Imagine: Getting Beatles Songs on iTunes

The Rolling Stones. The Jackson Five. Bruce Springsteen. You name a band and it probably has its music for sale online.

Except, that is, the Beatles.

The best-selling band of all time is noticeably absent from the digital realm. But that could change soon. Rumors have long surrounded some type of deal between the Beatles and an online retailer such as iTunes. But no deal has materialized.

With Apple again making a big product announcement today, many industry watchers are once again waiting -- some would say eagerly -- for an iTunes-Beatles deal.

Today's announcement didn't included the Beatles -- although John Lennon once appeared on screen -- but such a deal is probably not too far off, say those who follow such things.

"The Beatles are really the holy grail for digital music, said Aram Sinnreich, a professor at New York University's department of media culture and communications and managing partner of Radar Research LLC, a media consulting firm. "They have not been available legally from any digital music service to date. Once they are, I think it confers the sense that digital music has finally arrived in the mainstream."

A Beatles deal would mean millions of dollars, with the group having sold 170 million albums in the United States, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

And don't think that it's just baby boomers who bought LPs decades ago.


In the last 16 years alone, the Beatles have sold 54.9 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which has tracked record sales since 1991. In that time-period -- long after the band broke up -- the Beatles were the second-best selling artists in the country, after Garth Brooks.

"There's no question that there is a massive demand for the Beatles through a digital channel," Sinnreich said, "not only from baby boomers, who would replace the CDs they used to replace their LPs, but also from today's college students, who demonstrate continued interest in the band despite the fact that it's their grandparents' music."

Apple vs. Apple

There has long been friction between Apple Inc. -- which makes computers and iPods and sells songs through iTunes -- and Apple Corp., which along with the EMI Group, controls the rights to all of the Beatles recordings.

EMI owns the recordings, but any decision to publish -- in any format -- must also be agreed upon by Apple Corp., the British company owned by the surviving Beatles and the other band members' heirs.

Both Apple companies declined to talk about a deal allowing the Beatles on iTunes.

"We don't comment on rumors and speculation in general, but as we've said in the past we'd love to have the Beatles catalog on iTunes," said Natalie Kerris, a spokeswoman for Apple and iTunes. "We don't have anything to announce at this time."

Many Beatles fans saw a glimmer of hope in February when the two Apple companies settled their nearly three-decades-long dispute over the Apple trademark. Many industry watchers thought that agreement might clear the way for Beatles songs to be offered on iTunes and other online music stores.

"We love the Beatles, and it has been painful being at odds with them over these trademarks," Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs said at the time. "It feels great to resolve this in a positive manner, and in a way that should remove the potential of further disagreements in the future."

EMI's ownership is separate from Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which owns the lyric copywrites but not the actual recordings to more than 250 Beatles songs. Any time another band wants to record a cover version of a Beatles song, they must pay Sony. Michael Jackson is part owner of Sony/ATV. Jackson paid $47.5 million to buy the 4,000-song ATV catalog in 1985, outbidding John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, and Beatle Paul McCartney.

Ten years later, when Jackson ran into financial difficulties, he sold a share in the catalog, which also includes Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," to Sony.

Lots of Speculation

Such rumors of an iTunes-Beatles deal are nothing new. Those who read the music tea leaves have speculated more than once that Beatle songs would be available online.

The latest raft of speculation comes from the invitations to analysts and members of the media.

The invite includes the phrase "The beat goes on." Several people have taken that phrase as a cue, linking it to the final Beatles press release issued by Apple Records April 10, 1970, following the band's split.

"The world is still spinning and so are we and so are you. When the spinning stops -- that'll be the time to worry, not before," goes the release. "Until then, the Beatles are alive and well and the beat goes on, the beat goes on."

Further fueling speculation are separate deals in recent months in which individual Beatles have made their solo works available online. Just last month, iTunes struck a deal with Yoko Ono allowing for the sale of Lennon's solo albums.

In May, iTunes announced that Paul McCartney's full catalog of 25 solo albums would be available for sale on its site. And just last week, Ringo Starr's solo music became available online.

All these deals came just a few months after the Apple trademark dispute was settled.

Sinnreich said all those deals signal that the keepers of the Beatles library are now opening up to the digital world.

"The ducks have really lined up at this point. At this point I would have to guess that the contract is just a matter of crossing the T's and dotting the I's," Sinnreich said.

He assumes that Apple will try to sign a deal to be the exclusive seller of Beatles songs in exchange for a large upfront payment.

In fact, Sinnreich suggested that Apple might never break even on sales of Beatles songs for the price it will have to pay. But that such a deal would be worthwhile for the marketing power of having such an exclusive deal.

However, he said time is running out. Such a deal only pays if iTunes can offer the Beatles for this holiday season with enough time to properly market.

In other words, Sinnreich said, a deal should happen by the end of the month.

"It could happen," he said, "at any day at this point."