Behind the Beatles-iTunes deal

Getting Apple, Apple Corps., EMI, Sony/ATV and Yoko Ono to agree took some doing

Image: Apple Inc.

“While details remain to be worked out, Fortune has learned that iTunes is close to a deal to bring the Beatles catalog online.”

So wrote Tim Arango, now at New York Times, in Fortune‘s Nov. 27, 2006 issue.

“As Fortune went to press,” he wrote, “numerous deal points were still being hammered out. According to a music industry executive apprised of the talks, the parties were discussing how lengthy a window of exclusivity iTunes might get and how many tens of millions of dollars Jobs — who is said to be personally involved in the discussions — will commit to an advance for the band and marketing costs.”

As we learned Tuesday morning, it took another four years for the deal to be sealed and the Beatles’ catalog to appear — exclusively, as Arango suggested — on the iTunes music store.

We don’t know what finally broke the logjam [the
Wall Street Journal
and the
New York Times
offered some fresh details in Wednesday’s editions]. But thanks to some of the parties’ inability to keep mum, we have a pretty good record of the sticking points.

A timeline:

  • Nov. 2007: “It’s all happening soon,” Paul McCartney told “Most of us are all sort of ready. The whole thing is primed, ready to go — there’s just maybe one little sticking point left, and I think it’s being cleared up as we speak, so it shouldn’t be too long. It’s down to fine-tuning. I’m pretty sure it’ll be happening next year, 2008.” (“Let me put that statement into American English,” wrote Fake Steve Jobs at the time. “Paul wants more money.”)
  • Nov. 2008: “The last word I got back was it’s stalled at the whole moment, the whole process,” Paul McCartney told reporters at a press conference for his latest album. “What happens is, when something’s as big as The Beatles, it’s heavy negotiations. We are very for it, we’ve been pushing it. But there are a couple of sticking points, I understand. They [EMI] want something we’re not prepared to give them.”
  • Aug. 2009: To coincide with MTV Records’ release of The Beatles: Rock Band, Wired ran a long piece describing the complexities involved in cutting the deal. “The recording rights belong to the band’s longtime label, EMI. Most of the publishing rights, on the other hand, are held by Sony/ATV (a joint venture with the late Michael Jackson). Complicating matters even further, additional publishing rights for certain tunes are held by Harrissongs, an independent entity set up by George Harrison, as well as by Starr’s publishing company, Startling Music.”
  • Aug. 2010: “We are holding out,” Yoko Ono, who as John Lennon’s widow has veto power over any deal, told Reuters. “Steve Jobs has his own idea and he’s a brilliant guy. There’s just an element that we’re not very happy about, as people. Don’t hold your breath … for anything!” she added with a laugh.
  • Nov. 2010: “We love the Beatles and are honored and thrilled to welcome them to iTunes,” said Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs in Tuesday’s press release. “It has been a long and winding road to get here. Thanks to the Beatles and EMI, we are now realizing a dream we’ve had since we launched iTunes ten years ago.”

See also:

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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