The pandemic has sent the global economy into a tailspin, deep-sixing the anniversary of one of the most important events in pop culture history: The breakup of the Beatles. As the economy is reopening, perhaps it’s finally time to celebrate.
What? Celebrate the break-up of the most artistically and commercially successful pop act of the last 75 years? Tens of millions of fans have mourned the split of the Fab Four for 50 years!
Yet, in truth, the band’s dissolution, formerly announced by Paul McCartney on April 10, 1970, was a prime example of one of the most subtle, important, and essential elements of entrepreneurial capitalism: creative destruction. The Beatles, as a band, had outlived its economic and cultural usefulness. In fact, its very structure curtailed its ability to continue effectively as an entrepreneurial or artistic enterprise.
Musicologists and more than a few fans likely disagree. After all, the Beatles have sold more than 800 million records. The band has more number one hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 list. Its album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is considered one of the most, if not the most, influential pop albums ever produced. All four Beatles have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall based on their hard-earned legacies in pop music.
A close look into the internal workings of the band and its innovation process, however, reveals that the Beatles, as an entity, had run its course. In the early years, the band served as a catalyzing force, ultimately blending the talents of four ambitious musical forces of nature: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. With the critical help of manager Brian Epstein and music producer George Martin, the band soared. They transformed from a rough shod, high energy, performance-driven cover band climbing playbills in Britain to a polished, edgy, and pioneering global pop music act.
Their commercial success also created the foundation for a revolution in popular music. In order to push their own artistic ambitions, they experimented in the studio. Some innovations were relatively small, but impactful: The use of amplifier feedback, tape looping, fades, or a well-placed power chord. Others were genre busting: unprecedented orchestral arrangements, the artful fusion of classical instruments into rock songs, electronic synthesizers, sound collages, and multiple dubbings of harmonies just to name a few.
These experiments were enabled by the wealth generated from best selling records and global tours. The Beatles first album required just 24 hours of studio time to push it out the door.
The Sgt. Pepper album required 400 hours of studio time and 700 hours overall to produce.
These resources in the studio, unprecedented for the time, were underwritten by the private commercially operated label and the personal wealth of the band. The project was high risk, but potentially high reward. The outcome was an industry-transforming product that was both artistically and commercially successful.
The Beatles continued to innovate, pushing the envelope of their recording studios’ (and sound engineers’) capabilities, their own artistic sensibilities, and their own personal relationships. The infamous Get Back sessions (which would emerge as their final album Let It Be, released in May 8, 1970), exposed these relational cracks to the world.
But while the general public and pundits focused on the fraying relationships, a more fundamental problem was largely ignored. The band was contractually obligated to produce two albums a year. But even at this production level, the band simply could not manage the bursting creative energies and drive of the individual artists.
The problem wasn’t they couldn’t create enough good music. The problem was they were, individually, producing too much. Each began working on their solo projects. As their individual tastes and artistic sensibilities diverged, the viability of the band -- a partnership -- became tenuous.
Ultimately, the band as an entity collapsed under its own creative and artistic weight. John Lennon told the group he was leaving in the fall of 1969. Paul McCartney made the decision public on April 10, 1970. George Harrison said, in essence, good riddance.
The dissolution of the Beatles allowed the individual musicians to make their own contributions and push the boundaries of pop music even further. John Lennon provided ground breaking experimental and progressive-rock music until his tragic murder in 1980. Paul McCartney competed with Elton John as the top grossing music act throughout the 1970s, creating a steady string of chart-topping singles. George Harrison’s more cerebral pop music created entirely new legions of fans, as did Ringo Starr’s popular performance driven concerts.
Indeed, George Harrison had more than 300 songs bottled up and unfinished as a member of the Beatles. Once free of its constraints, he released a three-album set that immediately established his independence and artistic individuality.
In total, the individual former Beatles logged 18 number one singles and fifteen number one albums in the U.S. or U.K. between 1970 and 1989.
Rather than mourning the loss of the Beatles, as a band, we should be celebrating its breakup. It’s a fabulous historical example of what economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” Our culture and the music industry is better for it, including the individual former Beatles.
The Beatles as a band? RIP.
Samuel R. Staley is Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. He is the author of The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution (Routledge, 2020).