x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Let it be downloaded

Now, available for download on iTunes, the entire Beatles back catalogue. At last.

The coming together of The Beatles and iTunes certainly makes getting your hands on the music more convenient but what about enjoying the entire Red Album from start to finish?
The coming together of The Beatles and iTunes certainly makes getting your hands on the music more convenient but what about enjoying the entire Red Album from start to finish?

There was a frisson of excitement when I clicked on the iTunes store icon yesterday afternoon and realised - it's pretty difficult not to realise, to be honest - that there, to download, was the entire Beatles back catalogue. At last.

After years of legal wrangling (once, the Apple name was rather more synonymous with The Beatles' own record label than iPhones and MacBooks) an mp3 of A Hard Day's Night was now available. Perhaps it should have been renamed A Hard Day's Byte.

But, with the cursor flickering over the purchase icon, I paused. I already own these songs many times over, on vinyl, CD and in the case of the Red Album, double cassette - even though I don't actually possess a cassette player anymore. In a box by the television is The Beatles: Rock Band on Xbox360. One wonders if there's actually anybody left in the world who wants their songs, but doesn't already have them.

So, presuming that there isn't, what does the news that the Beatles and Apple have finally Come Together actually mean? For Ringo Starr at least, it's nothing more than a relief. "I am particularly glad to no longer be asked when the Beatles are coming to iTunes," he quipped yesterday. But when the dust settles, it doesn't really mark "the coming of age for digital music", as British Phonographic Industry chief executive Geoff Taylor proclaimed. That moment already happened way back in 2005, when sales of downloaded singles first outstripped those on CD. The Beatles have been responsible for many things - but they haven't quite killed the CD as a format. Yet.

But the death knell is certainly sounding for the whole concept of an album. It's become almost quaint to sit down and listen to a record in the order it was intended, from beginning to end. Recently, I did just that for the remastered Let It Be, which, in 2003, Paul McCartney restored to something approaching its original sound. The favourites are all there; The Long and Winding Road, Across the Universe and, of course, Let It Be itself. But it's far more entertaining and enthralling as a full 35-minute experience, particularly when the emotional heft of Let It Be is sandwiched between Dig It (a slapdash three-chord jam) and a folk song about a Liverpool prostitute (Maggie Mae).

But because the Beatles songs are now available to download as individual tracks, it's inevitable that people won't consume their music by listening to a time-consuming album anymore. They'll pick and choose their favourites, play the songs using the shuffle function, or make playlists to fit the exact length of their run at the health club. In fact, because Dig It and Maggie Mae are both less than a minute long, it's doubtful that, at 99p a go, they'll be downloaded at all. It's simply not cost effective.

Still, if there is a benefit to selling these tracks individually, it's that for the first time it'll be possible to see exactly which Beatles songs - rather than albums - are most popular. At the time of writing, the two major late-period anthems, which always feature heavily in unofficial polls - Hey Jude and Let It Be - are unsurprisingly in the top three. But currently they're separated by one of their most throwaway early pop songs, Twist and Shout. It's intriguing stuff, if only because it proves that people are still enthralled by the sheer narrative of The Beatles' career; from the boyish group rattling out skiffle covers to one of the greatest, most inventive bands of all time.

Not enthralled enough, though, to knock pop's JLS off the top of the iTunes chart in the UK. In fact, Hey Jude only limped to No.40 in the singles charts yesterday. Admittedly, it had only been available for a matter of hours, but Take That and Westlife could also rest easily in the knowledge that the original boy band still had some catching up to do. And that's not surprising, really. In the end, Apple boss Steve Jobs might be "realising a dream" by getting his favourite band on iTunes, but for everyone else, it's a convenient rather than exciting development. Convenient. Not very rock'n'roll, is it?