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The Beatles Remastered: The Last Hurrah For CDs?

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For the first time in years, record stores and sellers of compact discs have something to look forward to besides declining sales and possible extinction. The Beatles and their record label, EMI, have announced the long-awaited, oft-delayed remastering and reissuing of the Fab Four's recorded legacy, due out on September 9. All the Beatles' studio albums plus two CDs of singles and non-album tracks will be given spiffier packaging, new liner notes, added video documentary material, and -- most importantly -- a sonic upgrade, the first in more than 20 years for much of this material.

The big question is, how many music buyers still care?

I'm not talking about the Beatles. They're still a huge force in the music business four decades after they broke up; they've placed six albums on the charts in the last ten years, including one of the biggest selling records of the decade, their hits compilation 1. But how much of the remaining CD buying audience is going to pony up the cash for music they likely already own?

While EMI and the band, or their estates, bickered and dallied, the music industry has changed. Remastering and reissuing product by a popular artist is no longer necessarily the cash cow it once was. CDs are still a force to be reckoned with -- 400 million of them were sold in 2008. But that's down 45 percent from 2000, and the format's ultimate demise is already being predicted.

The Beatles and EMI know this. They may be slow to get anything done, but they're no dummies. That's why, on the same day their newly remastered CDs will be released, they're making The Beatles: Rock Band available for Playstation, Xbox and Wii. They know the way to teens' hearts, eardrums and wallets is through their game consoles, not their stereos. After all, how many young'uns even own proper hi-fis anymore?

The sad fact is that no matter how much better these new CDs sound and look than the ones that have been on the market since the late '80s, the potential market for this stuff is significantly smaller than it would have been even five years ago. As more and more music buyers get their music digitally and listen to it on their iPods, they're sending a message to the industry -- we care more about affordability and convenience than great sound or fancy packaging.

At the same time, however, downloaded music brings with it an air of disposability. Like a song you heard on the radio? Buy it for a buck and take it off your iPod when you get sick of it. The Beatles' music, on the other hand, is anything but disposable. Albums like Sgt. Pepper or Revolver are the kind of records that belong on a shelf, not just on a hard drive. If any act of the rock era deserves the super-deluxe treatment, it's these guys. I mean, would you rather crack open a leather-bound copy of Shakespeare's plays or read them on your Kindle?

When you combine the graying lifelong Beatlemaniacs, the declining but still sizeable market for physical media, and the crowd that's going to buy these things as Christmas presents for their nieces and nephews, we'll probably see a blip of positive news for the music biz in the 4th quarter of this year. But after the Beatles, then what?

There's no other comparable act from the classic rock era that hasn't already been remastered, remixed, reissued, sliced, diced and julienned to death. And the market for newer, younger bands is buying more downloads and fewer CDs with every passing month. I don't think CDs are going the way of the dinosaurs; there are too many consumers out there who still think of music as a physical thing and not merely a file to be downloaded. As long as that market exists in great enough numbers, it will continue to be served, whether it's by Wal-Mart, the indie music retailers who have managed to survive this decade, or online retailers like Amazon.

But September 9th probably will mark the last hurrah for the CD as a mass-marketed item the way we've come to know it. And I, for one, will be first in line (or first online, depending on how many record stores close between now and September) to buy it. Both the stereo and mono mixes, please. What can I say? It may be totally 20th century to buy physical media, but hey, the Beatles are 20th century, too.

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