The Beatles Are on Slow Fade Into Pop Culture Obscurity

Thanks to iTunes deal, young music fans may never discover Abbey Road.

You’ll have heard of the import from Britain that has redefined young folk’s relationship with music. I’m talking, of course, about Spotify, the legal music streaming service that allows you to listen to almost any title at any time. I’m a young person, and a music streamer; most of the music I listen to is streamed from Spotify, which I “pay” for by hearing ads, much the same way I listen to the radio.

There’s another import from Britain, however, that most young people are not getting. During the Grammy awards in February, Sir Paul McCartney performed a medley of Beatles hits. Twitter, that den of Internet-savvy youngsters, lit up. Hundreds of tweets from teens and young adults poured in. The general gist? “Who is this guy?” Or, more specifically, “who the hell is paul mccartney lmao he hella old.”

There’s a reason for this seemingly inexplicable tragedy of knowledge: Young people don’t know who the Beatles are, because the Beatles aren’t readily available to them anymore.

I was recently browsing “The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s,” a Spotify playlist curated by Pitchfork. I noticed the Beach Boys were represented on the list five times. As were the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and the Supremes. Wait, I thought. This can’t be right. Where’s “Eleanor Rigby”? Where’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”? I searched here, there and everywhere, but I did not find a single Beatles track.

This isn’t an isolated incident. You probably already know you won’t (legally) find the Beatles online anywhere outside of Internet radio apps. They aren’t available on any of the online streaming sites like Grooveshark, Rhapsody or even the Amazon mp3 store. It took a full nine years for Beatles to come to iTunes, debuting in 2010 with much fanfare. And iTunes is where they’ve stayed.

Currently, iTunes has exclusive rights to the Beatles’ digital distribution. After decades of litigation between Apple Corp (the Beatles’ record label), and Apple over rights to everything from the word “apple” to music in the abstract, the Beatles are finally available digitally, only through Apple’s proprietary media player.

Limiting an artist as influential and famous as the Beatles to a single digital distribution platform and method (pay to download) may seem like a good idea to title holders: It serves to standardize revenue and helps make it easier to maintain copyright control. But it’s also a mistake; not even the Beatles will be bigger than Jesus forever. They, just like every band, are capable of being forgotten. And they’re on their way.

The Beatles might soon perform a magical mystery disappearing act. If they’re not available where young people listen, then they won’t capture the hearts of the new generation of music lovers. And more and more, young people choose to stream from places like Spotify rather than pay to download from online stores like iTunes.

Nielsen report “The Hyper-Fragmented World of Music” notes that “the usage of streaming is more popular … than paying to download individual tracks.” And the overwhelming majority of these streamers are young people: 37 percent of 21- to 24-year‐olds report using streaming services, and the numbers only “decrease with age,” culminating in almost half of people over 50 not even knowing what “streaming services” are.

And the conventional wisdom that “young people don’t pay for music” is flawed. More and more youth users choose to pay to subscribe to streaming sites, or listen to advertisements in order to get their music. According to Nielsen, 30 percent of 21‐ to 24-year-olds paid to download music in 2011.

Where young people are streaming, they’re also generating revenue for service providers and music makers. Subscription services like Spotify and Rhapsody generate almost $250 million dollars in revenue a year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) 2011 year-end music shipment statistics. More people than ever are paying for legal streaming services: the RIAA stats cite an 18 percent rise in customers in 2011.

So when young people tweet “who tf is Paul Mccartney. Idgaf,” you’ll understand why. And hopefully you’ll also forcibly restrain them and replace their iPod library with 500 copies of Abbey Road.