Why The Beatles, Zep and others nix downloads. The infinite jukebox is riding high -- so why are many major acts offline?

By Michael Endelman
March 10, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Salivating for ”Strawberry Fields Forever”? Dying for ”Dazed and Confused”? Forget the Net, because neither of those classics is available on iTunes, or any other legal download site. Sadly, the online jukebox isn’t fully stocked yet — as artists like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and Garth Brooks have stayed defiantly out of the Internet universe. ”We certainly have done our darndest to [get them to go online],” says Rob Bennett of MSN Music. ”Some are reluctant to embrace the technology…. Some only want to sell whole albums.” And there’s big-time money — and egos — involved, too. ”To deny any economic calculations is disingenuous at best,” says Rhapsody.com’s Tim Quirk. ”Artists have a lot of fear about online sales: ‘Will it cannibalize my [CD] sales?”’ But as more and more classic rockers go digital — longtime holdout Bob Seger has just agreed to go online — the exceptions stand out like Paris Hilton at a Pearl Jam show. Here’s a quick look at what’s going on with those stubborn stars.


Nothing about the Fab Four decision-making process is transparent, but one thing’s for sure: EMI Music wants their stuff on the Web. ”Our talks are ongoing and we think it would be terrific,” says an EMI spokesperson. The Beatles’ own management company, Apple Corps Ltd., declined to comment, but the group has always been slow to embrace new technology (their catalog didn’t hit CDs until 1987) and hard-nosed at the negotiating table (Beatles albums are rarely discounted). There’s also an outstanding lawsuit with Apple Computer to worry about (the label sued the tech company in 2003, claiming that it broke an agreement they had reached over the use of the ”Apple” name in 1991). Basically, it’ll happen only when all of these pieces — legal settlements, estates, cash — fall into the perfect groove.

Odds for Change Don’t toss out your Revolver CD anytime soon. A rumored deal with Microsoft in the summer of 2004 never materialized, and since Apple CEO Steve Jobs doesn’t seem interested in settling with Apple Corps in the near future, it’s gonna be a long and winding road for Beatles fans.

Back in 2000, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich was one of the most vocal critics of Napster — the band famously sued the Internet music service for copyright infringement. Napster’s gone legit, but the Bay Area thrash titans still aren’t available on that site (or iTunes, for that matter). What gives? ”At this time, Metallica offer their music for download on an album-by-album basis [from sites like MSN Music],” says a rep from the band’s management, citing artistic reasons for the no-singles edict.

Odds for Change Excellent. ”Metallica understand what their fans are asking for and we are working on addressing those needs,” says their rep. Our prediction: ”Enter Sandman” will rock iTunes within a year.

Back in 1971, Led Zeppelin refused to release ”Stairway to Heaven” as a single — so don’t expect them to let you download it now. Zeppelin’s management and label declined to comment, but industry experts suggest that they could be reluctant to jeopardize the quartet’s hefty royalty cut from their still-strong CD sales (the group moved just under one million units in 2005). ”A lot of bands won’t do anything without a big payment [up front],” says David Pakman, CEO of Emusic.com. ”But the digital industry doesn’t work that way. We’re not gonna pay advances, we’re just gonna sell your stuff and you’re gonna get a piece.”

Odds for Change Yeah, right. ”They want everyone else to be the guinea pigs [first],” says Clark Benson of the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a major-market research firm. In other words, the wait could be much longer than a John Bonham drum solo.

Radiohead have a blog, but the Internet-savvy band won’t let you download single songs. A rep for the art rockers’ label confirmed that: ”Some artists feel strongly that their albums represent a complete body of work and they want it to be sold as such. We support their decision.”

Odds for Change Slim. Radiohead looks likely to remain an album-only purchase — since Jobs has always insisted that iTunes stay single-centric, there’ll be no ”Fake Plastic Trees” for anyone with little white earbuds.

Brooks has been virtually retired since 2001, and his reasons for staying offline are known only to his inner circle. ”Garth does things Garth’s way,” says Benson. ”He has complete control of everything.” Like many best-selling acts of his generation, Brooks could be worried that putting his music online would slow his steady CD sales (105 million and counting in the U.S.), a widely reported concern of the hat act.

Odds for Change Don’t hold your breath. Brooks appears to be totally focused on physical CDs, so high-tech honky-tonkers are — for now — stuck in a low, low place.