Beatles on iTunes? It's not such a big deal

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stu-mugshot2.jpgStuart Dredge writes…

Right now, the Apple online gossip-hounds are distracted by trying to think up more rumours big enough to shave a few billion of the company’s share price. I’ve heard Steve Jobs is about to jump ship to Microsoft to kickstart Zune sales *taps nose*

But chances are that next week, we’ll all be back to our favourite Apple-related rumour: that Beatles songs are about to make their digital debut on the iTunes Store. At least it has some authority behind it now: last week Sir Paul McCartney himself said that a Beatles digital deal was “virtually settled”.

The long-running legal battle between Apple (the iTunes company) and Apple (the Beatles management company) is thought to be what nixed any chances of Fab Four downloads in the past, although why this prevented Beatles tunes being sold through rival online stores is beyond me.

itunes-beatles.jpgYet even before McCartney’s hint last week, there’ve been rumours building of a solution. In January, for example, Steve Jobs teased Apple fans at the Macworld Expo by playing a track off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the iPhone, sparking reports that an iTunes/Beatles tie-up would be unveiled in a Superbowl advert. It wasn’t.

More rumours were sparked when the two Apples settled their legal dispute, albeit with no mention of Beatles tunes. In March, music download service Wippit grabbed some cheeky publicity by trailing Beatles digital downloads, only for them to turn out to be archive video footage and news reports, not actual music.

And even in the run-up to Apple’s announcement that it would be selling DRM-free songs from record label EMI’s artists, some wags suggested that the top-secret announcement would be… yep, Beatley.

Let’s face it: Beatles songs will be on iTunes sooner or later – and probably sooner given Macca’s latest declaration. Expect huge amounts of media froth when it is finally announced, along the lines that it’s the biggest revolution in digital music since the iPod, it’ll fuel millions of downloads, and will see the Top 100 dominated by Beatles songs in the first week they go on sale. Even if, like a post-nuclear cockroach, at least one Snow Patrol tune is bound to cling onto a Top 10 slot.

Here’s the thing though. I just don’t think Beatles downloads will be a big deal. At all. It seems a big leap to assume that millions of people will rush to download the Beatles catalogue en-masse and junk their Fab Four CDs just because they can. Especially if the files are DRM-protected on iTunes, so only capable of being played on a computer or iPod.

It would certainly suit Apple to have a huge Beatles exclusive, of course, but it’s unclear whether even Steve Jobs at his most persuasive could swing it for the band’s albums to be made available as DRM-free files along the lines of Apple’s deal with EMI. Swizzy digitally-remastered versions would be one selling point, sure, but only if the bitrate quality is better than regular iTunes downloads.

I’m not suggesting that the Beatles won’t be top-sellers on iTunes and other online stores. But to see them as the cavalry charging in to persuade sceptical consumers that digital music downloads are cool after all seems misguided, and detracts from the knotty issues such as DRM which are more likely to be impeding the growth of the digital music market.

Stuart Dredge