As EMI prepares to release Paul McCartney’s voluminous repertoire of solo albums online (his newest album is already available for pre-order), you have a strong feeling that a certain band with which he was once associated will come shortly thereafter.
Now I’m not going to get into the silly argument about whether you are going to avoid buying the expected DRM-free versions because they sell for 30 cents extra, and that you don’t care about the higher quality tracks. One online commentator has already come up with that dose of silliness, and it’s not worth a further response.
What I wonder, however, is how many times the music industry expects you to buy the same product before you decide that enough is enough. Yes, I’m talking about the digital versions of the Fab Four’s music library.
Now I realize I’m aging myself here, but, yes, I did purchase the LP versions back in the 1960s, although it took me a year or two to catch up with all the excitement. When the albums were remastered for CD, I bought the entire collection all over again, plus a few of the repackaged extras. Sure, they sounded better, and having the early albums in genuine mono rather than fake stereo was a real plus. Even better, 20 years after I bought those CDs, they have evidently withstood CD rot and they play just as good as new.
If you can believe EMI, they remastered the entire collection all over again for digital distribution. All right, well and good, but what can they do to make them sound better, considering that most were recorded on four-track analog tape decks more than 40 years ago? Are they actually going to spend extended amounts of editing time examining every second of the original masters to remove defects and improve sonic clarity?
Will all that digital legerdemain make you feel closer to the original sound The Beatles heard in the studio when they created their original masterpieces? Lest we forget, after the band stopped touring, just about everything they did was manufactured in the studio, and could not, in the general sense, be reproduced live anyway. So what was the “original” sound supposed to be and how much closer can we get to it?
More to the point, were the surviving members involved in making sure that their visions were not tempered with by overeager digital mastering engineers?
Let’s assume, for the moment, that all the albums do sound noticeably better; that is, cleaner and more realistic with superior, palpable bass. I expect that the best recording engineers can work miracles even on sub-par source material. Without hearing the finished result, however, I can say that remastering has improved a lot of famous rock albums over the years.
Take the Doors and Rolling Sounds as examples where new versions of their albums sounded far better than the original CD releases. The Stones were especially victim to poor recording quality, which was done in part, I imagine, to give them their distinctive garage band sound. Indeed, I was pleased with the new recordings, and I actually traded in several of the older albums and purchased that revitalized replacements.
So, yes, it’s quite possible a sophisticated spring cleaning will do miracles for The Beatles too. The question is this: How many of you are prepared to buy all those albums one more time? Even more important, will their forthcoming presence on iTunes entice you to download your favorites?
I don’t pretend to know. However, it’s quite possible Apple will do its best to goose sales, such as building a special Beatles Edition iPod, perhaps with the band’s music library bundled with the player for a special price. I can see where the exclusivity factor would have some impact, although I wonder if most Beatles fans, these days, are aging baby boomers.
To be sure, I just don’t know whether a market still exists for The Beatles and other vintage 1960s British rockers. Even if the audio quality is as pristine as the best 21st century music recordings, how many times do you want to listen to “A Day in the Life” and all their other great songs before you tire of them?
Yes, I can see the possibility of buying some of the CDs again, if I was assured there would be a huge jump in quality. But I’m of an older generation, or maybe I just don’t know any better.
Then again, maybe if enough young people rediscover The Beatles, they might become more critical of the quality of today’s rock music and pay more attention to Indie bands with appropriately distinctive sounds. That would be the best development of all.