The Beatles let it stream- showing that the format is the future


It was never a question of whether the Beatles would stream their sungs, only when and at what cost. Their presence is a boost for streaming services

In the late 1990 s, a senior executive from EMI lugged a laptop to Friar Park, George Harrisons sprawling neo-Gothic manor in Henley-on-Thames, to guide him through mockups of his first official website. After the executive heads demonstrated him what the different pages of would offer the fan news, photos, charity work, music Harrison, legend has it, turned to the record label man with only one question. Thats all well and good, he told, jabbing the computer screen, but where do they put the money in?

Thats a question many more artists are today asking about the digital revolution and how streaming has moved customers from ownership to access. It also goes some route to explaining why, years after almost everyone else, the Beatles have finally constructed their music available on Spotify and eight other streaming services.

It was never a matter of if with the Beatles and streaming but instead when and how much? CD sales and download sales are both in decline and streaming is the last great format for the Beatles to imprint themselves upon. This had to be handled finely, especially for an act that drives such enormous catalogue sales and who never bowed to marketplace pressure to make their albums available at mid-price. There was also the added corporate complication of the bands catalogue being sold to Universal in 2011 as part of the dismantling and auctioning off of EMI, meaning the place of the negotiating table moved, as did the person or persons sitting around it. The bargain terms will, of course, be kept private but there is no chance “they il be” selling off the family silver cheap.

Much will be made about this bargain but its arguably going to be more of a symbolic than a commercial home run for either the band or streaming music in general. To illustrate this, its worth looking at the impact of other streaming holdouts finally intersecting the digital Rubicon. AC/ DC put their music on Spotify( and other services) in June this year and Back in Black is their most streamed sung on Spotify, with 23.5 m plays to date. Thats great until you recollect Spotify has close to 100 million users, so that works out at a quarter of a song play per person. Its also worth remembering that Spotify has managed to go from a standing start in 2008 to 100 million users without the Beatles.

In PR terms, however, it is a fantastic coup, especially when the two biggest artists in the world today have a very bumpy relationship with streaming. Adele is, for now, refusing to build 25 available on any streaming service and Taylor Swift pulled all her music from Spotify because it would not lock her music so as to be accessed only by subscribers and not by those on its free tier. Get a pre-stereo band to consider the future as lying in streaming is toweringly emblematic.

The Beatles may have, in creative terms, moved at breakneck speed between 1962 and 1970, but when it is necessary to business, they are more tortoise than hare. It took until 1987 before they put out their albums on CD, a format that had been on the market for five years. They only constructed their music available to download in 2010, seven years after the iTunes Store launched. This is partly a legacy of the jumble of confusion in which they left their business affairs when they split, as put forward in forensic detail in Peter Doggetts You Never Dedicate Me Your Money. It is also down to the internecine disputes that defined the post-split relationship between all four members and which still occasionally reappear between Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, and Olivia and Dhani Harrison today.

That told, the Beatles were quick in other areas. Advised by Dhani, they launched a Rock Band game in 2009, right at the franchises commercial peak. McCartney, well into his 70 s, was one of the first western acts to consider the huge potential in Line, the Japanese messaging app. They are not so much future-phobic as fiscally circumspect.

None of them are leaping into the void here as the majority of members of their solo work has been available to river for some time. McCartney did, temporarily, pull his music from Spotify in 2012 but the final piece fell in place in October this year when Harrisons solo work appeared on a variety of streaming services.

What is perhaps most surprising about their Damascene moment as regards streaming is that they didnt get into a bidding war, where the likes of Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and Deezer would have opposed each other for the exclusive. This is what they did with iTunes and downloads half ten years ago, but there appears to be a tacit adoption that confining themselves to one serving in 2015 is a fools errand.

Streaming, with its fraction-of-a-penny royalty rates for each play, has changed the economics of the record business. Even so, the Beatles would not have signed these deals unless they were absolutely sure there were going to be more than enough people putting in their money to make it worth their while.

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