Until a few weeks ago, you couldn’t buy the music of the world’s most recognized rock group online. While brick-and-mortar stores have carried their music since they struck fame in the 1960s, The Beatles have been completely absent from digital distribution, which gained popularity through the creation of the MP3 over a decade ago.

Considering the group’s history of adaptation in both music and technology, their lack of presence online until now is somewhat baffling. Nowhere could one buy Yesterday, Let it Be, Yellow Submarine, or any other hits from The Beatle’s expansive collection of thousands of songs. So why the hold up?

Some speculate that it has to do with the complexity of the group’s legal state. The group’s current living members, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison, must approve of all major decisions relating to the group’s media collection and image before anything can be released.

Others say the long-coming was caused by a trademark dispute between Apple Corps, The Beatle’s record company and Apple Inc., the technology company most likely to usher the Fab Four into the digital age. The companies have battled over Apple Inc.’s use of the use of the word “Apple” since 1978, and as recently as 2006, keeping them distant from a digital distribution deal.

But I’m not sure either of these situations have been the principle cause in keeping The Beatles from an online existence. I think their decision was prompted by the realization that without digital distribution, the popularity of The Beatles’ music may start on a slow decline. The surviving members and heirs to the group that once proudly proclaimed that they were “bigger than Jesus” are scared of becoming irrelevant.

The truth is that The Beatles need to be online to retain their legendary status.
The days of record stores are long over. Even monstrous retailers like Wal-Mart can’t compete with iTunes which has held the position of the world’s largest music retailer since 2008.

I think The Beatles decision was induced mostly by the fear of becoming another irrelevant has-been in the long history of popular music. While my claim is probably a bit too grandiose, I’m not sure it’s far from the truth either.

I work at a television studio part-time, and last week one of my colleagues, who is in her mid-50s, argued that The Beatles didn’t need to go online because “They’re The Beatles, for goodness sakes!”

I politely disagreed. Yes, they’re the most popular musical group to have lived, but there will eventually come a time that their extreme fame will slowly fade.

Without digital distribution, young people would have no opportunity to listen and appreciate Hey Jude, Come Together, and Eleanor Rigby. Many young teenagers will not even own CDs in the near future. This summer as I was cleaning out my closet at home I stumbled across my old Sony Discman. How foreign it looked to my MP3-trained eyes.

While some hold onto the nostalgia of CDs, floppy disks, and other physical media, I think it’s time we fully embrace the digital realm, which brings accessibility and portability to the music that we’ve always loved. Even The Beatles have realized that they can’t hold onto the physical media world for much longer.

“It’s fantastic to see the songs we originally released on vinyl receive as much love in the digital world as they did the first time around,” Paul McCartney said in an Apple Inc. press release announcing the event.

At first glance, it appears their move is working too. According to Reuters, the group sold over 2 million songs in the first week of its iTunes debut, including 450,000 complete albums. Fading into pop history? I don’t think so, thanks to digital download.

Preston Johnson

Preston Johnson is a technology enthusiast who focuses on writing about new technology, trends, and ethical concerns relating to technology in our modern age.

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