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

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

In the late 1990s, a senior executive from EMI lugged a laptop to Friar Park, George Harrison’s sprawling neo-Gothic mansion in Henley-on-Thames, to guide him through mockups of his first official website. After the executive showed 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 just one question. “That’s all well and good,” he said, jabbing the computer screen, “but where do they put the money in?”

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

It was never a matter of “if” with the Beatles and streaming but rather “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 delicately, especially for an act that drives such enormous catalogue sales and who never bowed to market pressure to make their albums available at mid-price. There was also the added corporate complication of the band’s catalogue being sold to Universal in 2011 as part of the dismantling and auctioning off of EMI, meaning the location of the negotiating table moved, as did the people sitting around it. The deal terms will, of course, be kept private but there is no chance they are selling off the family silver cheap.

Much will be made about this deal – but it’s 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, it’s worth looking at the impact of other streaming holdouts finally crossing 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 song on Spotify, with 23.5m plays to date. That’s great until you remember Spotify has close to 100 million users, so that works out at a quarter of a song play per person. It’s 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 make 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. Getting a pre-stereo band to see 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 comes 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 made 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 laid out in forensic detail in Peter Doggett’s You Never Give 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 said, the Beatles were quick in other areas. Advised by Dhani, they launched a Rock Band game in 2009, right at the franchise’s commercial peak. McCartney, well into his 70s, was one of the first western acts to see 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 most of their solo work has been available to stream 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 Harrison’s solo work appeared on a variety of streaming services.

What is perhaps most surprising about their Damascene moment as regards streaming is that they didn’t get into a bidding war, where the likes of Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and Deezer would have fought each other for the exclusive. This is what they did with iTunes and downloads half a decade ago, but there appears to be a tacit acceptance that confining themselves to one service in 2015 is a fool’s 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.


Eamonn Forde

The GuardianTramp

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