Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Omnibus Blog Post #3: Wal Mart vs. The Music Industry

Let me begin this one with a brief disclaimer: Wal-Mart is evil. I am fully aware of their loathsome, unconscionable business practices. I know that they destroy small towns, suck the soul and life out of rural America, and have killed the idea of a central downtown business district around which a community grows, thrives, and evolves. They're awful. They're cheap and nasty. And they smell.

I offer this disclaimer because I'm about to use words like "smart" and "sharp" to describe a particular segment of Wal-Mart's business, and I don't want the comments to be filled with exhortations about Wal-Mart's suckiness. I know they suck, I promise: they suck. (That said, if anybody here hasn't shopped there for, like, drapes, or towels, or Three Wolf Moon T-Shirts, let them step forward. Nobody? Uh huh.)

That all having been said: their music division is "smart" and "sharp."

When Kiss announced a couple months ago that their latest album, "Sonic Boom," was going to be released exclusively by Wal-Mart, the Usual Suspects amongst my friends objected. "Oh, that's such a sell-out move," they said. Of course I raised the objection that signing in blood to, say, Warner Brothers or Sony was hardly the heart and soul of indie, but there's something so un-rock-and-roll about putting out your record at Wal-Mart. It's like painting a glorious fresco and hanging it at the 7-11 store down the block.

But consider these facts:

- AC/DC put out their latest record as a Wal-Mart exclusive. Fans crowed -- but somehow, miraculously, the album sold better than any AC/DC record had since, like, 1980. I believe, though I'm too lazy to open a new browser window, that it actually set sales records of some kind. It might have even been one of the best sellers this year. Anyway, it sold, which, for a band like AC/DC, is kind of miraculous.

- Journey put out their last record as a Wal-Mart exclusive. They have a lead singer they found on YouTube. He's from the Philippines. Despite the fact that he probably sings a far cry better than Steve Perry does these days, those are two MAJOR strikes against them where fans of the classic lineup are concerned. Yet, against all odds, it sold. It went platinum. It was in the top 20 for, like, SEVERAL MONTHS. When's the last time a Journey record sold more than copies to the band's dentist?

- Across the parking lot, Prince's Target-only album debuted at #2 on the charts, whilst Paul McCartney's Starbucks-only album debuted top 10.

- And of course, THE EAGLES. I need only say that -- "The Eagles." I mean, it's no miracle that their album sold bucketloads -- they're the fucking Eagles, everybody and their mom like the Eagles. But it, too, was a Wal-Mart exclusive.

See, the odd thing about this whole sales glut Wal-Mart exclusive thing is that, SUPPOSEDLY, the whole "baby-boomer-and-70s-music" thing was over. Dead in the water. I think I started thinking it was dead when ELO put out a record in 2000 that I would call "pretty damn good," and it sold, like, ONE COPY or something. Nobody, including me, bought it. But this is ELO we're talking about! Chart-toppers in the 70s, and led by Jeff Lynne, who produced the Beatles and was a Traveling Wilbury, and nobody bought it. According to the record industry, Nobody Was Buying Records By Or For Old People Anymore. It was all about marketing to The Kids, who were the only ones Still Buying Records.

But somehow, weirdly, Wal-Mart figured out that it wasn't true. The problem wasn't that old people and old people music fans weren't buying records. The problem was that they weren't being marketed to properly. Wal-Mart, if nothing else, understands marketing. They correctly gleaned that the Mainstream Record Industry sucked donkey balls when it came to marketing. The Mainstream Record Industry, you see, knows how to sell one thing: pretty people. It knows how to sell them to one group, too: other pretty people. And that's it. When it comes to marketing a band who have fuzzy grey hair and beards and a new lead singer they found on the internet -- they go blank and start shuffling their feat and sweating.

But Wal-Mart figured out a couple things:

1. People who like bands from the 70s still like those bands, for the most part.

2. People who like those bands either don't know or don't really care that they have new lead singers, or other weird young members that look like the original members' illegitimate children. They simply like those bands, full stop.

3. People who like those bands don't really follow them, like on the internet or in Rolling Stone, but they are still open to buying shit by those bands if they happen across them on, say, an endcap in a Wal-Mart store. Or in a Sunday circular. Or whatever.

