By Brian Ives
Days after Beyonce shook the planet by releasing a new album with no prior warning, two legendary bands from decades past have put out new collections without any pre-release hype, albeit for very different reasons.
Fans who check iTunes every Tuesday morning for new releases may have been surprised to see fresh titles from The Beatles (The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963) and The Beach Boys (The Big Beat 1963) this week. New collections and re-releases from both acts, especially The Beatles, are usually heralded with huge press campaigns. The Beatles’ collection is comprised mainly of alternate versions of their songs, but also demos of “Bad To Me” and “I’m In Love,” both of which were recorded by Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas, who, like the Beatles, were managed by Brian Epstein. Unlike The Beatles, the “new” Beach Boys album is comprised of previously unreleased songs from 1963 rather than merely alternate takes, though much of it has been out on unofficial bootlegs.
Strangely, neither The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963 nor the Beach Boys’ The Big Beat 1963 even had press releases to announce their existence, and aren’t even mentioned on either band’s official website or Facebook page. On the face of it, that might suggest that these are unauthorized albums that somehow made their way to iTunes.
However, both have been released via Universal Music. The Beatles collection’s page on iTunes reads, “the copyright in these sound recordings is owned by Calderstone Productions Limited (a division of Universal Music Group),” while the Beach Boys’ simply lists Capitol Records as the label. Capitol is, of course, the label that issues both bands’ catalogs, and is owned by Universal. In other words, both of these albums are legitimate releases. So why the low profile?
The clue lies in the fact that both albums are from 1963. According to European Union copyright law, if a recording isn’t released within 50 years of being recorded, ownership of that recording reverts back from the record label into the hands of the artist. By making these recordings commercially available, even without promotion, the labels are retaining the rights to these recordings (for another 20 years, according to the law).
This, no doubt, is a tense situation between the artists and their labels. Surely the surviving Beatles and Beach Boys would like to get the rights to any of their recordings. That would allow them to sell the recordings on their own, or license the sale of the recordings through other companies (and, indeed, Paul McCartney recently took his solo catalog from Capitol to Concord when the rights to those albums reverted to him, something Capitol surely does not want to see happen with even a single Beatles master recording). On the other hand, labels generally won’t try to make a big commercial splash with a box set by an artist whom they have a working relationship with, as is the case with Capitol and both the Beatles and the Beach Boys: they still actively promote both catalogs.
A similar release materialized last year when Sony issued a very limited-edition collection of 86 previously unreleased recordings to select record stores in a few European countries. How limited of an edition was it? According to the New York Times, only 100 copies of the four-CD set (cheekily titled The 50th Anniversary Collection: The Copyright Collection Vol. 1) were produced. A downloadable version was available at Dylan’s website, but only to fans logging on from France or Germany. Last month, a follow-up, Bob Dylan – 50th Anniversary Collection: 1963 was announced. Again, it’s a limited edition set and only available in Europe.
Given that these releases seem to be coming out strictly to abide by a European law, why have the Beatles and Beach Boys collections come out in the U.S. while Dylan’s are only available in Europe? Well, Dylan’s 1962 collection sold on eBay for as much as $1500. Perhaps the Beatles don’t want their fans spending that kind of money on recordings they originally deemed unworthy of albums in the first place, or the record label may not want the bad publicity that comes with creating such a limited item. Universal told Radio.com “no comment” with regards to the matter.
For fans, this means that there will be treasure troves of unreleased material from legendary artists coming out more frequently — probably annually — in the future. Maybe, given the fact that these recordings will be released whether the artist is enthused about the project or not, the artists (or their estates) will get onboard, leading to a bevy of box sets in the coming years. Or, if more artists take the Beatles and Dylan’s disinterested approach, it could mean more under-the-radar releases. So, fans of Dylan, the Beatles, as well as the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Animals and all of the Motown acts and other major artists who have hit the big five-O may want to check iTunes carefully every week from now on, or risk missing out on some of the most limited edition releases ever.