The Mysterious Case of the Fake Beatles Cover

Several big-name recording artists have been “digital holdouts” who have refused to license their material for distribution through interactive streaming music services like Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play Music, Rhapsody, and so on.  One by one, most of them eventually gave in and joined the crowd: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Metallica, Kid Rock, Def Leppard, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Frank Zappa.  Only a tiny number of artists remain digital holdouts by choice, including the biggest one of all: the Beatles.  Or are they?

A curious phenomenon occurs around digital holdouts: other artists distribute cover versions of the digital holdouts’ tunes and create appropriate metadata, so that users searching for the big-name artists find the cover versions and play them.  This results in royalties for the cover artists even if the music wasn’t what the users expected. Cover versions with the right metadata are also picked up by Internet radio services.  So, if you searched for “Led Zeppelin” or started a “Led Zeppelin Radio” channel before Led Zep licensed its music to the interactive services, you might have heard Zep covers from a band called Led Zepagain.  When Interscope held Carly Rae Jepsen’s monster hit “Call Me Maybe” back from interactive services a couple of years ago, users heard a cover version by an unknown singer.

If you listen to “Beatles Radio” on a pure Internet radio service like Pandora, you will hear Beatles tunes every once in a while.  That’s because Internet radio services have statutory licenses that allow them to play any song at all, as long as they pay appropriate royalties to record labels and songwriters.  (Similarly, anyone can record a cover version of any song.) But an interactive service can’t offer any song for on-demand listening unless the rights holders have licensed it to do so.

Yet something curious happened while I was listening to “Beatles Radio” on Google Play Music the other day. I heard a version of the Beatles song “In My Life” (a lesser-known track from the Rubber Soul album*) that sounded suspiciously like the real thing — even though the artist was listed as “Liverpool Beat,” not the Beatles. The radio feature on Google Play Music lets you go back and repeat songs you heard previously if Google Play has interactive streaming rights to them.  Sure enough, I was able to play “In My Life” as many times as I wanted.  Then I compared it with a download of the actual Beatles song.  Allowing for differences in codec quality, they were absolutely identical.  That’s right: this was a fake Beatles cover.

Apparently, Liverpool Beat is one of a couple of Beatles cover bands that are designed to sub in for the Beatles in circumstances similar to Led Zepagain for the real Zeppelin.  (There are also a couple of Beatles tribute bands called Liverpool Beat that play bars, weddings, etc., but this is different.)  Liverpool Beat has dozens of Beatles songs available on the major interactive streaming services — including Spotify, Google Play, and Apple Music — from all phases of the Beatles’ career.  I listened to all of them.  They range in quality from mediocre to pretty decent imitations, but they are clearly not the Beatles… except for “In My Life.”  That’s definitely John Lennon singing and George Martin’s double-speed piano solo.

Evidently someone uploaded the real Beatles track to a distributor that feeds to the interactive streaming services.  It was included with other Beatles covers by Liverpool Beat on a four-part “album” called… wait for it… Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Given that the Beatles’ online distribution is tightly controlled and exclusive to iTunes downloads, and that the terms of their 2011 deal with Apple are unique in the industry, this is just a little bit remarkable.  The question is, whodunnit?  Here’s a poll:

Update: through further research, I found the likely source(s) of Beatles covers by “Liverpool Beat.”  I’ve written an article on Forbes about it.  Props to Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader and David Leibowitz of CH Potomac for help.

*There is no point in calling it a “classic.” All Beatles songs and albums are classics.

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