mixed messages from the Beatles camp. Back in September, Yoko Ono optimistically and inaccurately told Sky News in the UK that “The whole of the Beatles back catalogue will be made available to buy on iTunes.” But the McCartney, Harrison, and Starkey families, as well as the EMI record label resoundingly denied that claim. Dhani Harrison, only son of deceased George and an emerging force in the Beatles estate, went even farther to add that iTunes’ .99 standard price point for a song download is simply too low for Beatles standards, and that Apple Records might be better served to sell their own digital downloads.

Dhani’s comment underscores the most difficult barrier for iTunes to overcome: what does iTunes bring to the table for a brand as big as the Beatles? To be sure, virtually every recording artist on earth – living or dead – can benefit from the simple yet wide-ranging distribution benefits of having their music on iTunes. Downloading tracks is so easy and commonplace that the iTunes platform gives musicians a viable income stream in an otherwise shrinking industry.

That being said, iTunes can only help recording artists who are less exposed than the iTunes brand. That is precisely why The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Radiohead held out from joining iTunes’ ranks: it took time for these larger-than-life acts to determine if iTunes really could make a big enough difference in the exposure and sales of their music. Over the course of the past eight years since the launch of iTunes, all but The Beatles have acquiesced. And now that the lawsuit between Apple Inc. and Apple Corps. has been settled for more than two years — along with Apple Records’ release of the entire Beatles catalogue on that cool little USB — it seems more and more likely that The Beatles have opted out of the iTunes option.

An Incomplete Collection

Why do people stress over the Beatles/iTunes issue? As an avid Beatles supporter myself, I have their entire collection on CD, and it’s easy enough to rip their tracks onto my iPod. Truth be told, if the Beatles tracks were on iTunes, I probably wouldn’t buy them. So why is there such a desire to see them made available on iTunes?

The answer has little if anything to do with music.

Rather, it is the simple fact that an iTunes without the Beatles represents an “incomplete collection.” The online community casts a frustrated, critical eye at iTunes, like a baseball card collector missing one last critical card to complete a valuable collection. As the internet continues to become more inclusive and extensive in what it can offer its users, the lack of Beatles tracks on iTunes becomes an even more frustrating situation: iTunes customers wants to feel as though they can sit down in front of the application and get whatever track they are looking for, including the Beatles.

Maybe the Beatles stakeholders are more aware of this than anyone else, which is why, after all these years, they continue to hold out, leading the iTunes community and Apple closer and closer to a catharsis. Having the Beatles in the iTunes catalogue already means more than its worth for Apple. I suppose that the Beatles have us all exactly where they want us.

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