All you need is…

Just a few weeks ago, an announcement from Apple changed absolutely nothing about the way I listen to The Beatles. Though I was not one of them, I’m sure that there are some people out there who did buy all of the Beatles’ music when, at long last, it became available on iTunes. In fact, I’m certain of it, if the iTunes sales charts are to be believed. Instead of being surprised at the notoriously stubborn and possessive Apple Records finally giving in and allowing iTunes to carry some of the most influential music in history, my focus was (unsurprisingly) on this event’s place in the greater music world. I mentioned to a few people (and at my Twitter) that the iTunes charts were about to be dominated by a band that broke up 40 years ago, and wondered if any bands today have that kind of staying power. With that in mind, I wanted to write some lament to the disposability of modern music. I wanted to, but the reality is that The Beatles’ presence on iTunes was a big deal to just one entity: iTunes.

I’ve been keeping an eye on those charts, and my findings were indeed surprising, though not at all in the way I expected. As I write this, the highest-charting Beatles album on iTunes is Abbey Road, and it places at a distressing #44. In fact, it’s one of just six Beatles-related items in the top 100. To be fair, if there was an initial rush upon the day of the announcement, it has long worn off. The top albums chart is currently populated by albums, compilations and soundtracks of holiday music. A handful of non-holiday albums, including two versions each of The Black Eyed Peas’ The Beginning, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday all place higher than Abbey Road. What does this say about our musical attention span, the power of hype, and our supposed devotion to The Beatles?

On the first matter, I can speak from experience of the overwhelming nature of today’s music universe. Though I do not consider myself to be an authority on every genre and scene, I take pride in keeping my ear to the ground when it comes to the sounds I like. Even within those boundaries, things inevitably slip by. There are albums in my collection that I never got around to listening to and, if past experiences can properly serve as indicators of the future, would’ve totally enjoyed had I listened. As you can imagine, I can get bogged down by new music quite easily. During my recent blogging hiatus, I’ve listened to a fair amount of new music, but I’ve mostly revisited old favorites. It’s a break, really, listening to something familiar. The pressure of staying abreast of current trends is lifted, allowing for a less-rushed enjoyment. Since Beatles fans like myself have long owned digital copies of all their albums (thanks in no small part to last year’s massive reissue set), iTunes’ charts show little indication that today’s music-buying public wishes to revisit these timeless favorites. Then again, the charts only imply that sales are low, not listenership.

Part of the aforementioned pressure of keeping up with new music is hype. Whether or not I like a particular album is evidently less important than the mere fact that I’ve heard it. Browsing popular music media sites, reviews of major albums can incite heated arguments between readers and fellow bloggers. Sometimes, there’s only time for a tweet-length review before moving on to the next Next Big Thing. That elusive quest has taken the ‘it’s not the destination but the journey’ mentality to new lows. Bands are treated as inhuman, as faceless entities, as trading cards. What could be one person’s favorite find could be dismissed by another in 140 characters or less. The people behind these songs, and the labels behind these people, are wrung dry before being tossed aside for a new batch of fresh fish. Promotional hype is nothing new (they didn’t call it Beatlemania for nothing), but the difference today is that the hype machine is set to Burn Out rather than Fade Away. Even if a band or artist had it in them to have the cultural impact that The Beatles did, they don’t stand a chance in the ever-cranking sausage grinder of today’s music media.

The Beatles are not my favorite band. They are certainly one of my favorite bands, though, and I could easily listen to their music for days on end. Still, there are Beatles albums that I prefer over others. But there’s more to liking The Beatles than just liking their music, and even casual fans know a good lot of Beatles lore. The rooftop concert. The retreat to India. The various people identified as “The Fifth Beatle.” These have entered our lexicon as music writers and lovers. Despite the parodies, tributes and attempts to recapture their sound, we can apparently do no better than to have one Beatles album in the top 65 on iTunes’ chart. Do we really care about The Beatles as much as Apple thinks we do? The answer is an easy “of course we do.” The problem is that iTunes, despite having established itself as a major force in the modern music world, is not the monolithic being it poses itself to be. iTunes’ campaign assumes that, prior to November 16th, 2010, not a single mp3 of The Beatles’ music existed. The reality is that the fans of a long-disbanded group have far outpaced the planet’s largest digital music retailer. People don’t buy music for the medium, they buy it for the message. Media changes; The Beatles (and their fans) have not, and they never will.


~ by E. on December 1, 2010.

One Response to “All you need is…”

  1. No other band could have created and sustained the initial hype like the Beatles.
    Even if it only lasted a few days.

    Think anyone will remeber Lady Gaga in a few years? In one year?

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