Beatles for Sale

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As you may already know, Apple's big iTunes-related announcement this morning had nothing to do with the iTunes update that went live over the weekend, which consisted largely of stronger implementation of its wireless AirPlay streaming and Twitter integration for Apple's music-oriented social network, Ping (probably great news for the seven or eight people who actually use Ping but not exactly earthshaking for the rest of us). The most popular pre-announcement theory, that the Beatles catalog was finally going to be sold digitally—and that iTunes would be doing the honors exclusively, at least for a little while—turned out to be correct.

The Beatles acquisition was probably the least exciting of the rumors going around, especially since Apple still hasn't done anything with Lala, the music-streaming service it acquired late last year, which could potentially revolutionize the iTunes experience. The response on music and tech blogs has largely been along the lines of "Who gives a shit?" The addition of an already ubiquitous band (whose albums any halfway educated BitTorrent user could find in downloadable form in seconds) isn't a big deal, the argument goes. And seriously, how much longer are boomers going to keep insisting that they're the center of the universe?

It's a perspective I completely understand, but it misses one major point. Being able to buy the Beatles through iTunes might not mean much—pretty much everybody who wants the band's music already has it on a hard drive somewhere, either thanks to BitTorrent or because, you know, you can import the songs from discs. But looked at from another angle, this could be a big deal. Steve Jobs may have just finally killed the CD.

Ever since Napster turned the traditionally lucrative youth market into a lost cause, the music industry has relied on a couple of key demographics to continue buying physical-format music: country-music fans and old people. Country fans are often from areas where, for many of those years at least, broadband hasn't been an option for everyone. The Olds as a group aren't considered very tech savvy, and they're presumed to have large, relatively stable incomes and negative attitudes about file sharing. However the Olds only seem to have trouble adopting new technology; once they start using a particular tech, they're as likely as any younger demo to get into it heavily. Anecdotes about retirement-age parents developing Facebook addictions to rival any teenager's are ubiquitous enough that you've probably heard one yourself.

The Beatles have helped drive technological adoption in that same demographic for decades. The Beatles arrived on CD the same way they arrived on iTunes, which is to say behind the pack but accompanied by a ton of hype. I don't have any hard data, but the Beatles' sales numbers over the years seem to indicate that people don't mind buying their albums multiple times to keep up with the current format, and the reissue of the Beatles catalog on CD has been credited by people in the music industry with bringing CD players into lots of boomer households that didn't already have one.

Selling the Beatles via iTunes is likely to bring new users to iTunes as well. The Olds who've been driving to Target or wherever to buy their music on CD simply because they haven't had a compelling reason to do otherwise could very well convert to digital buying. If that happens, the CD—and the record labels that still depend on it—could be in serious trouble.

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