English: Photograph of The Beatles as they arr...
English: Photograph of The Beatles as they arrive in New York City in 1964 Français : Photographie de The Beatles, lors de leur arrivée à New York City en 1964 Italiano: Fotografia dei Beatles al loro arrivo a New York City nel 1964 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[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.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


20 Thoughts on "The Beatles Yesterday and Today: An Allegory of the Role of Paid Content"

The Beatles met at an English church fete, something rather different to a fairground.

Good point. The books on the Beatles have it both ways, but the handbill for the event has surfaced (it’s reprinted in some books) and it mentions a church gathering.

Steely Dan is an example of a band that eschews touring in favor of recording. My objection to Barlow and his ilk is that they want to force all new bands to follow the Grateful Dead model. But why should artists be compelled to conduct their business according to just one model? By trying to undermine copyright, Barlow & company want one size to fit all, which is unfair to the artists themselves, who should have a choice about how they want to make a living.

Nobody is trying to forbid artists to sell physical copies of their work. Artists have more choices than ever before, but a new band would have a hard time making a living selling vinyl disks, because times have changed. If you think that’s unfair, feel free to spend your money on vinyl disks.

Those who adore the P2P movement and hate copyright laws are inspired by their animus toward record companies, and they would like nothing less than to drive them all out of business. My point is that their zeal is misguided. Sure, record companies can innovate more and keep up with the times, but they still play an important, if different role, in the modern music business.

That “point” doesn’t fit your earlier post, and the record companies themselves are the only ones who seem to want artists to “be compelled to conduct their business according to just one model”. (Also I think you meant “nothing more”.)

until another group as talented as the Beatles appears

This is an incredible canard. Not that the Beatles weren’t talented, but they were clearly in the right place at the right time with the right management with the right strategy (as you describe) to get famous.

I think there have been plenty of musicians at talented as the Beatles since then and even since the transition to “free,” but the economic and cultural changes that have led to the fracturing of the genre fracturing of the music industry have prevented them from having the sort of apparent universal acclaim that the Beatles had.

Honestly, and this is probably going to offend the middle aged people out there, the closest thing to Beatlemania (by which I mean the initial fan euphoria surrounding the Beatles in 1964) today is probably Bieber Fever. And Bieber’s rise to fame was not in spite of the “free” ideology but directly because of it, having been able to promote his music himself through YouTube prior to getting a record deal.

“prior to getting a record deal”–exactly! Social media these days are great for garage bands or even single artists trying to achieve initial recognition and a following. But it still requires a large and well-funded company to underwrite the costs of touring and take an artist to the peak of commercial success. Those who condemn the music industry fail to appreciate that there is still a place for this kind of entity in the business. The sad fact, however, is that it is the middling artist who suffers because the big music companies are no longer able to take a chance on investing in a musician’s career at an earlier stage–just as “mid-list” authors have disappeared from commercial publishing and turned to self-publishing instead, which is a poor second choice.

1) Bands can go on tour without a label, 2) the music industry has been around for thousands of years and is doing just fine, it’s the recording industry that’s starting to lose relevance, 3) a lot of musicians are discovering that a big music company doesn’t actually do them much good for all the profits it hoards, and 4) what have authors leaving publishing companies go to do with it?

1) Yes, but they can’t get into the largest venues and struggle to survive playing in bars and venues that do not pay well. (I know because I was a rock drummer for over 20 years.) 2) Talk to some of these struggling musicians, and you may have a different idea about how well the music industry is doing for all but the artists who have major corporate backing. 3) If that were true, then why would artists like Justin Bieber so eagerly sign up with major labels after they have already built a following through YouTube? The companies must bring something to the table that these artists need and want. 4) The point is about disintermediation. There is a drive in both the music and publishing industries to disintermediate the major commercial companies, but despite all the ground they have lost to self-publishing in both spheres, they still have a significant role to fill that the zealots are not willing to accept.

Thank you, David. I could repeat this many times, but it sounds more convincing coming from one who actually has tried to make a living out of being a musician. I think there are many working musicians who could testify to the truth of what this person says here.

Wait… you haven’t actually tried to make a living out of being a musician? You said you were a rock drummer for over 20 years.

(There are several ways you could try to get out of this; I think the most credible would be to claim that there are actually two different Sandy Thatchers posting on this page.)

Yes, but I never tried to live off my earnings from playing music. It was for me an avocation, not a vocation, as indeed it is for many musicians who realize that the odds of their being able to make a decent living out of their music are very long. Instead, I worked in publishing at two university presses, ending up as editor-in-chief at the first (Princeton) and as director at the second (Penn State). I take it that you are not a musician?

Umm… That’s a link to what looks like an extremely long rant on an unreservedly pro-copyright web site. I picked three paragraphs at random; one was a straw man argument, one begged the question (i.e. assumed what it purported to prove) and one attacked iTunes for taking too big a share of profits.

Could you make your own point? Or give us a summary and tell us where to look for the supporting text within that essay (a unique phrase to search for would be nice).

I wrote a piece on this (and hopefully made my own point) a few weeks ago:
Though a warning–it’s longer than 3 paragraphs and you may find it equally challenging to finish. In the age of TL,DR, the short attention spans make it difficult to fully grasp complex and nuanced situations. If you are unwilling to do the research to support your own point, I’m not going to do it for you.

I also take issue with your characterizing Lowery as “pro-copyright” as if that were something negative. Aside from the “attacking the messenger rather than the message” approach, you misread Lowery. He’s a lifelong professional musician, who has recorded for major labels, independent labels and run his own label. He’s been in multiple legal battles with the major labels, and has been a leader in experimentation in new business models. Aside from that, I know of very few creatives that are anti-copyright. Copyright gives a creator the ability to decide how their work will be disseminated, whether by sale or for free via Creative Commons license. Without copyright, CC licenses are meaningless, as the creator would have no right to set those terms. Without copyright, any political candidate or religious nut could use your song in their propaganda without your permission. Any weapons manufacturer could use your song for their advertisements (without paying you). Many of the new post-recorded music business models rely heavily on copyright.

And if Lowery is not a credible enough source for you, he wrote another recent piece (http://thetrichordist.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/letter-to-emily-white-at-npr-all-songs-considered/ ) which I realize may be too long to hold your interest, but it was responded to by Jonathan Coulton, one of the leading lights of finding new music business models in the internet age:
Coulton’s response? “I’m trying hard to find the place where David and I begin to disagree, and I’m not even sure we do.”

I point out that your reference was to specious drivel and your reply is… to praise the author (without saying one word in defense of the essay), put up more references, and smugly imply that the problem here is not your willingness to base your arguments on garbage, but my unwillingness to sift through vast quantities of it (which you won’t even defend).

I admit it: I can’t win an argument with you. You can shovel faster than I can sweep.

No, actually you pointed out that you didn’t actually read my reference, and that where you skimmed it you disagreed with it (though failed to show that it is incorrect in any way). You asked me to make my own point, which I linked for you, and apparently you were unwilling or unable to read that either. Given that, you are probably right that you won’t win an argument with me.

I don’t think you could have picked a worse example for this article than the Beatles. They became famous because of their concerts and club work in the UK and Germany. They would not have had any problem with adapting to the post Napster era.

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