Help! arrives: Apple lands Beatles for iTunes

Fab Four tracks sell for $US1.29 each as one of the last digital holdouts goes online

Apple today added the Beatles' catalog to its iTunes online music store, making it the first to sell digital downloads of the Fab Four's tracks.

The move was expected after the Wall Street Journal and others reported late yesterday that Apple's mysterious announcement would center on the Beatles .

"We love the Beatles and are honored and thrilled to welcome them to iTunes," said Apple CEO Steve Jobs in a statement. "It has been a long and winding road to get here." Jobs is a well-known fan of the group, which broke up in 1970.

On iTunes, individual Beatles' tracks cost $US1.29, the highest price in the three-tier system Apple now uses. In 2007, the company bowed to pressure from record labels, ditched its 99 cents, one-price-fits-all model, and began selling tunes for 69 cents, 99 cents and $1.29.

Albums, such as 1965's Help! sell for $12.99, while double albums, like the 1968 The Beatles, better known as the "White Album," list for $19.99.

A special digital "Beatles Box Set," which includes all 13 studio albums as well as other material, sells for $149.

Apple has long courted the Beatles and its record label, EMI, to sell the band's music on iTunes. The Beatles were one of the last holdouts against selling their music digitally, although its members had placed their solo catalogs online.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the band's albums continue to sell briskly more than 40 years after its founding. Last July, for instance, the "White Album" passed the 18 million mark, putting it in the top seven best-selling albums of all time.

"The Beatles remain one of the most influential bands in rock and roll history," said RIAA CEO Hilary Rosen at the time. "Their music simply transcends generations."

Apple has tried to strike a deal with the Beatles and EMI for years with no success, although the rumors of impending online sales have been a perennial event.

Apple's legal tussles with Apple Corps, the Beatles own company, may have also contributed to the stalemate, as the two fought over trademarks in 1978, 1991 and again starting in 2003. In 2007, the firms settled the last dispute, with Apple owning all the "Apple"-related trademarks, while Apple Corps licensed the Apple name and its logo from Apple, the computer maker.

The two surviving members of the band -- Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr -- as well as the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison, contributed statements to Apple's press release, indicating that all signed on to the deal. Previously, McCartney said that unanimity had been a pre-condition to any arrangement.

Apple's mysterious announcement on the front page of its Web site Monday that "Tomorrow is just another day ... that you'll never forget," led to intense speculation on the part of bloggers and analysts, many of whom bet that the company would roll out a long-anticipated music streaming subscription service today.

That was not to be.

"I still think that's likely," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, today, referring to a potential iTunes subscription model. "The heavy lifting is in the negotiations with the content providers."

The talk of a music subscription service similar to that sold by Rhapsody, or alternately the ability of iTunes users to store their music in the cloud , has been fueled by a $1 billion Apple data center in North Carolina that is almost operational. Apple's executives have said that the center would go online before the end of the year.

Harrison, McCartney, Lennon and Starr -- the Beatles -- hit iTunes today.

"It's the scale of Apple [and iTunes] that's the problem for record labels," said Gottheil, talking about the difficulties the two sides have had in reaching any streaming agreement. "For all the problems with iTunes, it's the [labels'] major source of revenue of purchased music. They look at their monthly receipts from iTunes, and don't want to subsidize the heavy buyers with a subscription."

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Gregg Keizer

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