If you’re the type who would care, you probably know: the long-promised remastered versions of the Beatles’ albums will finally be released this year on September 9. (“Number 9” … yes, we get it. Even better if they had come out in October — i.e., the one after 9/09.)
I’ve been following this story — what very little there has been of it to follow — for about three years now, ever since the Apple Computer/Apple Corps trial, when the secretive Neil Aspinall was forced to admit in court proceedings that he was, in fact, supervising a total revamping of the group’s catalog. Questions that had been fruitlessly batted back and forth are now finally answered. Yes, the mono Sgt. Pepper will come out; in fact, all of the albums will be available in mono (except for Abbey Road, which was never released that way). Yes, the music has been cleaned up in a way that, we are assured, adds the punch expected of contemporary rock while still being true to the original mixes’ ambience. Yes, even the original, oddball stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul will come out, which most people will likely not bother to listen to more than once. And while no details of packaging have been released, we know we can get all these goodies in two fell swoops: all of the stereo albums and all the mono albums will be available in two separate box sets.
It was that last detail that really brought it home to me, that illuminated what should have been a patently obvious fact: they are going to sell a shitload of discs.
I think the reason I never bothered to think of it is that parallel to the tantalizing prospect of remastered Beatles tracks has run the story of another, long-delayed, Beatles milestone, the availability of the tracks for online purchase and download. Every imminent Macworld Expo or iPod announcement brought a fresh crop of rumors that this, finally, would be the one where Jobs could make the announcement that, so we all believe, he has been so eager to make: that the world’s greatest band was coming to the world’s biggest music retailer.
Except, honestly, I never gave much of a shit whether or when the Beatles went digital. Five years ago, before iTunes had cemented its grip on the digital music market, the Fabs’ presence might have made a difference; had one of the upstart services like MTV managed to lure them with a sweetheart deal, it would have given iTunes a serious black eye and, possibly, some worthy competition. As it is, despite some grumbling in the Beatles’ camp about not seeing eye-to-eye with Apple on prices, there is no viable third-party alternative for the Beatles in going online. Amazon, despite running a very nice digital download service, barely has double-digit market share, and going with an also-ran service would cheapen the Beatles’ image enough to not be worth whatever concessions the band could get. If the Beatles don’t go with iTunes, they’ll open their own storefront; right now I’d say it’s even money either way.
But whether the Beatles sell their music through iTunes or from their own servers doesn’t really matter, anymore than whether you buy your CDs at Borders or Best Buy. What really counts — all that really counts — is the music. People are going to want it. Just as the Anthology albums did ten years ago, it will give people an excuse to fall in love with the Beatles again — and it’s going to be a pretty damn good excuse. The albums will be impeccably packaged, with liner notes, photos (the inserts on the current CDs are comically paltry) and even QuickTime documentaries on the making of each album. They are also, from everything I’ve heard so far, going to sound great. Everyone is going to want these.
The L.A. Times quoted a Beatles expert named Martin Lewis:
“There will be cynics who will point quite accurately to the vanishing CD marketplace,” Lewis said. “There’s no doubt it will not do as spectacularly well as had they reissued them in 2001 in the wake of the ‘1’ [hits compilation] album, which has sold 31 million copies worldwide and 8 million in the U.S. But any cynics who say the Beatles have missed the boat will be wrong. This will sell exceedingly well and will be a huge boost to the recorded music industry.
“And if the CD is going to die,” he said, “the Beatles are going to give it a superb wake.”
I think Lewis is wrong and right. I don’t think releasing the albums in the wake of 1 would have helped them sell better. Part of the reason 1 was such a hit was that it was the first high-profile Beatles release people had had a chance to buy in a long time. Releasing the albums after that would likely have led many to think that, actually, 1 was enough for the time being.
But in his second point, Lewis is dead on. EMI and Capitol are going to have a very nice Christmas this year thanks to the Beatles. And I think his point about the death of the CD is a good one — perhaps better than he is aware.
The reissue of the Beatles catalog is, in a way, the ultimate shoe-drop, the event that the music buying public has been unconsciously awaiting since shortly after the CDs first came out (and earned criticism for their mono mixes and overall un-dynamic sound). The first Beatles CDs were issued 23 years ago, and except for some low-key reissues here and there (the White Album anniversary release, Let It Be … Naked), the CDs on store shelves today are the exact same ones that were on the shelves at Sam Goodies or Tower or Virgin back in the late 80s.
I remember how, once the Beatles were out, CDs seemed to have arrived, beginning in earnest their irrevocable shift from yuppie status symbol to a true format for the masses. (I’m old enough to remember when people used to be ridiculed for buying and listening to CDs. Well, at least for buying and listening to Brothers in Arms.) Now we’re witnessing the tail end of that cycle. People are growing more accustomed to the realization that music is information; audiophiles still have the option to buy their black shiny discs, but the fetishization of the music delivery vehicle, whether the vinyl LP, the cassette tape or the CD, is ending. When every CD you buy goes straight onto your iPod anyway, it’s only natural to wonder why you’re bothering with the shiny disc in the first place.
But the Beatles, I predict, will be a special case. The remastered Beatles CDs will be the last music that people will actually want to own on CD. (A friend of mine, in fact, told me they were “probably the last CDs I will ever buy.”) They may not realize it consciously, but buying the Beatles on CD one last time will serve as a tacit farewell to an entire era, when we helped change the economics of the music industry by happily buying our favorite music again and again, each time with a promise of improved fidelity, of more sumptuous packaging — of somehow being closer to the music we cared about. Cynics have always derided this, seeing the industry’s treadmill of reissues as nothing more than a ruse for parting nostalgic music lovers from more of their money. But there was always more to it than that, wasn’t there? Re-buying an album in a better edition was a small act of devotion, a conscious renewing of ties with a work of art that gave your life a little extra meaning. Loading up your player with the stereo mix of Pet Sounds or the 5.1 version of Dark Side of the Moon was both thrilling and familiar, a batch of impending surprises you knew you were going to love. All that for, what, 12 bucks? A bargain.
So it will be with the Beatles. People will once again savor the experience of viewing the new packaging and photos, reading the new liner notes, hearing the opening notes of “I Saw Her Standing There” or “Help!” or “Back in the U.S.S.R.” as though for the first time. What ensuing CD purchase, what classic album reissue, can live up to that? Once the definitive Beatles CDs are safely on the shelf, why bother with music on shiny discs again?