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The Beatles remain a pop culture phenomenon even among Gen Z fans. Here's why

Key Points
  • The Beatles released a remixed version of its Abbey Road album in late September, and it reached the No. 3 spot on Billboard.
  • The group's music has been streamed 1.7 billion times so far in 2019.
  • Thirty percent of that streaming comes from those age 18 to 24, followed by 25- to 29-year-olds, at 17%.
  • The group has kept the 50-year-old brand popular with streaming music services, Sirius XM radio and the "Beatles: RockBand" video game.
The Beatles in 1964. (L-R): Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon.
Evening Standard | Getty Images

The Beatles broke up five decades ago, but you would never know it from looking at the charts. In late September the group reissued the 50th anniversary edition of its 1969 album "Abbey Road," which hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200 in the U.S. and the top spot in the U.K.

The deluxe reissue features a remixed version of the original album and also includes two discs' worth of previously unheard material, a 5.1 surround-sound mix on Blu-ray, and a 100-page hardcover book. At a price just under $100, it's easy to see why someone would be tempted to buy it, even if they already own the original version of the album.

The physical media sales are only part of the story. Billboard noted that to reach the No. 3 spot, the group had sold 81,000 physical albums, but according to Forbes, the group's music has been streamed on Spotify 1.7 billion times in 2019. The group doing 30% of that streaming is between the ages of 18 and 24, followed by 25- to 29-year-olds, at 17%. That means almost half of the streaming is coming from people under the age of 30.

A print of the famous "Abbey Road" record cover pictured here in front of the same pedestrian crossing on Abbey Road, in north London
Carl De Souza | AFP | Getty Images

Konstantin Goldman, media relations spokesman for the online marketing research firm SEMrush, told CNBC that other data still shows the music to be in high demand.

"We pulled data on the amount of Google searches for 'Beatles' over the last four years, and there's been a 48.59% spike over the last 12 months," he said.

Iconic status through the ages

What's driving this continued interest in The Beatles, and what strategies are in place to sustain it?

Apple Corps, the company formed by the Beatles in 1968 to manage its affairs, was unavailable for comment, so its plans for the 2020s and beyond are unknown. However, it has been busy for years with the task of getting this music to new audiences.

The company brought the group into the new millennium in 2000, with the release of the album 1, a compilation of their No. 1 hits. It stayed on the U.S. charts for 388 weeks and has since sold 13 million copies.

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In 2006, Cirque du Soleil premiered the show "Love" in Las Vegas. Its soundtrack album, which featured newly mixed versions of Beatles songs, went on to sell 2 million copies, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. The production is still running to this day.

Three years later the group's full original music catalog ­— whose worth has been estimated to be over $1 billion — was given a sonic upgrade and reissued, and within five days of their debut in stores, sales totaled more than 2.25 million copies internationally.

Fans line up outside the HMV music store in Liverpool, England, to purchase the new "Beatles: RockBand" video game and digitally remastered albums in 2009.
Paul Ellis | AFP | Getty Images

On the same day that the catalog was reissued, the Beatles: RockBand video game was also released. The game generated $60 million in sales upon its release, according to the Los Angeles Times. Apple Corps also co-produced Ron Howard's 2016 documentary "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years" for the Hulu streaming service.

The power of streaming music

Although all of these steps have helped keep the group in the public eye, two of the most significant measures to ensure the band's continued relevance took place only a few years ago. In 2015 the group's catalog finally came to Spotify and Apple Music, and in 2017 the Beatles Channel came to Sirius XM Radio.

As its name implies, the Sirius channel plays nothing but the Fab Four, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, putting their music on streaming services may prove to be the most crucial move in terms of the band's longevity.

While it's true that streaming services pay artists only a fraction of a cent in royalties for every song streamed, it's nonetheless the way the overwhelming majority of people listen to music today. Any artist hoping to be heard by millions of new fans has to have their catalog available on these services or risk becoming an archaic obscurity.

The Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band room at the Beatlemania exhibition on May 28, 2009 in Hamburg, Germany.
Krafft Angerer | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

All of these steps have been necessary, in part because the possibilities for releasing and re-releasing the group's catalog on physical media may have been exhausted with the recent "Abbey Road" reissue. The 1967 album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" received the same deluxe treatment for its 50th anniversary, followed the next year by a similarly opulent 50th anniversary edition of "The Beatles," better known to fans as "The White Album." Between those releases and the full catalog upgrade of just 10 years ago, fans may feel as though they don't want to spend any more money on albums they've already owned.

We pulled data on the amount of Google searches for 'Beatles' over the last four years, and there's been a 48.59% spike over the last 12 months.
Konstantin Goldman
media relations spokesman, SEMrush

Mara Kuge, president and founder of Superior Music Publishing, said that Apple Corps' strategies are essential to the group's ongoing viability, which is something that should not be taken for granted.

"Twenty years ago everyone thought Elvis' popularity would always be a given, but it's really dropped off in the past few years," Kuge said.

If the same thing starts happening to The Beatles, she said that there are ways of recapturing their former glory.

"[The rock band] Queen are a near-perfect example here, because they were going down the typical classic rocker path, not really gaining newer fans until 'Bohemian Rhapsody' came out," she said. "Now, not every artist can get a critically acclaimed, big box-office film made about them, but the Beatles certainly can."

John Pratt | Keystone | Getty Images

She also noted that just because the group's catalog has been released and re-released several times over, it doesn't mean the record companies will refrain from double-dipping and triple-dipping yet again, should the opportunity to do so arise.

"While it seems the options for re-releases have run out, there will always be new streaming services, not to mention future audio formats, that the Beatles' catalog can become part of, to great fanfare," she said. "There are always occasions to re-release fancier versions of the catalog, whether it's undiscovered music, major anniversaries or new ways of packaging. It'll sustain them for a few generations going forward."

While all of these strategies should keep the group's catalog in good standing, no one should underestimate the power of the music itself. Michele Fox, a freelance publicist from Needham, Massachusetts, said that the next generation of Beatles fans is as enthusiastic about the group as any that came before it, and they have the group's Sirius XM channel to thank for it.

"I have 9-year-old twin boys who are obsessed with the Beatles," she said. "They know the lyrics to nearly every song, recite obscure trivia, know the stories behind endless songs, which album songs are on ... I could go on and on. The Sirius XM Beatles channel has been an enormous influence for them."

All of this seems to imply that the group will evolve with the times, even if not a note of new music ever materializes. As far as how long that will last, it is anyone's guess.

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Key Points
  • Streaming video competition is intensifying with new offerings from Apple and Disney hitting an already crowded market dominated by Netflix.
  • The threat to the movie theater business has led AMC Theaters to launch its own on-demand film streaming service for the home.