Release set for 2009 holiday season

The Beatles are entering the digital age in a way few would have predicted: through a videogame.

The single-most important catalog in music, one that has never been licensed for any digital sales, is being opened up for MTV Games to create a vidgame for release in time for the 2009 holiday season.

The partnership marks the first time Apple Corps, EMI Music, Harrisongs and Sony/ATV Music Publishing have agreed to present the Beatles’ music in a videogame presentation. Executives from Apple, MTV and game developer Harmonix announced the game Thursday in London, giving few details beyond the game’s existence.

Game developers will be able to select 45 songs from the Beatles catalog recorded during their 1962-69 tenure within EMI for inclusion in the game.

“The game is in development,” said Apple Corps CEO Jeff Jones. “We don’t want to talk about how it will turn out a year from now. We’re in the process of creating the game.”

Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono Lennon have been part of the conversations regarding the design, layout and rollout of the game. Discussions, both creative and financial, between Apple Corps and MTV began 17 months ago, and the first contracts were signed about four weeks ago. The game will not be part of the “Rock Band” franchise, which will release an AC/DC edition on Tuesday.

Landing the Beatles is a major coup for MTV, though perhaps not the knockout blow that getting the band into its “Rock Band” vidgame franchise would have been. Both MTV and “Guitar Hero” publisher Activision have hotly pursued rights to Beatles songs for their respective games.

However popular a Beatles videogame turns out to be, MTV won’t be able to easily turn players onto its existing franchise as they would if it were a spinoff or special edition. As a result, the ongoing battle between “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” will likely be unaffected by this deal.

Giles Martin, who produced the “Beatles Love” album with his father George, the Beatles’ original producer, will oversee the music on the release. He emphasized, “We are trying to present the songs as they were played, adhering to the (original) mix.”

Neither Jones nor Martin would talk about whether the Beatles music, which has not been touched up or remastered in 20-plus years, would be remastered for the game. Beatles songs are still not available on iTunes or any other digital retailer, about which Jones noted, “All I can say is we’re still working out the details.”

It’s “the biggest puzzle and so illogical that the Beatles music is not available for use on MP3 players,” Martin Bandier, chairman-CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, told Daily Variety. “Maybe the fact that this deal is done will offer an impetus to Apple and EMI” to finalize a deal, he added.

Use of the Beatles master recordings has been highly limited over the 38 years since the band called it quits. McCartney, Starr and the widows of George Harrison and John Lennon approved the remixing and reconstructing of the Beatles records for the Cirque du Soleil show “Love” and opened the vaults for the “Anthology” film, but that’s about it.

Use of their songs has become a bit more common, most prominently on two “American Idol” shows last season and in the films “Across the Universe” and “I Am Sam.” Sony/ATV handles the music publishing of the vast majority of songs written by Lennon and McCartney.

The music publisher was the last to sign the deal, and while no financial figures were released, Bandier said Sony/ATV asked for as much as possible.

“There have been mutterings from artists and songwriters that they are not being offered their fair share in videogames, but the gamemakers have the leverage,” he said. “In the world of rock, there are thousands of tracks that will work, but when you get into the world of unique artists, that leverage shifts, tremendously, to the artists and songwriters.

“We signed a deal that would be considered very rich by the videogame company but fair for the artists. It will have online implications that will be enormous.”

With the Beatles inking a deal for a videogame, it leaves one key holdout from the classic rock era, Led Zeppelin. The British hard rock quartet, rumored to be reforming without lead singer Robert Plant, was one of the first acts approached when “Guitar Hero” was in prototype form. Then, and now, they have rejected uses of their songs in games.

The Rolling Stones moved their post-1970 catalog to Universal Music Group earlier this year, and the music conglom said digital was a priority, suggesting a dedicated game is likely.

(Ben Fritz contributed to this report.)

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