The biggest band in history has finally decided to sell its music online. The Beatles were one of the last holdouts who refused to sell digital downloads of their songs. That changed Tuesday morning, when the band's entire catalog appeared in Apple's iTunes music store. But the Fab Four might have waited too long.
Apple teased the deal with a message on its home page that said this would be "a day you'll never forget." For most, that would be hyperbole. But not for Apple CEO Steve Jobs. By all accounts, Jobs is a Beatles fan, and it bothered him that you couldn't buy the band's music from the biggest online music retailer, iTunes.
"It was a symbolic thing. It was like a white whale for Steve Jobs," says Steven Levy, who has written a book about Jobs and the iPod called Insanely Great. "He loves The Beatles personally. He has a relationship with Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono. I think it was a thorn in his paw that he didn't have The Beatles there."
That relationship has been strained over the years by a series of lawsuits alleging trademark infringement.
The Beatles' record label — officially known as Apple Corps — sued Apple Inc. three times, most recently in 2004, when the computer and iPod maker launched its iTunes music store. When that case settled in 2007, a deal to bring The Beatles' music online seemed imminent. But the band took its time. Roger Faxon is the CEO of EMI Group, the label that distributes The Beatles' music.
"The Beatles are very, very conscious of their responsibility to this catalog and the heritage it represents," Faxon says. "It has taken some time for them to be comfortable that the online world can do justice to the Beatles catalog."
Faxon says the band's exclusive deal with iTunes will last for "some months," if not longer. And, while that looks like a marketing coup for Apple, some think The Beatles could have sold many more digital downloads if the band had moved more quickly.
"It's pretty hard to find somebody who does like The Beatles who hasn't already got it in some form or another," says Charles Arthur, the technology editor of the Guardian newspaper in London.
"I don't quite see what the business proposition is, apart from a sort of completist thing," Arthur says. "You know, to make Steve Jobs happy that finally, Apple Inc. has Apple Records on the iTunes Store."
There may be another reason Jobs wants to do the deal now. Levy says Apple is rumored to be working on a so-called cloud music service, where customers can stream any song they want directly to their computer or phone.
"To create this jukebox with everything in it, it would seem pretty empty without The Beatles," Levy says.
Apple representatives declined to be interviewed for this story. So did a representative for The Beatles. But in a written statement, the band's drummer, Ringo Starr, said, "I am particularly glad to no longer be asked when The Beatles are coming to iTunes." One suspects that Steve Jobs feels the same way.