Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Beatles on iTunes: the Price is Wrong

Something for you to think about . . .

The Beatles' 'red' and 'blue' compilations have recently been reissued as 2-CD remasters. They're selling for £9.99 in stores (if you can find a store) and £7.99 on Amazon. But as album packages, they cost £17.99 EACH from iTunes. For that price, you can buy a special presentation set of both releases from Amazon.

It's the same story with the individual albums: £9.99 for physical CDs, £7.99 on Amazon, and £10.99 as downloads.

I'm not surprised about the 'red' and 'blue' sets, as they've been the focus of corporate greed ever since they first appeared on CD, at something like £30 for each (very short) 2-CD package. Last year, they were generously reduced to £23.99 each. And then the remastered editions arrive, in super-improved quality, at less than half the price. Very strange.

But this whole pricing conundrum raises the question of why anyone is buying (for example) Sgt. Pepper direct from iTunes, when they could buy the CD for three pounds less, burn it onto their computer, transfer it to their iPod, and then still have the CD to keep or give to a friend. I'm not criticising iTunes, whose take from download sales is (I am reliably informed) only around 4% of the retail price. But it does make you think about the madness of the music business (2010 model) and the power of the Beatles' name.

Random thoughts on the iTunes deal

The Wall Street Journal has posted an interesting account of the negotiations that led to the release of the Beatles' catalogue for digital download:

It confirms my theory in my last post: Apple (the Beatles' company) deliberately chose not to make the downloads available at the same time as the remastered CDs last year, to ensure that download sales didn't eat into the profits of the CDs. Score one for the Machiavelli team.

What Machiavelli and his men hadn't counted on was that the day's news cycle would be dominated not by the Beatles on iTunes, but by the announcement of a royal wedding. There must have been a certain amount of cursing in corporate boardrooms when that story emerged yesterday morning.

Not that sales have been affected too much. The last time I checked, 20 of the Top 100 most popular songs on US iTunes were by the Beatles, and 10 of the Top 100 in the UK. 'Here Comes The Sun' was the top pick in the States; 'Hey Jude' in the UK. But significantly neither of those songs has yet showed up in the Top 20. We'll get a clearer picture of what's been happening at the end of the week.

I don't subscribe to iTunes, or indeed download any music, legally or illegally; my computer probably isn't up to it. So I'm left wondering: how careful have Apple/EMI/Apple been about the dividing line between songs that are seamlessly merged together on vinyl and CD? To choose a key example: if you buy 'A Day In The Life' by itself, how does the download start? Is it a clean beginning, or does your purchase begin with a few stray notes from the previous track? Any information gratefully received . . .

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Beatles on iTunes: Cock-up or Coup?

More than seven years after the launch of the iTunes service prompted Beatles/Apple executive Neil Aspinall to sue Apple Computers, the Beatles' music is finally available this afternoon for digital download - legally. For $1.29 or 99p, you can now obtain official access to any song from the Beatles' catalogue. The service's one-price-fits-all ethos means that eight minutes plus of 'Revolution 9' costs as much as the twenty-odd seconds of 'Her Majesty'; likewise, seven minutes of 'Hey Jude' is no more expensive than the minute-long madness of 'Wild Honey Pie'.

If you prefer, you can download the individual albums for a little more than it will cost you to buy the equivalent CD, if you shop around; or you can splash out for an entire Beatles box, which includes a complete film of the group's first US concert, at the Washington Coliseum in February 1964.

The long-awaited announcement from the frequently warring parties of Apple, EMI and the Beatles marks an end - for the moment, he said cynically - to the legal battles that have scarred their three-way relations for years. It's being treated as a major international news story, but then everything involving the Beatles always is. What remains to be seen is whether the lengthy delay has merely increased anticipation and demand, or whether this announcement is simply too late.

Conventional wisdom suggests that everyone involved in this saga has lost money, in enormous quantities, by delaying the iTunes release. It's understood that, once relations between Apple (the computer company) and Apple (the Beatles' base) had been normalised, the sticking-point was an all-too-familiar financial quarrel between the Beatles and their record distributors since 1962, EMI. Typically, the two sides were unable to agree on precisely how the proceeds from the downloads should be divided between them. So instead of raking in the proceeds from downloads for the past few years, they've been splashing out cash on lawyers and legal advice instead. In theory, the optimum time to release the downloads would have been last year, when the remastered CDs reached the shops, and a brief wave of Beatlemania hypnotised the worldwide media.

But I'm wondering whether the delay might actually turn out to have suited everyone (except maybe iTunes, who are the clear losers) quite nicely. Consider this theory. Exhausted by the wait for downloads, many casual buyers may have bought one or more of the CDs instead, alongside those fans who splashed out on the lot. Now, more than a year later, many of these purchasers might be tempted to fork out again, especially with the prospect of the Washington concert as a bonus. I've already seen online posts from fans who bought both the mono and stereo box sets last year, but who can't wait to buy all the same music one more time, just to keep their collections complete.