4. Those people, first and foremost, shop at Wal-Mart.

Somehow those simple, easy-to-understand truths eluded the brilliant businessmen in the Mainstream Record Industry for ages, and someone at Wal-Mart saw an opportunity to metaphorically close another small town down, and leapt on it. And created a brilliant business model for the record industry which goes like this:


Which is brilliant and simple and elegant, if you think about it. I mean, you're at Wal-Mart buying some paint or whatever, and you happen to notice that Foreigner have a new album out. Shit, you love Foreigner, remember how you made out with Susanne White at the dance in 1979? Okay, it's only 9 bucks and it's on the endcap on the way out of the store, why the hell wouldn't you pick it up? Or to upscale the example for you: you're at Starbucks buying a double soy decaf vanilla latte on your way to work, and there's a rack of CD's and you notice that hey! Paul McCartney from the Beatles has a new record out! And again, it's only 9 bucks, low risk investment, why the hell wouldn't you pick it up?

IT'S RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF YOU, RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE. It's not on the internet. It's not even in an electronics store. It's where you buy your paint. It's the same business model that worked in the 50s and 60s and 70s -- do you remember the record section of your local grocery store? I sure do! -- but somehow was totally neglected during the subsequent decades.

And here's the thing: if you're in a band, why the hell wouldn't you want to sell records? That's the thing that baffles me when people cry "sellout." It's like -- I'm releasing a record. What's my goal? If my goal isn't "to make that record heard by as many people as I possibly can," why don't I just make it a free download or put it on MySpace or just hand out cassettes to my friends? If that is my goal, why wouldn't I go with the people that can sell as many copies as possible directly to my target audience, whoever that may be?

Finally: the one thing I'm leaving hanging over this discussion is that target market. In reading this article, you're making assumptions all over the place about the people that shop at Wal-Mart. You're thinking they're a) rural, b) probably not educated, c) probably lower-middle-class-to-lower-class, and d) unspokenly, you're thinking they're white trash. And, y'know, you're probably right, in the same way you can make assumptions about who shops at Target, or Starbucks, in the same way you can classify large groups of people based on demographic means. But -- who has ever been the audience for rock and roll music? If you think rock music was invented/played by/for educated intellectuals, you need to go back to your Elvis and Jerry Lee records, 'cause it wasn't never no-how. There has always been a rural contingent to rock and roll, and they don't all listen to Daughtry, either. Heck, some of 'em, it turns out, listen to Journey. Anyway: these bands know their audience, and if their audience is blue-collar, I bet they're just fine with that as long as it keeps 'em in Pop-Tarts, yo.

The very interesting thing is that Miley Cyrus -- a young, pretty person! -- is putting out a Wal-Mart exclusive next. I mean, again, who listens to Miley? Young kids of Wal-Mart shoppers, I suppose, but she cuts across wider demographic lines than that, I'd wager, so it will be interesting to see how that fares. Will people from Upper Middle Class Homes whose kids watch Hanna Montana venture out into the outer-ring suburbs to hit the Wal-Mart? Will they download it from Will they just cross their fingers that it comes to iTunes or the local Virgin Mega-Store or whatever?

The thing about this that interests me is that I am a college-educated, middle-class, white-collar guy who just happens to have a streak of Camaro-driving redneck Bud-swilling blue-collar suburb-dweller inside him who is kind of, like, excited that these bands -- hoary old favorites, all (well, 'cept the Eagles, and even them I'll defend a little bit, at least the first three/four albums) -- are actually managing to make a late-period comeback. I mean, it kind of warms the cockles of the heart that Journey are suddenly huge again, 'cause I was pumping my fist to "Seperate Ways" and the "Escape" album back in 7th grade and I'm so not ashamed to admit it. Or that Kiss are probably going to finally achieve a chart hit this time out the ballpark. Or that Foreigner and AC/DC are suddenly MAJOR PLAYERS again. 'Cause they're old. And I'm getting old. And it's swell that we're not putting these people out to pasture just 'cause of their age.

So anyway: retailers sell music now, and that's just something you're going to have to deal with. It's a new age, a new business model, a new paradigm, the record labels are dying, and music's gotta get out there somehow.