Veteran music acts thriving at big box stores

By | April 1, 2009 at 10:06 AM

Over the last few decades, a veteran music act’s best shot at platinum magic usually consisted of pairing up with younger hitmakers (a la Santana) or covering treasured classics (like Rod Stewart. These days, another kind of vehicle has become a path to best-selling success – teaming up with box store chains.

Garth Brooks ‘ started the trend in earnest back in 2005, with an exclusive Wal-Mart deal, and the Eagles and AC/DC had multiplatinum-plus success over the last two years by exclusively selling new CDs at Wal-Mart.

Guns ‘N Roses sold about a million copies with a special Best Buy deal. And last week, Prince entered the box-store chain market with a Target deal, selling a three-disc set for the low price of $11.98, mirroring a similar (and successful) venture Journey did with Wal-Mart in 2007.

Though these deals only represent a fraction of music releases, their impact has been seismic for a struggling industry still figuring out the best way to sell albums amid ever-dwindling sales and profits.

“It’s going to be the only way to put records out,” said Joe Elliott of Def Leppard who said he’d be interested in making a similar deal for his band. “Look what AC/DC just achieved, it’s phenomenal what they did, and if there is a blueprint to keep your eye on, it would be the way that Journey’s album and the Eagles and AC/DC has done.”

While veteran acts have defined box store exclusives, younger acts – and genres outside of rock and country – have largely been absent from the scene.

Stars like John Legend and Christina Aguilera have made special CDs for Target, and Beyonce gave Wal-Mart the three-month exclusive on her “B’Day” video DVD, but those projects were largely CDs with previously released material – not a brand new album for exclusive content.

Greg Hall, Wal-Mart’s vice president for merchandising in entertainment, said the chain isn’t opposed to working with newer acts or projects that are geared toward the youth – in fact, they just had the DVD exclusive for the movie “Twilight.”

But such projects have to fit with the most important demographic for Wal-Mart – its consumer base. Hall said the first question asked is, “Where is there a fit with our brand, the Wal-Mart brand, and our customer?”

Given Wal-Mart’s standards on profanity (it sells cleaned up versions of graphic CDs) and its family friendly image, it’s hard to imagine the chain linking with, say, Lil Wayne for his next CD.

Plus, acts like Lil Wayne and the ever-wholesome Taylor Swift get played regularly on the radio and can sell millions without confining their music to one retail outlet. Veteran acts usually see only their catalog played on the radio, on oldies stations.

“The artist that you see having success are those who have a huge a fan base but face challenges at commercial radio,” said Michael McDonald who manages acts including John Mayer and Ray LaMontagne “Exposure at the mass merchants, if not a substitute, is certainly the next best thing.”

A 2007 survey by the Recording Industry Association of America shows people over 45 made up the largest demographic of people buying music, at about 25 percent – just the kind of baby boomer fans that would be attracted to a release from, say, Prince or the Eagles.

Dolly Parton who recently released an exclusive edition of her CD “Backwards Barbie” with three additional tracks at the restaurant chain Cracker Barrel said it’s often harder for older artists to get the kind of attention they need, so store chain deals are more appealing.

“These types of deals, it is better for veteran artists,” she said. “We’ve made our mark and we have our names but we’re older artists.”

McDonald said that with the shuttering of more and more music stores, exclusive content deals at big box outlets will likely become more widespread, bringing artists of different ages and genres in the mix.

“Those who are going to continue with business as usual,” he said, “are going to find themselves in trouble.”

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