Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Intellectual Property Blues, Beatles Edition

cross-posted at Dagblog

So, the Beatles are finally available on iTunes, goo goo goo joob. And the news has been greeted with a resounding yawn; many people claim that the move is much, much too late to be hip, and too late to be hip, in the music business, means too late to make a sale. [UPDATE: Since the Beatles sold 2 million songs and 450,000 albums n iTunes this week, I was obviously completely wrong about this.] Anyway, as every music columnist has already pointed out, Beatles fans all ripped all of their CDs to iPods years ago. (Disclaimer: Dr. Cleveland is a Beatles fan with an iPod. He did in fact rip all his Beatles CDs years ago.) But this John-Paul-George-and-Ringo-come-lately move isn't an isolated case: it's part of an ongoing intellectual-property management strategy by the Beatles' people, a strategy that tries to preserve their value by preserving scarcity and keeping prices high. And while that sounds like a reasonable strategy, it's probably going to hurt them in the long run.

For example, The Beatles have never allowed songs in movie soundtracks until this year. Their manager/loyalist/gatekeeper Neil Aspinall, who recently passed away, forbade it. You could pay for cover versions, but the actual tracks were the holy of holies and you couldn't have them. This is why you have never seen a movie set in the 1960s, unless it was Help! or A Hard Day's Night!, in which anyone was listening to the Beatles. Think about it. Think of a movie set between 1964 and, say, 1971 or 1973. What's on the soundtrack? If the characters put on a record or turn on their radio, what do they hear?

Hendrix. Janis. Puff the Magic Dragon. If the movie's budget is too low, Canned Heat. Now, all of that stuff was playing back then. It's "realistic," in the movie sense that those records were actually being played in the time period. And there's plenty of great music from the 1960s that can be licensed cheaply for films. (The Jefferson Airplane's people aren't holding out for top dollar.) So, naturally, film makers put the inexpensive songs on the sound track.

Here's the funny part: if you grew up with films about the 1960s, rather than personal memories of that decade, it probably seems to you as if those less expensive songs, the K-Tel Greatest Hits, were more popular than they were. And it will seem to you as if the Beatles never got played at all. In fact, the Beatles had a kind of carpet-bombing dominance of the airwaves and the record charts for years on end, a kind of dominance that we don't see anymore (and therefore don't intuitively find plausible). In the actual 1960s, the Beatles were ubiquitous. In the film version of the 1960s they're nowhere (man). Our mass media prompts us to imagine a 1960s in which "White Rabbit" was playing constantly and the "Strawberry Fields" never got air time. In fact, it's just the reverse. You hear "White Rabbit" so much now because it was only pretty successful back then.

(Ask a college kid who was more popular in 1968, Hendrix or the Beatles. They will take it as a serious question, and it isn't. Hendrix was a star, but the Beatles were crazy monster supernovas. Jimi's biggest single peaked at #20, which is roughly comparable to how the B-Side to "Paperback Writer" did. Even major figures like Dylan and the Stones, who are in the conversation with the Beatles, didn't have the same kind of success or market power.)

Now, the Apple Records "no soundtrack" policy makes obvious sense as a way to preserve the value of the Beatles brand, by enforcing scarcity. And the new policy will just be a kinder, gentler version of the old one, since the prices to license a Beatles tune for a film will still be sky-high. (One of the three songs licensed this year cost the studio $1.5 million dollars.) But in practice, this strategy has the unexpected effect of undermining younger listeners' sense of the Beatles' importance. The band seems less central, and less important, which means they eventually become less influential and important. This may be hard for some Baby Boomers to understand, because the Beatles' magnitude seems so inescapably obvious to them. But younger listeners weren't there for the Sixties, and the Beatles got left out of the movies.

(The Stones have a different strategy: they license songs for movie soundtracks, but not for soundtrack albums. The songs in the movies keep the band in the public mind, but if you want to buy the record you've got to buy The Stones. It's a smart business strategy; Mick went to the London School of Economics, after all.)

Anyway, here's some free promotion for the Fab Four, because they were pretty good on their off days:

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