[Editor’s note: This post was first written by Joe Esposito on July 6, 2008, for the now (sadly) moribund blog Pubfrontier. It is reposted here today with slight emendations to mark the 55th anniversary of the day when John Lennon met Paul McCartney.]
It was 55 years ago today, on July 6, 1957 (not 1955, as Time magazine subsequently reported), that on the fairgrounds in Liverpool, Paul McCartney met John Lennon for the first time. From that time through 1970, when the band formally broke up, musical and social history were made.
Another kind of history was made as well, as the Beatles represent the apotheosis of a particular business model for the media industry, the now-derided practice of creating copyrighted works and selling them, copy by copy, for profit. It is worth considering how the Beatles’ music may have been different if the group were starting out in the post-Napster era.
The Beatles’ economic fortunes exploded when Brian Epstein took over the band’s management. Although Epstein’s history is no secret, it is perhaps underappreciated that he came to the Beatles from his role as the manager of his family’s record store. Records — he sold records, physical instantiations of copyrighted material, which were sold one by one. It was the orientation of the record salesman that Epstein brought to the Beatles. Everything that he directed them to do was intended to promote the sale of records.
It was to sell more records that Epstein booked the Beatles on exhausting tours, first in Great Britain, later around the world. The tale of the Beatles’ years with Epstein, wonderfully described in Bob Spitz’s biography “The Beatles,” is the tale of the whirlwind, of hotel rooms, security guards, and waiting limousines (“Pick up the bags and get in the limousine”). For the Ed Sullivan Show, which catapulted the Beatles to a new level of fame in the U.S., Epstein accepted a small sum of money in exchange for premier billing – all to sell records. Spitz reports that it is doubtful that the Beatles ever made any money on the sale of Beatles paraphernalia (lunch boxes, wigs, dolls, etc.). Although this clearly was not Epstein’s design, the manager’s attention was elsewhere: how to promote his clients to sell records.
A peculiar fate befell the Beatles, however, in that they, like a very small number of other musicians, found it impossible to continue touring to promote their records. Touring became dangerous and, playing in huge stadiums to screaming teenage girls, artistically unrewarding. The Beatles thus left the road, risking their business model, as the essential relationship between live performance and the sale of records was broken.
Famously, the Beatles responded by inventing a “live” audience: the first thing we hear on “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is the sound of the invented audience. The imaginary audience did not contribute to the Beatles’ economy, however. That economy continued to be based on the sale of records. It was the Beatles’ good fortune that their fame was such that they no longer had to go on the road to promote the sale of their intellectual property. Perhaps it was just as well — when asked about the relative benefits of a live performance over a recording, John Lennon remarked, “Well, I’m a record man myself.”
The Beatles, in other words, were very much recording artists. And they knew it, and played with this aspect of their identity by calling attention to the recording medium. Thus, for example, the song “Revolution” was recorded twice at two different speeds, calling attention to another kind of revolution: not only the political revolution of the song’s lyrics but the revolutions per minute of a record (45 rpm for the faster version released as a single, 33 1/3 rpm for the slower version that appeared on The White Album). And there was a third revolution as well, “Revolution #9,” whose repetition of the song title sounds like a broken record. The broken record motif later reappeared in “I Want You,” which ends after much repetition with the sound of a phonograph stylus being removed from a record. Or there is the scratchy sound of an old record at the beginning of “Honey Pie” and any number of other references to records and media. People who have only recently come to the Beatles in the age of digital downloads and the iPod may not pick up on the recording metaphor that is woven through the Beatles’ career.
If the Beatles represent one end of the spectrum of business models for music (all efforts support the sale of the recording), on the other end is the Grateful Dead, whose business strategy invited free copying in order to sell tickets to concerts and branded paraphernalia. Former Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow has posited that the Dead business model will ultimately prevail for all artists. This may or may not be true, but Barlow does not explain how this would have worked for the Beatles, who were simply too popular to venture before a live audience. The Beatles were recording artists, the Dead brand marketers.
It would be wrong to assert that creative individuals such as the Beatles would never have developed into artists in the absence of a copyright regime. But it would also be wrong to say that the absence of a copyright regime would not have made a difference. What that difference might have been, we will not know, until another group as talented as the Beatles appears, operating in an “information wants to be free” environment.
We are still waiting.