Friday, September 25, 2009

Beatlemania Is Overrated

The Beatles are the sacred cow of Western popular music. In many circles, if you suggest that you prefer Led Zepplin, the Rolling Stones, or the Isley Brothers, you’re sure to be met with a vehement and fervent evangelizing, aimed to turn you away from your sin.
The Isley Brothers - "Twist and Shout"

There’s no question that the Beatles were a popular culture phenomenon and that they delivered some of the most memorable pop songs of the last 50 years. They, along with the Beach Boys with Pet Sounds, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye produced the seminal recordings that defined the pop album as a cohesive creative work, not just a collection of singles.

This is not about the quality of Beatles’ music. It’s about what they mean, and what they have meant.

It’s hard not to view the releases of the re-mastered recordings as the labored gasp of a struggling man, bound by his own shortsightedness and greed. There’s no doubt that there’s a market for the discs because they do offer genuine value. Who wouldn’t want to hear more pristine versions of classics like Rubber Soul, The White Album and Sgt. Peppers? And it’s been a long, excruciating 22-year wait.

Still, there’s an air of desperation to EMI Music CEO Elio Leoni-Sceti’s declaration that "Beatlemania has returned,” especially when the statement is made on the heels of Guy Hands’ mea culpa for having purchased EMI at all, let alone overpaying for it.

There’s also a sense of déjà vu. It was almost 10 years ago when EMI once again boasted of the Beatles’ staying power and the impact they were having three decades after they first started recording. The song remains the same. The sales, however likely will not. In 2000, Beatles 1 sold 3.6 million copies in the first week. It eventually went on to sell 31 million copies worldwide. The Beatles entire catalog has sold 2.2 million copies in five days. Is anyone willing to take the odds that these re-mastered titles collectively will ever match Beatles 1?

This week I bumped into a passionate 30-something Beatles fan on a message board. She was disputing my contention that the core audience for the Beatles was aging. Her evidence?
“I have had so many parents and staff members at my throat everyday begging me to burn them copies of the Beatles."

The Beatles mean so much to this woman’s peers that they want a burn, but will they go shell out the bucks themselves? Downloaded MP3s of the re-mastered classics won’t do. But, burned copies or a swapped hard drive loaded with lossless versions will suffice for many. The coming weeks’ numbers will tell the tale.

It’s understandable that EMI would repackage as many of the titles in their vault every which way they can while there is still a market for CDs. It’s just business and EMI has an amazing catalog. Of course, it’s not anywhere near as egregious as the Frank Sinatra Duet recordings. But like the bump after Michael Jackson’s death, the Beatles sales boost does engender the same longing for and reminiscing over the days when CD sales were on the bubble.

In the late 90’s when CDs were at their peak, accounting for $16.4 billion in revenue in 1999, it certainly seemed like it could never end. Being on the frontlines in an EMI-owned company, I experienced that heady feeling. It was irresistible. Even after sales began to slide and I had left the building, there were still blockbusters like Norah Jones and Usher to reassure anyone who preferred to view the industry’s Paul Reveres as Chicken Littles.

Now, after consecutive years of double-digit declines, the fall triumph of the Beatles after the summer of the King of Pop is bittersweet, signaling the end of an era. It was an era when most everyone swayed in time to the same beat. When pop stars were untouchable. They were gods, or so some of them thought. There was a scarcity. (Again, 22 years is a long time.) There was anticipation.

Today’s music and musicians are everywhere, even in places where they shouldn’t be. We know everything about them as it happens, including whether or not they remembered or cared to put on underwear. The mystery is gone. Though the challenges, disputes, loves and breakups of the Beatles played out publicly, the levels of access and immediacy were different. Rumors took time to confirm. There were no camera phones to document transgressions and post to YouTube in a matter of minutes. Nor were their global venues to dissect every move with friends and strangers from all over the world.

Yes, something has most certainly been lost, if you remember what it was once like.

On the other hand, something has also been gained and doors have opened. It is now possible that the next big thing could come from some artist in a part of the world that most Americans could not have easily or affordably visited when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Those artists no longer have to wait for a company to decide that they are market viable in Western terms. Nor do we have to wait for the lens of the once dominant popular culture to tell us they are worth listening to because they conform to certain aesthetics.

Instead we can listen with the click of a mouse or touch of a mobile screen. The wonder of discovery can be revived through artists not in our own backyard, singing songs in a language not our own. The beauty of anticipation can be renewed by the live performance, which is scarce compared to the availability of recordings and scarcer still for artists outside of the geography we may typically traverse.

What of new music fans another decade from now? Will there be millions of them spending money on all things Beatles? Probably not, because though the Beatles produced classic recordings that will always have fans, over time the interest will wane as the personal connections fade, as has been the case for the stars of previous generations.

But we don’t have to feel deprived because of the decline. If we look forward instead of looking back, the gap can be filled with a diversity of talent delivering their own future classics. Nostalgia can be a heavy anchor on curiosity. Pull it up and try these waters:

Garth Trinidad's Chocolate City on KCRW
Darek Mazzone's Wo' Pop on KEXP
Mason Rothert's Below Zero
Global Soul on WOMR


  1. great article. interesting, pretty much the only music on my itunes right now that i didnt purchase myself is the entire beatles archive. i guess they just seemed like a band ya gotta have it all for. im seeing myself turning fast towards downloading music. i protested for a long time, but im realizing that not much can be done at this point- downloading is only getting easier. it seems to be a "ya can't beat 'em, join 'em" situation. the music business will have to evolve with our culture just like anything does.
    And put emphasis on live music.

    thanks for this. buika sounds great!

  2. Lucas,
    Thank you for reading. Change is hard, but evolve or die, as the saying goes. Music brings out the passion in people, including those who work in the business so I have faith in the future.

    A return to an emphasis on live music would get no argument from me. Back to basics, before the gramophone, or the printing press for that matter.

    Buika is a fantastic singer. I hope you have the opportunity to see her perform. You won't be disappointed.

  3. Great piece, I wonder if the nostalgia can't be maintained or revived through formats such as gaming etc. It seems a whole new generation will discover the beatles through a new level of "interactivity." I have not downloaded the beatles... yet. But I am beyond tempted. I love buika by the way. she epitomizes the heart and depth of what we call vocal performance these days. conversely, after the buika vid I discovered kiko navvarro and few buika remixes today that I didn't know existed. This day and age is truly amazing.