Why weren't The Beatles on iTunes?

The Beatles
The Beatles arrive in London on July 2, 1964, following an Australian tour.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When The Beatles signed with EMI back in 1962, Steve Jobs was about seven years old. Neither EMI nor Jobs had any idea that decades later, they would be locking horns over the idea of playing an entire catalog of Beatles albums from a tiny battery-powered box you can stick in your pocket.

The Beatles enjoyed a now-legendary whirlwind success in the mid-1960s, including eight albums and several chart-topping hits over a five-year span. In that time, The Beatles learned the ups and downs of the recording industry from a business perspective. Then, in 1968, they began releasing albums under their own organization: Apple Corps (a pun title pronounced like "apple core"). Four decades and 24 albums later, Apple Corps and EMI are the major players in the rights to sell The Beatles' recordings.


Steve Jobs also enjoyed a legendary success, co-founding Apple Computer in 1976. The company grew at breakneck speed through the 1980s, and it eventually became one of the largest and most innovative computer companies in the world. Today, Apple offers iTunes, a service for purchasing music that you can download from the Internet directly onto your computer and copy to your Apple iPod.

For a long time, The Beatles' music was conspicuously absent from the iTunes Store. Apple has clashed time and again with Apple Corps over the years, long before the advent of iTunes. Each time Apple announced new products, rumors swirled that all parties had worked out their differences and The Beatles would come to iTunes. On Nov. 16, 2010, Apple announced that The Beatles would be coming to the iTunes Store after all [source: Ogg].

Read on to get to the core of Apple's bumpy history with Apple Corps, EMI and artists who have a skeptical eye toward iTunes and downloadable media.


The Beatles Brand and Apple Corps

A man buys The Beatles: Rock Band
A man walks to a cash register to purchase The Beatles: Rock Band video game in a London store on Sept. 9, 2009.
AP Photo/Akira Suemori

In 1962, Brian Epstein was managing a band called The Beatles which was gaining a fan base playing jazz clubs in England. Epstein shopped the band to recording companies hoping for a big contract. Though EMI had turned down The Beatles, George Martin made an exciting offer for the group to sign with EMI's smaller company Parlophone Records.

The months that followed were tense, with the firing of popular drummer Pete Best, and The Beatles' transition into recording artists. Martin and EMI/Parlophone launched George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to international fame. The original "Beatlemania" lasted through 1966, after an average of two new albums per year and a long, exhausting touring schedule.


Harrison described Epstein's death in 1967 as the "end of a chapter" in Beatles history (source: Davies). The band's next chapter started with a spiritual journey, drug experimentation and some of The Beatles most celebrated recordings. The Beatles also launched their own organization, Apple Corps, to give themselves more control over their profits.

Apple Corps Ltd., organized in 1968, included recording label Apple Records. Apple Records shared credit with EMI, Parlophone and Capitol Records for the 1968 self-titled album, "The Beatles," which fans refer to as the White album, and the 1969 album "Abbey Road." At the same time, Apple Records independently released "Yellow Submarine" in 1969 and "Let It Be" in 1970.

Apple Corps continues to hold the licensing rights for the Beatles' brand and music. The company is owned by former Beatles McCartney and Starr, and by the estates of Lennon and Harrison. Neil Aspinall, a long-time friend of the band, was the manager of Apple Corps until his retirement in 2007.

Apple Corps ventured into other businesses, such as film production and music publishing, with mixed successes on each front. The company's most notorious ventures, though, have been its lawsuits. Since the 1970s, Apple Corps has repeatedly sued EMI and Capitol Records for unpaid royalties to The Beatles. It's also repeatedly confronted Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.) for trademark infringement and violation of prior court settlements.

Now under CEO Jeff Jones, a former VP at Sony/BMG, Apple Corps is keeping The Beatles' music alive. On Sept. 9, 2009, Apple Corps licensed the release of The Beatles' remastered catalog and the "The Beatles: Rock Band" video game. Also in 2009, Apple Corps announced and a deal with Disney to make a 3-D adaptation of the 1968 film "Yellow Submarine."


