A history of digital music revolution in India, with The Beatles

No music collection is complete without the Fab Four, who somehow form a significant step in how digital music has evolved in the life of this Indian.


The first Beatles song I ever heard was Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da. I must have been four or five at the time. My mom had a bunch of mix tapes with songs by Cliff Richards, ABBA, and The Beatles, and we would keep playing them over and over on a tiny cassette player.

This Christmas, The Beatles released their entire catalogue on music streaming services like Apple Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, and more. No music collection is complete without the Fab Four, who somehow form a significant step in how digital music has evolved in the life of this Indian.

Piracy Happened Before Digital

 A history of digital music revolution in India, with The Beatles

I was born in 1985, so I did spend some years in the audio tape era. The Walkman was already an established part of life by the time I started listening to music regularly. Mix tapes were the rage, and my brother and I spent several days agonising over the right mix, labelling it perfectly on the back of those Sony or TDK blank tapes.

Yeah, we did buy tapes too, but not as regularly. Music piracy was pretty easy at the time. Philips and Panasonic had these audio cassette players where you could fit two tapes side by side. And there was a handy "record" button. Put a blank tape in one, and the song-filled tape in another. You needed to play the tape with the songs, stop right before the song you wanted to copy, and then hit the 'Play' and 'Record' buttons on both tapes simultaneously. Tedious, yes, but it was free music! You could record songs from the radio just as easily.

We didn't even know the word "piracy" at that time, partly because we were kids and partly because it wasn't talked about as much then. My first instinct is to say it was a simpler time, devoid of DRMs and big audio publishers, but it wasn't that. It was lack of knowledge, easy opportunity, no fear of repercussions, and an empty piggy bank.

But before the researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute invented MP3, music piracy was already a part of the urban Indian kid's life. Of course, MP3s made it boom.

CDs, The Amateur Collector's Delight

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The shift from analog audio tapes to digital music came with CDs, the precursor to the DVD, which fit only one uncompressed album in one disc. Fittingly, perhaps, the first CD I ever purchased was The Beatles' Help! In a few years, I picked up several more albums, trawling through end-of-the-year sales at Planet M, Rhythm House, and other music stores.

CDs weren't cheap, but they were convenient. Plus, they worked in a computer, and you could copy them if you have a CD-writer. You could even grab your friend's CD and rip it to your PC as MP3s. Piracy shmiracy.

But CDs gave a little more than just music: you got a booklet of liner notes and fantastic album art. When I visited Planet M to buy a CD, I'd hold it sideways to try and estimate the thickness of the cover, which was an indication of whether the CD had detailed liner notes or just the cover art. There was also the appeal of special editions and boxes, which were usually compilations of songs or live performances, with more art, interviews, posters, and assorted extras. CDs were the amateur collector's delight.

Thinking back, the "one album per CD" was a big limitation. Even when you needed to listen to The White Album, you needed two CDs. And to save the trouble of changing discs between listens, manufacturers came up with 3-in-1 disc players, 5-in-1 players, and so on. You would load up multiple discs, which could then be rotated with the convenience of a click from a remote button. Things weren't that simple with the discman, the portable CD version of the walkman.

MP3s and Easy Piracy

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At the same time, MP3s were becoming more and more popular. From playing only audio CDs, the aforementioned discman and disc players started supporting MP3s. You could load up 700 megabytes worth of music on a single disc, which was exponentially more than the 12-14 tracks that an audio CD supported otherwise.

MP3s also made music piracy much, much easier than it ever should have been. Napster and Audiogalaxy, two of the earliest peer-to-peer file sharing services, rose to prominence around the same time that internet was more readily accessible in India. When one service shut down, another one rose. Napster, Audiogalaxy, Kazaa, Limewire, eMule… you just switched when everyone else switched.

Enterprising street vendors made things even easier. The entire Beatles discography fit on a single CD and would cost anywhere between Rs. 100 and Rs. 250, depending on where you were buying from, if you had any idea of the ease of making these CDs, and whether you were a regular.

The "double disc Beatles pack", a crude soft plastic case adorned by a badly color-xeroxed collage of different Beatles albums covers, set me back by 350 rupees sometime between 2001 and 2003. Apart from the discography, it also had compilations like 1 (a collection of their top radio singles), the I Am Sam soundtrack of Beatles covers by different artists, and a bunch of other things.

Here's the silly part: By then, I actually had paid for six different Beatles albums on CD, and two on tape, each costing far more than 300 rupees. But the convenience of getting everything in two convenient MP3 discs, apparently ripped at 192Kbps, was something I still considered worth spending money on.

Hard Drives and the iPod

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Two things shifted the focus completely from CDs to MP3s: Apple launched the iPod and computer hard drives became cheap enough. With 120GB in hard drives and an iPod with 30GB of disk space, there was no need for CDs any more, apart from backing up the MP3s already stored on that drive or iPod. Plus, broadband speeds in India became good enough to realistically download gigabytes rather than megabytes.

At that time, or even much later, I don't recall most of the people I know having any qualms about just downloading music instead of paying for it. Was piracy wrong? Yeah. But buying music was expensive and here was a way to get it all for free. It's an attitude that still persists, to a large extent.

Money was instead spent on the hardware. The iPod, Sandisk's Sansa, Creative's Zen, Microsoft's Zune, and other portable MP3 players were so much more convenient than carrying CDs that they were no-brainer purchases. At the same time, mobile phones were gaining popularity and makers like Nokia and Sony Ericsson focussed on phones that offered a great music experience. Large capacity hard drives and memory cards made more sense than paying 50 rupees for a single song on iTunes. You wanted to invest in headphones, not in the music it played, since that was so easily available for free.

The Beatles weren't on iTunes till 2010, but when they finally launched purchasable MP3s, I ended up dropping a few iTunes gift cards on it again. I had paid for those songs on tape, I had paid for those songs on CDs, and here I was paying again for the MP3s—whether pirated or original.

The Future Is Streaming

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Around the end of the noughties, broadband internet was good enough to listen to your music by streaming it. Soon, 3G internet became good enough (both in access and in price) to use free services like Saavn and Gaana on your mobile instead of loading up a stocked memory card.

Apple Music landed in India this year and costs just Rs. 120 per month—roughly what iTunes used to charge for two songs. Now you get an incredible catalogue of songs, both Indian and otherwise, for the cost of a cappuccino.

For the longest time, The Beatles stayed away from streaming services, but they've finally embraced the digital revolution. This is the first time that I'll be able to listen to The Beatles without having to pay anything extra to listen to music that I've already purchased once.

The subscription to these streaming services doesn't increase if you want to listen to The Beatles or any other artist, it stays constant.

The future of music, at least for the next few years, is going to be about streaming it so that you can listen to your tunes anywhere you are, and get more new music without paying extra for it. And that's just awesome.

Image credits: The Beatles UK Tape Cassettes, 45worlds, CDandLP, NoirKitsune / Flickr


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