The wait is over. At long last, on September 9, 2009, 22 years after the Beatles back catalog was first released in basic, unremastered form on CD, their entire discography of official studio albums — twelve in all, plus Magical Mystery Tour and Past Masters Vol. I and II — will arrive in stores, both individually and in box sets. Plus there’s The Beatles: Rock Band video game. Its a momentous occasion, but not just for Beatles fans who want the new album mixes, liner notes and photos and the collected documentaries on DVD. Or those who might want to role play as the Fab Four. This is a pivotal day for the major labels of the music biz.
We all know that CD sales have taken a nosedive in the last ten years, dropping 50% from what they used to be. While digital downloads are making up for part of the deficit, overall music profits have shrunk. It’s been bad news for the major labels but good news for many indie artists who have more control over their careers and profit margins thanks to the Internet. Still, if you want to get your music out on a mass scale, you need to be backed by a company with widespread distribution. And the majors are hurting. They can’t create or break pop stars much anymore; American Idol does it far more effectively. There are few rock bands that sell massive quantities these days; many do better selling concert tickets and merchandise. Plus concert promoter Live Nation is stealing their thunder by signing megastars like Madonna and Jay-Z to multi-platform deals that include album releases and a cut of all profits.
What does this have to do with the Beatles? Everything. The biggest-selling band of all time, they continue to enthrall audiences nearly 40 years after they broke up. Any time a new compilation, documentary or remix project emerges, it sells well. People keep writing books about them, and magazines and newspapers keep printing stories about their history. Their recorded oeuvre came out over a mere eight years, yet it was more influential and popular than the music of bands who have had careers spanning five or six times longer, including The Rolling Stones and The Who. The Beatles are the ultimate catalog band, and while other artists may have released far bigger albums commercially, they have never had the consistent success of the Fab Four.
There isn’t anyone from the last 25 years, beyond Michael Jackson, who has exhibited such staying power. And it’s something that the industry needs to look at. After they saw CD sales soar in the mid-1990s on the backs of young talent like Alanis Morrissette, Hootie & The Blowfish and Shania Twain, the majors got lazy and greedy and seemed to care less for artist development. Album prices went up. The CD single, a collectors’ favorite and a good way to make extra cash, was gradually phased out in America; some figure it was to push the sale of increasingly expensive albums that had few if any good songs beyond the single(s). Radio narrowcasting and constricted video playlists raised the stakes, compounding the problem for music labels and their rising talent. No longer could an artist take a few albums to evolve, mature and reach platinum status. They had to make it quickly to recoup investment, or they were dropped. Sure, The Beatles rose to fame quickly (thanks to singles initially), but they were that rare, exceptionally talented ensemble that could. Most artists need time to grow, and the industry has grown impatient and nervous, preferring short-term success over long-term profitability, often to appease stockholders who want to make money right now.
Having a solid back catalog makes a difference, and young artists today usually do not get the chance to amass one. Sure, Bruce Springsteen went platinum by his third album Born To Run, but it was not until nine years later in 1984 that he would become a superstar with the fifteen million selling Born In The U.S.A., his seventh album. Judas Priest took eight years and eight records to go platinum with Screaming For Vengeance, but once they did so their previous albums started to achieve gold (500,000 units) or platinum (1 million) status. Similarly, AC/DC sold well worldwide but did not become an international sensation until their sixth album, Highway To Hell. Its follow-up, the legendary Back In Black, was an even greater success. Then, of course, there is the resurgence of classic songs, the best example being Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was used in a funny lip-synching sequence in the movie Wayne’s World that brought the song rocketing back up to the top of the charts 17 years after its initial release.
Many veteran bands are finding their catalog tracks to be lucrative today when licensing them out for movies, television shows and especially video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. (Journey is one of the big licensing winners lately.) While the idea of The Beatles: Rock Band game might sound like heresy to some, it will promote the group’s music to a new generation of fans. It is interesting to note that the game features a number of different scenarios, with the virtual Beatles performing everywhere from the Cavern Club in Liverpool to Shea Stadium. The group went through many phases and looks and explored many styles of music. Most artists today don’t do that, at least on a mainstream level, and their handlers and stylists do not want to make really radical changes because conformity is the name of the game. (And those that are followers of fashion tend to produce less interesting music.) As The Beatles, Elvis and Michael Jackson have proven, originality sells a lot more music, not cookie cutter copycats.
Perhaps the idea of originality is anathema to an industry now built on chasing trends and making a quick buck. But it is often original bands that carve out a niche for themselves and help prop up the backbone of the industry. While big sellers like Nickelback and Linkin Park are important financially (and remain viable), artists with cult-like followings such as Tool, Radiohead and Tori Amos also provide consistency, both in terms of album and ticket sales. And as the Finnish band H.I.M. proved a couple of years ago, having a charismatic frontman, distinct sound, identifiable logo and marketable imagery is also important. Look at Iron Maiden — their catalog and mascot Eddie continue to be cash cows for them, their management and their label 30 years into their recording career. And their fans are devout and loyal.
There are those who argue right now that no matter what you do, people will continue not to pay for music because once you can get things for free, why go back? The Beatles catalog, solo albums aside, has never been made available in digital form — which may change as soon as this week — but that has not hurt their credibility or their sales. We need more artists whose originality and integrity warrant that kind of respect, and we need an industry willing to deliver them to the masses. Perhaps that is a naive assumption to make in this day and age. On Sept. 9, 2009 we will find out if it still holds up.