Apple’s Backward Beatles Deal Strives To Keep Downloads Afloat

Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) had teased: “Tomorrow is just another day. That you’ll never forget.” Turns out, today’s announcement is somewhat forgettable.

Confirmation that iTunes Store will have a digital exclusive on The Beatles’ back-catalogue leaves nonplussed those of us who have covered the once-exciting prospect for going on four or more years.

Befitting a company whose iPhone alarm DST bug held up thousands of users this month, this announcement is late to its own party – that party being last year’s 09-09-09 digital multimedia remastering exercise, which brought loads more Beatles CD re-releases to the market and the back-catalogue out through new formats like Beatles Rock Band and a USB stick.

Now the terms are finally signed (and we still don’t know them), Apple is getting its turn. iTunes Store is now selling tracks from The Beatles’ 13 studio albums at $1.29 each, the albums for $12.99 and double albums for $19.99; the albums come as iTunes LPs with additional documentaries and virtual “booklets”. No doubt, the cash cow Apple really wants to milk is the 256-track “box set” at $149 – a discount on the individual prices.

But, while the re-releases will likely contribute worthwhile sales to iTunes Store, and incremental licensing income to troubled EMI, the net boost mat not be as great as it could have been had it come when pent-up demand was even more evident, two years earlier, and before that demand was satisfied by 2009’s remasters. Indeed, Tower Records is currently selling remastered Abbey Road CDs for $3 less than Apple (audiophiles will note that CD quality exceeds that of iTunes’ 256Kbps files).

Apple’s exclusive also does little to arrest the industry’s underlying problem that, in a recorded music market which is generally declining in much of the world, U.S. digital downloads, of which iTunes Store is the largest retailer, have themselves now plateaued.

The Beatles deal is likely totemic to Steve Jobs (Apple has devoted its ENTIRE homepage to the Fab Four), and perhaps to anyone who remembers the 60s. But it’s a long way short of iTunes’ long-expected introduction of an unlimited-access or streaming subscription – a model many labels, concerned to combat downloads’ slowdown with new models for the future, are desperate for.

New NPD research suggests nearly as many Americans now stream music as download it, and take-up of the former is growing quicker; more French stream than download. But Apple’s Beatles extravaganza is one big splurge to keep the a la carte model ticking over.

Note, in Apple’s project, the redeployment of analogue terms like “booklets” and “box sets” – this exercise is exactly in line with what iTunes Store has always been; a digital version of the old recorded music paradigm, not a systemic reinvention of it. Even Apple’s online promo slogans like “The Band That Changed Everything” knowingly mirror an iTunes that itself once changed everything in music sales – but which many are now looking to for a 2.0 moment.

What’s been the hold-up anyway? McCartney told The Observer last year there was a sticking point over how much Apple Corps would get paid in the event of piracy: “We’ve been keen to do this for a while … If [digitised Beatles music] gets out, if one employee decides to take it home and wap it on to the internet, we would have the right to say, ‘Now you recompense us for that.’ And (EMI) they’re scared of that.”

The next cog in the Beatles money machine? I will brace myself for the hi-def, uncompressed FLAC reissues at a later date – so much like the originals, you’d swear Yoko were in the studio with you.