Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

How the Beatles became a video game

August 19, 2009: 8:02 AM ET
Photo: Apple Corps

Image: MTV Networks via Apple Corps

Leave aside for the moment the rumors that Apple Inc. (AAPL) has invited a number of music industry professionals and press to an iPod/iTunes special event on Sept. 9.

We know for a fact that Apple Corps and EMI have scheduled the worldwide release of the original Beatles catalog -- digitally remastered for the first time -- in compact disc format on 09/09/09, an event timed to coincide with MTV Games' release of The Beatles: Rock Band. (Press release here.)

And thanks to Jeff Howe's long piece in the current issue of Wired Magazine, we have the back story of how the Beatles became a video game -- a tale that begins with a meeting between George Harrison's son Dhani and Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks, on a secluded Caribbean beach nearly three years ago, long before Rock Band was released and became a hit.

It's a fascinating glimpse into the complexities involved in doing anything new with the Beatles' musical legacy, whether putting the songs in video game format or bringing them, at long last, to the iTunes music store.

Take, for example, this passage from Howe's piece:

"Licensing music for games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band is a fairly complicated procedure. Gamemakers pay a chunk of cash upfront to several parties to license both the master recording and the publishing rights to the underlying song. Licensing the Beatles, however, is trickier. The recording rights belong to the band's longtime label, EMI. Most of the publishing rights, on the other hand, are held by Sony/ATV (a joint venture with the late Michael Jackson). Complicating matters even further, additional publishing rights for certain tunes are held by Harrissongs, an independent entity set up by George Harrison, as well as by Starr's publishing company, Startling Music.

And that's just behind the music. In order to develop the game's digital doubles, MTV had to license the artists' likenesses from Apple Corps, which meant appealing to the Beatles and their descendants—famous for conflicting views on how to manage the Beatles brand—to reach an agreement. On top of that, the company had to obtain separate rights for any materials it wanted to use for the game's marketing."

And then there's Yoko. Howe's story ends with a scene that reads like something Fake Steve Jobs had already imagined:

"By spring, the Harmonix crew had completed a rough build of the entire game. Yoko Ono, whose involvement up to then had been minimal, decided to fly to Boston to provide her own distinct brand of input. "She gave the designers hell," DeGooyer says. "She's an artist," Rigopulos adds, "so she was very concerned with the look of the game. She really held our feet to the fire." Ono made specific suggestions, like proposing that the game's final scene—the Beatles' infamous rooftop concert on the Apple Corps building in Knightsbridge—look windier. Her criticism sent Harmonix scurrying to improve the graphics. At that point, the E3 conference and the game's debut was just three months away. 'We were like, oh, gee. Thanks,' Rigopulos says. 'It would have been nice to know that six months ago, but yes, thank you very much.'" (See here for MTV Networks and Harmonix' angry reaction to this section of the story.)

Steve Jobs, of course, is a great Beatles fan and was negotiating for digital rights to the catalog long before MTV Networks got into the act -- negotiations complicated by the fact that Apple had been in and out of litigation with Apple Corps since 1978.

But to imagine that Apple Inc. would stage Jobs' return to coincide with the remastered CDs, the Rock Band game, and an announcement that the Beatles have come to iTunes ... well, that's pure speculation.

Below: A trailer for The Beatles: Rock Band, courtesy of Wired.

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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