When Beatlemania was first at its height, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr often said they had no idea whether their popularity would last for another six months or even as much as a year or two.
“It’s not worth missin’ your sleep for, is it?” Harrison said in 1963. Added McCartney: “We just hope we’re gonna have quite a run.”
This week, almost 40 years after the band split up, Beatles titles dominate the latest rankings of the nation’s bestselling albums, signaling a new, if less hysteria-driven, wave of popularity for the Fab Four. The spike in popularity owes, of course, to the release last week of sonically upgraded CDs of all of the group’s studio recordings and the arrival of .
The new and improved Beatles CDs sold 235,000 copies during their first two days in stores, and total first-week sales of the individual CDs and two box sets of the group’s recordings were projected to be 500,000 to 600,000 copies, possibly higher.
That’s welcome news for a beleaguered music industry, whose last significant uptick in sales came in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death in June.
Beatles titles occupy nine spots in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Pop Catalog Albums chart, which encompasses albums originally released more than 18 months ago (Jackson’s “Number Ones,” at No. 6, kept the Fab Four from a clean sweep of the Top 10); of the Top 20, 15 are Beatles albums.
When the tally of current albums is announced today, Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint 3" and Miley Cyrus’ “The Time of Our Lives” are expected to hold the No. 1 and 2 slots on Billboard’s Top 200, with Beatles CDs taking four or five spots on the Top Comprehensive Albums rankings that combine current and catalog releases.
Many experts attribute the group’s extraordinary longevity to one thing: the music.
“I would say first and foremost you have to credit the two main guys as songwriters,” said “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell, one of today’s leading arbiters of what flies and what doesn’t in pop music. “That’s really where it all stands up. This music has crossed every single generation, and doesn’t sound like somebody that was locked in a certain decade. It still feels relevant.”
“American Idol” has saluted the Beatles in past seasons, challenging contestants’ interpretive abilities with songs that also have become fodder for serious academic exploration.
“Both John and Paul, and George for that matter, were extraordinary students of songwriting,” said Chris Sampson, director of USC Thornton School of Music’s new baccalaureate degree program in popular music. “You can tell in their writing they understood song form and songwriting craft from the Tin Pan Alley days, as well as early rock ‘n’ roll. They created music that drew from these traditions, but was capable of transcending them.”
Few pop entertainers have maintained vibrant careers for much more than a decade. Yet the Beatles are expected to generate tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars in revenue from the CD reissues and the video game.
Their record in business matters has been far from perfect: When the group created Apple Corps in 1967 as a combination record label, film production company and merchandising operation, its retail store in London went out of business within a year, at a substantial financial loss.
Despite writing many of the most enduring songs of the 20th century, Lennon and McCartney discovered too late that publishing rights to most of the music they’d created had been sold out from under them. They were sold again in the 1980s to Jackson, whose estate still holds half interest in Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Annually, Beatles songs generate millions of dollars in publishing royalties.
There’ve been other missed opportunities: There was no 40th anniversary commemoration of the landmark “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, and many believe the remastered CDs should have come out well before the format became an endangered species.
“I would have digitized the catalog years ago,” said Jack Oliver, Apple Records president from 1969-71. “They could have made a billion bucks by now, couldn’t they?”
Still, enough smart decisions were made by and for the Beatles that the four working-class lads from Liverpool became, and remain nearly half a century later, one of the most respected and profitable entities in entertainment history.
Savvy strategizing is evident from the group’s beginnings. Early on, their manager Brian Epstein demanded a provision in their record contract requiring renegotiation of the terms whenever a new form of music playback technology emerged. Epstein also insisted that EMI Records, parent company of the label that first signed the Beatles, never sell their recordings at discount. Epstein had run a record shop before signing on as the Beatles’ manager, and “he hated budget records,” said Tony Bramwell, a key Beatles’ associate for the length of their career. “He only stocked proper full-price releases, so that his customers would get their money’s worth.”
Consequently, “No Beatles release was ever sold at mid-price,” noted Martin Lewis, who worked on publicity and marketing campaigns for the “Live at the BBC” and “Anthology” projects and the 2002 DVD reissue of “A Hard Day’s Night.” “He held out on that one thing, and he’s proven to have been right. When Beatles material has been reissued, it has never seemed like it was cheap product.”
The Beatles’ entry into the digital world came relatively late, in 1987-88, but the release of the back catalog on CD effectively introduced the band to a younger generation of music consumers and resulted in a flurry of sales similar to what’s happening with the remastering program. Since that time, various reissues have kept the band’s legacy alive and commercially vibrant among longtime fans and new listeners.
Three double-CD “Anthology” sets returned the Beatles to the No. 1 position on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart in 1995 and 1996. “After ‘Anthology 1' came out,” Lewis said, “they did a quick survey of the people who had purchased it, and much to the label’s astonishment, something like 40% had gone to people under 40. They expected 10% to 15% tops.”
Many younger fans have been introduced to the Beatles by their parents, or even their grandparents, but others discovered for themselves what Lewis calls the “exuberant optimism” in their music.
“In a world where most of the entertainment -- movies, TV shows, music -- is pretty soulless and created for the sole purpose of making a buck,” Lewis said, “the Beatles offer something joyous, something exuberant and, at its heart, noble, and kids are savvy enough to sense that and say ‘This is real.’ ”
In 2000, a new Beatles hits collection, “1,” became one of the biggest sellers of the year and has since sold 11.5 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“They’ve shown tremendous business insight,” said USC’s Sampson. “Whether they labeled it as such, they knew that they could build a brand, and sustain it. They’ve been nurturing this brand extremely effectively for 40 years now.”
The Beatles-based Cirque du Soleil show “Love” in Las Vegas, for instance, has drawn just under 3 million people since it opened in 2006, putting the quartet’s life story, images and songs before significant numbers of people who weren’t previously committed fans.
Likewise, licensing their music for The Beatles: Rock Band puts the band in step with the latest in entertainment technology and its predominantly young audience, while also giving older Beatles fans motivation to try their hands at video gaming.
“Over the last several weeks we’ve had the demo for Rock Band available in over 800 Best Buy locations,” spokeswoman Erin Bix said, “and parents and their children are experiencing the game together. Rock Band is introducing the Beatles to a new generation of fans.”
“They were very smart to combine the Rock Band with the CDs,” said Chris Carter, host of the long-running radio show “Breakfast With the Beatles” that airs Sunday mornings on KLOS-FM (95.5), along with another version now on Sirius XM satellite radio. “You’re hitting both generations and blending them together.”
Bruce Spizer, author of several highly regarded Beatles chronologies, said, “If you look back at the Beatles’ career, there’s always a great synergy between Beatles and whatever was happening in the culture.
“The Beatles didn’t invent drug culture,” Spizer said. “The Beatles didn’t invent the peace movement, but the Beatles gained things from that and then put back things into it. Here again, the Beatles aren’t going to save the gaming industry, but they are giving it a nice shot in the arm. The record industry too: Once again, they’re doing a lot to help keep it alive.”