So when the Beatles and EMI draw up their profit-and-loss accounts, they will have to balance the potential income they lost last year against the financial value of two waves of publicity hype, and possibly a double dose of purchasing power again. If my guess is right, and enough fans turn out to have bought the CDs and the downloads, then the iTunes delay may prove to be a stroke of Machiavellian genius, rather than the commercial disaster that many people (myself included) had always assumed it must be.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Album on the run

A new HMV store has opened in my local town centre, two years after the last DVD/CD shop closed. It's tiny, and is dominated by games and DVD box sets. The only CDs are in the two-for-£10 range, apart from a display of the latest chart albums.

On the top shelf of that display sits the £74.95 deluxe edition of Band On The Run, looking more like a photo album (remember those?) than anything I can imagine as a record. If they'd had the cheap edition, I'd have bought it - but it wasn't there.

So I walked down the street to W.H. Smith's, which in my youth was the only shop locally that sold either books or records. The books are still there - but the CD section has gone, apart from a selection of ten random albums on the stairs. And no Paul McCartney.

When Band On The Run was originally released, I had to buy - and return - three vinyl copies at that branch of Smith's, because they all jumped through 'Mamunia'. Eventually I wrote to EMI, who admitted there was a fault with the initial pressing, and sent me another copy - which jumped. So back it went, and almost a month had passed before a working copy finally arrived on my doorstep.

So here we are, more than 35 years later, and I still can't find a copy of Band On The Run. Yes, I can order it online, but the experience isn't the same. I wanted the joy of finding it on the shelf, turning it in my hands, and making the decision to walk towards the till. Clicking a button on my computer doesn't have the same 'romance' about it. But then 'romance' and 'the music business' parted company a long time ago.

Monday, 8 November 2010

McCartney "Scoop"? Ono

There was a mildly interesting interview with Paul McCartney in yesterday's issue of The Observer:

If I'd never read another McCartney interview, then I might have replaced "mildly" with "very". But many of his quotes could have been taken almost word-for-word from the ITV documentary about the making of Band On The Run, and other recent media appearances. Paul has never been one of those subjects who could make every individual interview sound different, unlike his former writing partner.

I was especially amused by the Observer's decision to claim a "scoop" for something that Paul described with exactly that word, but only as a joke. This was the "revelation" that Linda McCartney contributed a vocal harmony line to the 'Let It Be' single - something that has been well-known amongst Beatles fans for more than 20 years. (It was certainly mentioned in Mark Lewisohn's history of the Beatles' recording sessions in the 80s.)

Elsewhere, Paul reveals that he has just spoken to original Wings drummer Denny Seiwell; but as usual there's no mention beyond the obligatory namecheck for the only ever-present, non-McCartney member of Wings: Denny Laine. Those who didn't know that Laine had disgraced himself in Paul's eyes by selling his story to the tabloids in the 80s must have wondered why he didn't appear on the ITV show.

The real "scoop" in The Observer, if there is one, is Paul's willingness to describe Yoko Ono as his friend, when he could easily have said "business partner", "colleague" or indeed "lifelong antagonist". In the McCartney/Ono saga, a kind word from one side often sparks an insult from the other, so I await Yoko's response with interest . . .

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Man On The Run

Two live appearances on Later With Jools Holland, and an ITV interview with Dermot O'Leary, have alerted the British public to the return of Paul McCartney's Band On The Run album.

The Jools Holland shows first: McCartney and his impeccably accomplished touring band performed 'Jet' and 'Band On The Run' during the live-as-it-happens, no-place-to-hide edition of the show, and then reprised 'Jet' alongside '1985' and 'Let Me Roll It' on the pre-recorded hour-long remake, broadcast three days later. Paul also sat at Holland's piano for a pair of bland interviews. The most revelatory moment came when Holland briefly chatted with Alice Cooper, who recalled that he had once given McCartney a circular bed. "I've still got it", Paul shouted across the studio.

And the performances? The band couldn't be faulted, and neither could Paul's musicianship, as he switched from bass to guitar ('Let Me Roll It') and piano ('1985'). His vocals were dodgy in the lower register, but no worse than those of Neil Diamond, who was on the same show; and when he reached his upper register he sounded magnificent, almost unchanged since the mid-70s. His age betrayed itself most overtly when he was interviewed, as his voice sounded strangely constricted, as if he was having difficulty shaping some of his words.

Noticeably this problem wasn't evident at all in the hour-long ITV 'documentary' (or promotional vehicle) hosted by the affable but sometimes over-matey Dermot O'Leary. Long-time observers could tick off each anecdote as it arrived - Dustin Hoffman and 'Picasso's Last Words', the mugging on the streets of Lagos - but McCartney's demeanour was relaxed, candid and friendly throughout. It was a masterful piece of media theatrics, offering intimacy while retaining his privacy, and reassuring the public that he is still the loveable moptop of old.

On the basis of the Holland shows, McCartney the performer is also battling the ravages of age with more success than most of his peers. If the bizarrely ageless Cliff Richard represents one end of the 65+ spectrum, and the ragged and rasping Bob Dylan the other, then McCartney is definitely on the Cliff side of the see-saw. But whereas Dylan has deliberately set out to make himself resemble the grizzled bluesmen who were his idols when he was 21, McCartney still sells himself on his youthfulness, energy, and fidelity to his original sound. Before too long he'll have a decision to make: letting the world see the reality of the baby-boomer generation reaching its 70s, or making a graceful escape from the spotlight. Until then, he's always on the run, with age snapping ever closer at his heels.