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NEW YORK (Reuters) - It's been a long and winding road, but the Beatles are finally available on iTunes.
The legendary pop group's 13 albums can now be downloaded through the world's No. 1 digital music retailer, Apple Inc said on Tuesday.
"I am particularly glad to no longer be asked when Beatles are coming to iTunes," Ringo Starr said in a statement. "At last, if you want it, you can get it."
The songs will be sold for $1.29 each, albums at $12.99, and double albums at $19.99 -- in line with other premium-priced music on iTunes.
The availability of the Beatles' hit albums like "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Revolver" and "Abbey Road" is expected to give a boost to digital music sales this quarter and could possibly save their long-time record company EMI Group from defaulting on its debt in March, according to a person familiar with the situation.
"This could help broaden the demographic range, maybe sell more iPods," said BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis.
"In the holiday quarter, iPod sales really matter for Apple. We're looking at north of 20 million iPods sold. This certainly doesn't hurt that."
The iTunes-Beatles agreement is exclusive into 2011, according to EMI, but the company declined to say when in 2011 it would expire.
The deal comes after years of fruitless negotiations between Apple founder Steve Jobs, Beatles management company Apple Corps and the Beatles label EMI.
"For Apple it has been a personal crusade of Steve Jobs, so he will be happy to get it, and it's something that's been a gap in the service for a long-time," said Mark Mulligan, an analyst at Forrester Research.
Hopes for an earlier agreement were hampered by the guardians of the Beatles' legacy worried that the valuable song catalog could be devalued by selling individual songs or by an increased potential for digital piracy.
The earliest sign of the possibility of a deal came in 2007 after Apple settled a decades-long trademark dispute with the Beatles' own company, Apple Corps.
But Yoko Ono, the widow of John Lennon; Olivia Harrison, the widow of George Harrison; and the two living Beatles, Paul McCartney and Starr, had disagreements among themselves over whether to allow the music to be put into digital formats.
With the deal taking so long to reach, many commentators feel the Beatles might have already missed the golden age of music download sales, which have slowed down in the last year. Analysts feel that their catalog would have been copied in large part from fans' own CDs or from illegal file-sharing over the last decade.
"For the Beatles, it finally brings them to the digital generation, but it's a long-overdue development that's nowhere near as big a deal as it's hyped up to be," said Mulligan.
The announcement comes at a critical time for EMI's troubled owner, private equity firm Terra Firma, which this month lost a court case accusing Citigroup Inc of tricking it into overpaying to buy the music company.
The struggling music company, for which Terra Firma paid 4 billion pounds, or $6.5 billion, has lost ground to larger rivals like Vivendi SA's Universal Music Group, Sony Corp's Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group.
EMI is currently in a sensitive situation which could see it trip a debt ratio covenant test should it fail to generate enough profits early next year.
The availability of Beatles music on iTunes is expected to have a short-term material impact on EMI's earnings, said a person familiar with the situation.
Last year when EMI re-released remastered CD albums of the Beatles catalog it brought in "low tens of millions of pounds" in profit.
The person said if the iTunes Beatles release had a similar impact, it could mean EMI would avoid breaching covenants at the end of March. However, such an impact would only be short-term and would not fix the longer-term debt issues, the person said.
It is widely expected that Terra Firma would consider options including selling off EMI assets as a way to meet debt obligations.
Reporting by Yinka Adegoke; additional reporting by Gabriel Madway in San Francisco, Simon Mead and Paul Sandle in London; editing by John Wallace and Gerald E. McCormick