When I wanted to buy the long-awaited Guns N' Roses CD a few days ago, I had two convenient choices: the Best Buy in Braintree and the Best Buy in Dorchester. That's not much of a choice.
When I wanted to buy the long-awaited Guns N' Roses CD a few days ago, I had two convenient choices: the Best Buy in Braintree and the Best Buy in Dorchester.
That's not much of a choice. To make matters worse, if I was interested in purchasing the new AC/DC album on the same day, I would have had to go to a Wal-Mart. And to get the new greatest hits disc from Christina Aguilera, I would need to stop at a Target.
The troubling trend of exclusive distribution deals between performing artists and big-box chains seems to have reached a new peak in the past month, with these three releases only available in the U.S. in certain locations.
Music-focused retailers often rely on blockbuster releases to help drive traffic into their stores. But with the big-box execs stealing some of their thunder, they face a new hurdle to generate sales at a time when many young music fans are simply getting their new tunes from the Internet.
While some independent shops bypass these exclusivity deals by buying CDs in overseas markets or directly from the participating big box store, the arrangements still leave the bulk of retail outlets out in the cold.
You can put some of the blame on groups such as the Eagles. The country-rock band released its first studio album of new material in 28 years in 2007 - and only made it available in Wal-Mart stores. The CD, “Long Road Out of Eden,” was an unqualified success: It sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S. alone, a significant milestone in this Internet age.
AC/DC saw a similarly electric charge in the sales of “Black Ice” during the past few weeks in Wal-Mart, although Aguilera hasn't had as beautiful of a performance in Target. The GN'R album “Chinese Democracy” arrived in U.S. Best Buy stores last Sunday after more than a decade of studio work, but it's hard to gauge that CD's initial sales because this week's figures weren't available as of Friday.
These arrangements can be traced, in some way, to music industry bigwig Irving Azoff, who sold his talent management firm Front Line Management in October to Ticketmaster and became CEO of the combined company. Azoff is a big believer in bypassing the record labels, which normally handle distribution duties. He recently told The New York Times that the traditional labels can no longer match the kind of marketing push that a retailer like Wal-Mart can make for his artists.
But the bigger concern for consumers is the fact that Azoff's strategy also bypasses smaller, independent retailers - shortchanging local merchants such as Newbury Comics.
The Boston-based chain has always been diversified beyond just selling music (it did start out as a comic shop, after all), and CD revenues now make up less than half of the company's total annual sales.
However, Newbury Comics is still known for its music sales and is working hard to compete with its bigger rivals. Carl Mello, director of purchasing at Newbury Comics, says it has seen brisk sales of its recently released picture discs featuring songs by the Ramones and The Clash. Both releases are exclusive to Newbury Comics, although the main songs on each vinyl single are well-known hits that are available elsewhere.
Vinyl records, in general, have been a boon for Newbury Comics and a way of differentiating itself from the big box stores, which don't offer large record selections. Mello says Newbury Comics doubled its vinyl record sales in 2008 compared with 2007. Many buyers are baby boomers who like the sound and feel of vinyl. But Mello says records have also caught on among college kids who enjoy a certain amount of prestige from being the only one in the dorm with a turntable.
With Azoff's newfound clout as the head of Ticketmaster, it's a pretty good bet that we'll see more exclusivity deals appear in the next year. He previously hinted in The New York Times that Fleetwood Mac could be the latest group to sell a landslide of CDs specifically in the aisles at Wal-Mart.
Sure, these arrangements can be good for the artist, the manager and, of course, the big-box chain that gets them. But such monopolistic control over new music releases is anything but good for the consumer.
Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.