Will the Beatles Ever Come Around on Streaming Services?

Photo: John Pratt/Getty Images

When Don Draper listens to the Beatles on Mad Men, our protean anti-hero doesn’t cue up one of the Fab Four’s biggest hits on his underused turntable. Instead it’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Revolver’s psychedelic swan song in which John Lennon sings from The Tibetan Book of the Dead: “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream,” he urges, “it is not dying.” In the three years since the episode’s airing, more and more of the music world has relaxed and accepted digital streaming (it is not dying, after all), but the Beatles … not so much.

Will the world’s biggest band ever make it to Spotify or Apple Music? A spokesperson for Universal Music, the Beatles’ record company since buying EMI’s recorded-music arm in 2012, directed questions to Apple Corps, the business entity that represents the group’s members and their heirs. Apple Corps CEO Jeff Jones didn’t respond to requests for comment; company veteran Jonathan Clyde said he “can’t comment at all on the subject.” Major streaming services either declined to comment or didn’t reply prior to deadline.

Still, industry insiders predict the singular British act’s catalogue will be available on streaming services, sooner or later. And it will be on the Beatles’ terms. If history is any guide, it will be a phenomenal success.

“The Beatles really don’t need to be in a streaming service,” says an industry source who has worked closely with the Beatles, noting that Apple Corps tends to take a longer-term view. “The way they look at it is kind of like, ‘Let’s make sure that we’ve said everything we want to say in the formats that people view as having high inherent value,’ before they go to streaming.” Seen that way, though, the time for Beatles-streaming-mania may soon be approaching.

Just as the Beatles have delayed joining the streaming revolution, they were also late adopters to digital download sales. When Apple made Beatles albums available in 2010 via iTunes — partnering with a company they’d long fought with over their mutual use of apple-related trademarks — Apple’s online media store had been open for seven and a half years and sold 10 billion downloads. “Long and Winding Road” puns abounded in press coverage. And the Beatles sold 2 million songs in the first week.

“I did not think the Beatles would have the impact they did when they went on iTunes,” admits Russ Crupnick, founder of research firm MusicWatch. “I figured that everybody had already bought seven versions of the Beatles’ CDs and everybody had already ripped them to their iPods. And boy, was I wrong. It was not only a sales coup, but it was a promotional coup. If that was any lesson, I don’t think the Beatles can be late to any party. They’re the Beatles, damn it.”

Is streaming different? Maybe. Adele has withheld her blockbuster new album 25 from streaming services, a move that helped propel the LP to record-breaking first-week sales. Taylor Swift famously pulled nearly all of her music from Spotify (but later teamed with Apple Music after a small public battle over compensation)*; Prince pulled his expansive discography from every service except Tidal (where he’s an investor), while Neil Young did the same with all but his own hi-def Pono service. Tool, Joanna Newsom, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Garth Brooks, and Bob Seger lead the list of acts effectively opting out of streaming services altogether. It could turn out to be that the Apple Corps board members are philosophically opposed to the format. In April, Ringo Starr told Reuters, “All I ever hear is that your record has been streamed 17 million times and they give you a check for 12 bucks.”

And, to be sure, the Beatles’ refusal to endorse a streaming service has huge significance for record stores. Vinyl has been enjoying a widely reported boom over the past several years — and the top-selling vinyl album since 2010? Abbey Road. “I’m sure that every record store employee and owner in the country appreciates the fact that they’re not on Spotify in a way that would be hard to measure,” says Marc Weinstein, co-owner of independent chain Amoeba Music. “It’s a significant ray of hope that they’re still not on there.”

That said, in certain ways, the Beatles are already streaming. In October, George Harrison became the last of the four members to have his solo catalogue become available via streaming services like Spotify. And there’s a fine but crucial distinction to be made between these so-called interactive streaming providers and “non-interactive” streaming radio options such as Pandora or Slacker, where the Beatles, like Swift or Adele, can be heard right now for free, albeit under various legally mandated restrictions. (The Beatles have also opened up more to YouTube and Vevo, streaming full clips from a recent deluxe reissue of 2000 hits compilation 1.)

The Beatles would hardly be the first streaming holdouts to relent. Led Zeppelin, Metallica, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers joined the streaming world as part of exclusive deals with Spotify, while AC/DC, Pink Floyd, and the Eagles made their music available on multiple streaming services at once after initially holding back. After this year’s turbulent launch of Jay Z’s Tidal, a streaming service with an emphasis on exclusives, it may be that exclusivity isn’t quite the draw it once was. Then again, terms of deals like Led Zeppelin’s aren’t disclosed. Those nonpublic details may be where the Beatles would try to drive a harder bargain than their streaming predecessors.

Exclusivity deals aside, streaming the Beatles would prove valuable for Universal — and not simply because streaming accounted for one third of the recording industry’s revenue in the first half of 2015. A June filing for a lawsuit involving American Idol confirmed what had long been suspected: Universal and other major labels each own a stake in Spotify. If the Beatles were to stream, Universal could potentially make money as both a record company and the part-owner of a streaming service.

“All of the tipping points that it would make sense for them to do it now are there,” says Ted Cohen, managing partner at digital entertainment consultancy TAG Partners and a former EMI digital executive. “The catalogue has been on iTunes long enough that anyone who wants to buy it digitally can do it. Possibly once they get past this reissue of the remastered 1 — that may be the last gasp of ‘please buy this.’” (Along those lines, there's also this.)

If the Beatles don’t make some streaming play, technology may eventually do it for them. Jim Griffin, managing director of digital music consultancy OneHouse and a former Geffen Records tech executive, says that within a decade, new apps will allow fans to find specific songs through online radio services like Pandora without using an on-demand service like Spotify. He draws a comparison to TiVo, except for digital music instead of TV (a new service along these lines, OnRad.io, recently launched). “In a couple of years, your car grabs the Beatles off Pandora for you and makes them available for interactive streaming to you,” Griffin says, “whether the Beatles wanted that to happen directly or not.”

Once the Beatles do accept streaming — well, if they do — it could mark a point of no return for a record industry still not totally convinced of streaming as its future. “It could signal to consumers that the format shift is complete,” says Casey Rae, CEO of the Future of Music Coalition, an artists’ advocacy group.

After Don Draper hears the Beatles, he abruptly turns the record off. Will the Fab Four have a more lasting experience with music’s latest format? Will the poster band for digital download sales relax and, in fact, float down streaming? While today that certainly looks likely, tomorrow never knows.

* An earlier version of this story noted that Swift pulled her music from all streaming services except Apple Music, whereas it was just Spotify.