50 Years of Beatles in America

Why an Ed Sullivan moment won’t happen again, according to the biggest fan who wasn’t there to see it.

I didn’t see The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. By the time I was born, John was dead and Ringo was on a children’s show. In fact, my introduction to The Beatles music came from watching a rerun of The Muppet Show, when Kermit performed a cover of “Octopus’ Garden.”

Yet as a certified Beatlemaniac (albeit a few decades delayed), I’ve regarded the question “Where were you when The Beatles played Ed Sullivan?” to be in the same category of curiosities as “Where were you when JKF was shot?” or “… when we landed on the moon?”

The Beatles arrival in America may not have had the same moral implications as those other historical events, but it certainly had cultural ones. 73 million people tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show on that February night in 1964. It was the first big moment for television, with an estimated 34% of America watching the performance. While young music fans (and their unimpressed parents) had previously met acts like Elvis Presley through the medium, never before had so many people tuned in to share one moment.

Following the Fab Four’s performance, critics denounced the band as “catastrophic” and just a “fad” (“guitars are on the way out!” proclaimed one reviewer) but sales were off the charts. Even if buyers were initially interested in the band’s haircuts, they ultimately bought records.

From where I sit today, on the business side of the music industry, I recognize that what happened that night on Ed Sullivan can’t happen again, but not just because record sales are down…. The ways we consume media, develop artists and create songs have changed too much to allow such a big, singular moment to happen for a new band again, and that’s before you consider The Beatles’ talent.

Not that people haven’t tried. Shows like American Idol, The Voice, X-Factor and Star Search have built entire brands to break new acts to national audiences, with mixed success. Those artists deemed winners still take time to develop and attract fan bases, due to how we consume content. In a generation of media fragmentation, manufactured fads and short attention spans, it’s tough to give any artist as many eyeballs as The Beatles got. Now the closest we get to a shared and scaled cultural moment is Miley Cyrus’ twerking, but for all the wrong reasons.

I often hear people say, “Well, if it’s good and you put it up online, people will find it.” But if that were true, many amazingly talented acts would have broken sooner (and bigger) than they have. Despite a flat world, even the most commercially and critically successful British acts have still required time, money and marketing power to bring to the US. (Just ask Robbie Williams, or consider that James Blake was just nominated for the Grammy’s “Best New Artist” award in 2013, a good two years after his first Mercury Prize nomination).

Yet it’s not just that our media options have changed since The Beatles; so have the ways we develop new talent. These days, our developing artists are encouraged to start building their fan base immediately to prove they’re worth investment. To do that, young artists post videos to YouTube, develop identities on Facebook and distribute digitally across the globe, with no barriers to entry or talent requirements. Unless they deliberately keep to themselves, these artists develop very publicly, especially as they are encouraged to build tour histories and offset recorded revenue losses with concert revenue gains.

The Beatles spent years doing just that, but in a foreign land where they didn’t speak the same language as their audience, and it informed much of their success. From August 1960 to December 1962, the band held a residency in Hamburg. The Beatles (with drummer Pete Best, before Ringo joined) lived in the back of dingy clubs and played up to six-hours per night.

“We had to play for hours and hours on end,” John Lennon said of that time. “Every song lasted twenty minutes and had twenty solos in it. That’s what improved the playing. There was nobody to copy from. We played what we liked best and the Germans liked it as long as it was loud.”

The Beatles were being paid to entertain crowds, but they were really perfecting their craft. The band had both time and space to develop as performers before they had to make a lasting impression.

This new world also makes it possible for unknown artists to burst onto the scene with one viral hit, but often before they are ready for the spotlight (see Lana Del Ray’s SNL performance after the success of her YouTube video). Even huge hits and international breakouts, like PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” don’t guarantee lasting careers. That was true in the 1960s, too. Plenty of other musicians performed on The Ed Sullivan Show before and after The Beatles, but none of them had the same career trajectory as those lads from Liverpool.

In the end, The Beatles’ success came down to their songwriting. In this era, when record labels need to squeeze every last drop out of an album before investing in another, it’s crazy to think about how many albums The Beatles released in such a short window of time. Their #1s also spanned the length of their career, not just the beginning, even as the band changed its image dramatically. It took more than an Ed Sullivan moment to build a career; it took the ability to continue making hits.

While I highly doubt will never see another act break like The Beatles did, it doesn’t mean new voices won’t try. That was apparent when I attended the taping of The Night That Changed America tribute (airing Sunday Feb 9th), put together by the Grammy’s and CBS. Watching new stars, like Katy Perry, Alicia Keys, Brad Paisley and Imagine Dragons, cover The Beatles’ songs reminded me of just how special the band really was. Even without The Ed Sullivan Show, The Beatles songs would have found a way in to our lives. They still do.