MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say. The following comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.
Largely forgotten Sixties band The Beatles are making a desperate bid to reignite their legacy by releasing a “new” song that was left languishing in the vaults. It is a last roll of the dice for the band who seem to have been erased from history but who are hoping to find some way, any way, of reminding people of their existence.
Yes, I am being lazily “satirical” here.
A new “Beatles” track is coming later this year, most likely based around a 1978 John Lennon demo called ‘Now & Then’. There has been wild speculation about the involvement of AI in its creation, with people horrified that the end result would be some sort of robo-karaoke.
Paul McCartney has stated that AI was only used to “extricate” Lennon’s voice from the cassette the demo was originally recorded on to “get it pure” and give them “some sort of leeway” in the mixing.
It could have come out a quarter of a century ago but its release was vetoed by George Harrison who, in his delightfully dry manner, termed it “fucking rubbish”.
The fact that Harrison, who died 2001, is no longer here to block its release and is, therefore, not on it is not really an issue in terms of it qualifying, or not qualifying, as a “proper” Beatles track.
There are plenty of Beatles songs when they were an actual active group that not all four members were on. For example, only John and Paul played on ‘The Ballad Of John & Yoko’ (their last UK and US number one while they were still together), Ringo Starr wasn’t on ‘Back In The USSR’, Paul wasn’t on ‘She Said She Said’ but he is the only one on both ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Blackbird’. On and on it goes.
Ian MacDonald’s magisterial Revolution In The Head book is packed to the gills with stuff like this and proves that how we understand what constitutes The Beatles as a recording group is at times elliptic and at other times malleable.
The real point that this all exposes is the inevitable descent into barrel scraping by an industry obsessed with excavating the past and releasing the previously unreleasable. This is all a byproduct of the content arms race that started with CD reissues in the mid 1980s and has reached its peak in the streaming era.
The tl;dr of it all is this: just because something is possible, it does not follow that you should do it.
We have been here before with the release of ‘Free As A Bird’ in 1995, a 1977 John Lennon demo that was embellished with the other three Beatles (or “The Threetles” as they chummily renamed themselves, thumbs very much aloft). It was there to put wind in the sales sails of the Anthology project that involved a major documentary and three compilations of outtakes and demos.
Like a relationship gone sour or a face-burning humiliation in front of close friends and family, it is something that Beatles fans and Apple Corp rarely acknowledge now. ‘Free As A Bird’ is not on the This Is The Beatles playlist on Spotify.
The fact that it only got to number 2 in the UK and number 6 in the US helpfully saved Beatles Plc from having to consider it for inclusion on the 1 compilation from 2000 and thereby forcing its public acceptance into the Canon Of Fabs.
The other “lost” track that landed in the Anthology series was ‘Real Love’. It had already been heard in demo form on the 1988 Imagine: John Lennon soundtrack album, but that fact was gingerly skipped over to emphasise its “new-ness”. It is mentioned about around a thousandth of the number of times that ‘Free As A Bird’ is ever mentioned. Yes, that infrequently.
These two, ahem, “late period” Beatles tracks are net negative for the band’s legacy. They are not additive or expansive in any way. No one outside of a small circle has even heard ‘Now & Then’, but I can say, with the kind of absolute and burning confidence that rarely happens in one’s life, that it will be: (a) horrifically disappointing; (b) quickly forgotten by the public; and (c) from 2024 onwards, it will be hastily skimmed over in the band’s official history, never to be mentioned again.
It is not just the biggest names in music trying to reshape and expand their legacy by availing of cutting-edge technologies. Recently, Pedro Capmany has used AI to create a duet with his late father, the Puerto Rican star José Capmany,
Sorry for the shameless plug, but in my book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife Of Music Estates, I have a whole chapter on “hologram” resurrections – from Tupac to Maria Callas – and using AI to create “new” music in the style of a deceased artist.
That chapter seeks to untangle the three sets of conflicting dynamics that are going on here: the technological (what can and cannot be achieved with technology today); the legal (how IP/rights can and should apply here); and the ethical (if this is something that should be done).
As it stands, the industry appears convinced that if it can untangle and hyper-charge the first two issues (the technological and the legal) then collectively they will naturally override the third issue (the ethical).
The conundrum here is only going to get even knottier as technology advances and new possibilities come up.
But there really needs to be a fourth factor added in here when things like a “new” Beatles track or an AI duet with a dead star inevitably come around: the public interest.
I do not mean “public interest” in the sense of: how it relates to “the welfare or well-being of the general public”. I mean it in the sense of: in terms of what you are planning, will the public be, and will they remain, interested?
The powerful thrust of technological utopianism means that we are being encouraged to technologically run before we can morally walk. That can only lead to disappointment at best and the tearing open of an actual hellmouth at worst.
The question here should be less about thirstily doing what was previously technologically unthinkable and more about being keener to step back from what is ethically unthinkable.Music Business Worldwide