AUSTIN — At the top of the film “Good Ol’ Freda,” Beatles fans get hit in the face with one of the rarer, frequently bootlegged pieces of the Fab Four’s history. It’s the sound of the first Beatles Christmas recording, from 1963, of John, Paul, George and Ringo singing bits of “Good King Wenceslas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” with scripted and improvised bits on wishing fans a happy holiday. It and all the following years’ records were sent only to members of the Beatles fan club.
“Good Ol’ Freda’s” namesake Freda Kelly was the president and leader of the Beatles fan club for their entire career. And as director Ryan White said in the Q&A session after the documentary’s premiere, it was a real testament to Kelly’s integral role in the history of the Beatles’ music career that the filmmakers were able to secure the sync rights to include that Christmas record for the movie.
In fact, there were four Beatles songs besides the Christmas recording that were weaved into Freda’s chronological narrative: “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Love Me Do,” “I Feel Fine” and “I Will.”
While Kelly’s story is small, contained and another (albeit unfettered) look into the history of the Beatles, the securing of those licenses is epic in scope. As the music industry has splintered and merged and evolved in the past 40 years, so have the issues of copyright and ownership of Beatles master recordings. White said, “On my death bed… these will be the four proudest moments of my life, getting those four songs,” conceding that it’s “well known” that there are “countless circles of people” who must grant permission for these recordings. Publishers, labels, songwriters, estates and other rights holders make up these “countless” stakes.
It reminds me of Soundcloud and other music sharing technologies utilized by artists big and small today. On Soundcloud, a performer can share a snippet of work, or demos or unfinished, unmastered, unclaimed bits of music, just in order to connect with their audiences or workshop through their artistic ideas. They could put out their own Christmas recording of “Rudolph,” just to say hi and thanks. Years later, what is the value of that work, when it is easily attained? “Rare” music is now so rarely rare.
We’re in gawky, awkward teenaged years of music sharing (just ask the guys at Napster and the film “Downloaded”), and the intrinsic and net value of music is in a raw flux, due to the fact that artists make one-off and “exercise” material available readily. Some don’t. In either case, were the artist to retain all rights to their material and exercise control over it — as copyrights holders have done in the case of the Beatles — good night and good luck, because from YouTube to Soundcloud to filesharing networks, they’re everybody’s at this point.
There are few artists that will ever be as famous and as “valued” as the Beatles, and for those that are, there’s no such thing as the “rare Christmas recording” anymore. “Good Ol’ Freda” is an inadvertent lesson in what rare even means to the current music consumer. That, on its face, is worth a trip to see “Freda.”