Monday, 12 July 2010

How The Beatles REALLY Broke The States

I've never been convinced by the 'illegal file sharing is killing music' argument so I found this story from Shout : The True Story of the Beatles by Phillip Norman fascinating...

Let me tell you a story...

After four attempts to get Capitol (who after all were technically already the Beatles US label) to release a record in the States Brian Epstein finally got an agreement. They would release I Want To Hold Your Hand on Jan 13, 1964, even though the record company made it clear they expected the single to tank.

Just before Christmas an air hostess gave her boyfriend a UK copy of the single (which by then was already #1 in England). The boyfriend, who was a DJ in Washington DC, played it on his show & the listeners went wild. One of the listeners was a Capitol employee who began trying to find out who the band were, and who owned the publishing rights (Epstein had just sold to US publishing to MCA!).

A friend of the DJ taped the song and sent it to another DJ in Chicago and soon Beatlemania was breaking out there too.

Before Capitol had time to register what was going on someone in Chicago had taped the song and sent it to St Louis and in no time it was setting the airwaves alight there too.

Capitol now decided to revise their low expectations and set, not only their own pressing plant, but also RCA’s & CBS’s to work right through the holidays pressing 1 million copies of the new single.(It held the #1 spot for 7 weeks, and went on to sell 5 million copies).

I love this story! It illustrates so beautifully how ‘free’ has always been the friend of musician (and even ultimately, the stupid unwieldy dinosaur major label). It also demonstrates how badly the traditional model worked - even in the good old days.

Here’s the cliff notes

Q: What was the main obstacle to the Beatles breaking the States?
Their own record company. The very organisation that was supposed to have their best interests at heart.

Q: Who was the band’s best friend?
The fans.

Q: What did the fans need to become the ultimate uber-distribution ninjas?
Nothing. Just FREE access to the music. They even payed to copy and distribute it themselves. (And for once they didn’t get sued!)

Q: Who profited financially in a massive way from the free ‘filesharing’ and radio play of illegal bootlegs in this story?
The record company and the artists.

Q: Who was the most completely useless, and clueless, player in this whole story?
The major label. Capitol even threatened to seek a court order banning airplay of I Want to Hold Your Hand.

Explain (in 500 words or less) why you still think being signed to a major label would have a positive effect on your career? Please mention any instances of mental illness occurring in your family history.

Related Posts: Trent gives it away

If you've enjoyed this post you might want to check out Beatles Songwriting Academy where I'm attempting to work my way through all 211 Beatles songs 'borrowing' songwriting ideas as I go...


  1. Only a dribbling idiot would be able to defend a 'major record label' (Which incidentally is an anagram of 'marlboro clad jeer')

  2. Mat what's that on your hands? Oh. It's time. Too much time. ;-)


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