Avoiding Wal-Mart for Your AC/DC Fix

Independent retailers have found ways to get around big-box exclusives.

If you plan to ignore the middling reviews and pick up a copy of the epic-but-disjointed Chinese Democracy, Guns N' Roses' (or, rather Axl Rose's) long overdue sixth album—and a "Best Buy exclusive" release—be sure to check your local independent record store first. In November of last year, Rolling Stone published a piece about Wal-Mart's exclusivity contract with the Eagles, a deal that gave the mega-retailer exclusive rights to sell Long Way Back To Eden, the Eagles' first studio album in 28 years, in the United States. Only it wasn't quite as exclusive as Wal-Mart would've liked. Somehow, the album kept turning up on other stores' shelves, and not just at small independent shops, but at decidedly un-indie music vendors like Virgin Records. Of course, that's the Eagles, a band famous for setting some of the highest concert ticket prices in history. But AC/DC, a band that (unlike the Eagles) has at least been consistently active in recent years, if not a consistent source of new material, recently gave Wal-Mart exclusive American selling rights, not only to their new album, Black Ice, but to the AC/DC Rock Band video game. So independent retailers decided to seek out Black Ice CDs (vinyl sales are not restricted) by alternative means, either by importing copies from foreign distributors or driving to different Wal-Marts and buying out their stock. In the past couple of weeks, Black Ice started turning up on independent record stores' best-sellers lists, from Amoeba Records' San Francisco store (there, it clocked in at #2 for the week ending Nov. 16) to Sonic Boom Ballard's Top 25 bestsellers from Oct. 27 to Nov. 2 (in the # 10 position, it reads, "UP YOURS, WAL-MART: Always low wages, always"). Easy Street and Silver Platters carry Black Ice CDs as well. And while record company shills are obviously curious as to how these record stores are coming by their copies, the stores aren't about to talk. Sonic Boom Records owner Jason Hughes does not sell these "exclusive releases" in his stores to make a profit. He's more concerned with saving his customers a trip to Best Buy or Wal-Mart, partly because both big-box stores are inconveniently located on the outskirts of Seattle, but mostly because Hughes virulently opposes big-box stores—which are (among other offenses) infamous for annihilating locally-owned businesses like his—on principle. Hughes also does it, he says, "to make a statement that what the labels and what the artists are doing is really kind of screwing the stores that helped break them. If it wasn't for the indie stores back in the '70s, I don't think AC/DC would be what they are." And obviously, Hughes ordered plenty of copies of Chinese Democracy as well. "I can't tell you exactly where we got [our copies], but they are legitimate, real copies of the CD," Hughes explained. But were the copies hard to come by? "Not as hard as you might think, considering that there was a quote unquote 'exclusive' on this," he said. "Honestly, if it really came down to it and our customers wanted [them], I would drive to Wal-Mart, buy the CDs and sell them at cost, but it didn't come down to that." He'll be selling them for somewhere between $13 and $15—just a few bucks more than Best Buy's $11.99 price tag. And for savvy consumers, that extra $2 is not just a convenience charge: It's an investment in a small local business that won't succeed without community support. Though exclusive releases aren't a new concept (nor are they limited to corporate chains; see: Easy Street's successful Live At Easy Street series), only recently have such iconic artists begun signing up for these exclusive distribution deals; so far, the roster includes Garth Brooks, Journey, the Eagles, AC/DC and now, Guns N' Roses. They all share one trait: "[These artists are] in their twilight," Easy Street owner Matt Vaughan mused. "Some of it is ego-driven. They want to put another platinum record on the wall, and they haven't been able to do it for years." He hypothesized that an exclusive release is something of a last hurrah. And yet, Black Ice, the first exclusive Vaughan has carried in his store, has been selling remarkably well. He, too, plans to keep Chinese Democracy in stock. Local media and entertainment attorneys Joleen Hughes and O.Yale Lewis (who is George Clinton's personal lawyer) say there's no way to tell for sure whether or not what these independent stores are doing is illegal—for that, they'd have to see the artists' specific contracts with Wal-Mart and Best Buy—but so far, it appears that Columbia (AC/DC's label and a Sony BMG subsidiary) and Geffen (Guns N' Roses) either don't have a case against the indie record stores or they're not losing enough money to care. And while Best Buy refused the opportunity to comment, Wal-Mart spokesperson Melissa O'Brien chuckled when I asked her if they were concerned about the unauthorized sales. "No," she said, "we're not so worried." But Vaughan, whose Easy Street has remained staunchly indie for 20 years, is worried—a little. "Depending on how successful [an exclusive release] is ...it could be alarming and dangerous to the state of independent retail. If one of these artists ends up having, you know, a major, major success from this, in that not only were they critically favored by it, but also the sales were there ... [if] they sold 5 million copies and it was a fantastic record, that can prove to be the wave of the future, at least for high-profile acts." Vaughan muses. "What concerns me is that a U2 could do this. And if U2 does it, when you've got essentially the 21st century Gandhi fronting their band, that's dangerous to us independent retailers because we love U2. And at least for guys like me, who've been around for 20 years, I got my store started with U2 records. ...so if a U2 can do it, then you could have other artists consider it. You could have American artists consider it, and God forbid Bruce Springsteen does it. Then you've got Pearl Jam doing it, and maybe Tom Petty, and Cat Power. And then you're into the indie network, and then we would be screwed." sbrickner@seattleweekly.com

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