The History of Apple v. Apple

In the early 1980s, the primary ways to purchase a copy of music were to buy an LP, 8-track tape or cassette tape. It would be years before the computer and the media center would merge technologies. So, when The Beatles' company Apple Corps sued the up-and-coming Apple Computer in 1981, it seemed reasonable that the computer company would agree to never be in the music business. The two companies instead agreed to share the disputed trademark in completely separate markets: Apple Corps in the music business, and Apple Computer in the computer business.

When Apple started developing computers that made sounds, the company decided its 1981 agreement needed revisiting. Attempts at renegotiating in 1987-88 led nowhere, and Apple went on to release its first computers with Musical Digital Interface (MIDI) in 1989. Apple Corps snapped to attention, claiming a violation of the 1981 settlement. After another round in court, Apple Corps and Apple Computer reached a new settlement in 1991 with undisclosed terms.


In 2003, Apple Computer's launch of iTunes created a stir throughout the music business. With iTunes, Apple was selling music track-by-track, allowing you to download your purchases and copy them onto your iPod. Apple was taking the downloadable media market by storm, even in a time where Internet music sharing was creating growing legal controversies. Suddenly, each recording company and artist was in a position to either embrace or reject this new way of selling music.

Apple Corps came forward again in 2003 stating that the launch of iTunes was another breach in their trademark agreement. In the meantime, though, Apple Corps had other issues, fighting EMI in another of a long history of lawsuits for unpaid royalties they claimed were owed to The Beatles for releases in the '90s. In 2007, Apple Corps finally settled both cases, including completely replacing their trademark agreement with Apple, Inc.

Apple Corps manager Neil Aspinall, who would soon retire, stated about the 2007 settlement that it was "great to put this dispute behind us and move on" (source: Apple Inc.). Apple fans and iTunes customers were relieved to hear the news, hoping it would mean that The Beatles' catalog would soon be available at the iTunes store. But it took more time to work out a deal.


What did it take to bring the Beatles to iTunes?

In 1968, John Lennon described Apple Corps as "a thing that's free, where people can come and do and record" (source: Rose). Bruce Spizer, author of "The Beatles on Apple Records," feels that what Apple Inc. is doing with iTunes is similar what The Beatles were trying to do with Apple Corps back in 1968.

In 2008, former Beatle and solo recording artist Paul McCartney said, "I really hope it will happen because I think it should" (source: Sandoval). McCartney's albums are available on iTunes, as are the solo albums of his former bandmates Ringo Starr, George Harrison and John Lennon.


Hopes were high in 2007 when EMI announced it had settled a licensing issue with The Beatles. In the same year, EMI signed an agreement with Apple Inc. to provide its music on iTunes as premium DRM-free downloads, which are higher quality and free of copy-protected encoding. However, EMI also announced that The Beatles would not be among those, or any, of the EMI downloads.

So what was the hold up? We can't be sure. McCartney stated in November 2008 that talks had "stalled" between Apple Corps and EMI with regards to iTunes (source: Sandoval). In September 2009, following false claims that Yoko Ono had announced the iTunes debut, EMI representatives said that talks between Apple and EMI were ongoing with hopes that they would eventually reach a deal.

Before an iTunes deal could close, several parties had to agree to the terms. This included EMI, Apple Corps, Apple Inc., the former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison (led by widows Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison). With the tumultuous history between EMI, Apple Corps and Apple Inc.

But the original deal to keep The Beatles on iTunes will only last a short while; in fact, it's scheduled to end at some point in 2011 [source: Ogg]. For now, fans of The Beatles can purchase the Fab Four's entire catalog for $149, buy albums for $12.99, double albums for $19.99 and individual songs for $1.29. All of the records come with Apple's iTunes LP feature, which offers additional content including photos, lyrics and more.

Will Apple keep an exclusive lock on The Beatles online? Will they disappear from the iTunes Store in 2011? It's hard to say, but sales from the deal could reach $100 million or more [source: Satariano and Fixmer]. If that's true, The Beatles and Apple Inc. could have found harmony at long last.

For more on iTunes and related topics, follow the long and winding road to the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

Are Beatles songs on iTunes?
Yes, Beatles songs are available on iTunes.

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  • Apple Inc. "Apple, Inc. and The Beatles' Apple Corps Ltd. Enter into New Agreement." 2007. (Oct. 25, 2009)http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2007/02/05apple.html
  • BBC. "At the core of the Apple dispute." May 8, 2006. (Oct. 25, 2009)http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4750533.stm
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