Judging by the number of times it showed up in my RSS reader this week, the biggest music news of the past five days was the announcement that the Beatles‘ catalog would be remastered and reissued, with new versions of every one of their studio albums (as well as a couple of other titles) being made available on Sept. 9, the same day that their version of the Rock Band game comes out. (The date’s full of the number nine, don’t you know.) While the popularity of this particular story was no doubt due in part to the Beatles’ status in the classic-rock pantheon, which allows them to be well-known enough to transcend the “got arrested and/or pregnant” standard for making the wires, there was one question that was nagging at me every time I passed through another breathless announcement of the release. And that question is: Who, exactly, is going to buy these CDs?
That’s not a knock on the quality of the albums—they’re very good!—or even so much the economy. It’s more of a practical query because, well, there aren’t really that many places for people to buy CDs these days, and there will probably be even fewer some five months from now. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that there will be more stores across America selling the Beatles’ Rock Band than the albums the game is based on. Think about it: Virgin Megastores are closing; Borders is ditching most of its CD space; who knows whether or not Trans World will be able to survive the current recessionary moment. Even the big-box stores that have replaced your Record Worlds and your Coconuts as “the place in the mall to get records” are slashing floor space for music retail. Will they just clear out every other artist who has a name that begins with “B” in order to make room for all those new titles?
In a way I just feel like the factors that have all created the perfect, awful storm hanging over the recorded-music business—from filesharing to the economy to the way the music industry is hell-bent on shooting itself in the foot with dopey ideas like the ringle and Musicpass—have resulted in people, for lack of a better term, forgetting that they can use their disposable income on just plain old recorded music, and that even a $14.99 disc at Target is a better investment than, say, plunking down $10 to see Paul Blart: Mall Cop. You can see it in the slowly deflating sales, in the dipping numbers of the lowest-selling album on the Billboard 200 (this week: M. Ward’s Hold Time, which sold 2,800 copies). So you tell me: What do you think these albums will sell? I don’t think that making the remasters available digitally would even help goose those totals by a substantial amount, because I think the problem is more about people not wanting to acquire music—even music that’s not exactly new, that’s dear to their hearts—at all. They’ve fallen out of the habit.