Guns N' Roses' 'Chinese Democracy': Still a mystery, and now a controversy
There’s bitterness, as leader Axl Rose is the only original member left standing. There’s excess, as the album’s cost seems to escalate with each media story (somewhere in the millions). And there’s an enigmatic artist at the helm, one many critics and hard rock fans agree is a genius.
There’s only one thing missing: An artist to sell it. It’s been a 17-year wait since the world last had a Guns N’ Roses album with new material, and the biggest questions -- why now and why link with a major retailer? -- look to remain unanswered, at least for now. Rose, says a spokesperson, "hasn’t been available for interviews," and it doesn't sound like any are on the horizon.
“Chinese Democracy,” it seems, will hit retail shelves -- in this case, shelves belonging exclusively to Best Buy -- on Sunday, with a bit of mystery. That, perhaps, is expected -- anything less may even be a disappointment. But the decision to sell the album exclusively through one retailer in the U.S. is now adding a bit of controversy to the saga.
On Sept. 26, Billboard broke the news that the album would be released solely to Best Buy in the United States. It would be three full weeks before a press release made it all official -- one, by the way, that didn’t feature a comment from Rose.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one high-placed manager noted, “It starts to feel a little bit like the movie that doesn’t let reviewers in to see before it comes out. You’d think they’d want to platform it, do some sort of live broadcast, let the music talk for itself -- instead of just the innuendo.”
But unlike a film not screened for critics, “Chinese Democracy” isn’t getting panned. Instead, it’s a work, most early reviews seem to say, that deserves to be celebrated (The Times' review will run in Sunday’s Calendar section, and is now available online), although some mixed reviews are starting to roll in now too. Rolling Stone was first, and set the early tone, giving the album four out of five stars, with the reviewer opening the piece by declaring that it is “a great, audacious, unhinged and uncompromising hard-rock record.”
And though he has a heavily biased stake in it, Best Buy's senior entertainment officer, Gary Arnold, is ready to throw down the gauntlet. “I will defy anyone to say this wasn’t worth the wait,” he says.
If he’s proved right, an already beleaguered music retail landscape may never be the same again.
HERE TO STAY
Arnold says he began negotiating for the exclusive rights to sell “Chinese Democracy” more than a year ago, before Guns N’ Roses linked with managers Irving Azoff and Andy Gould, and he then continued structuring the deal with the new management team. Azoff's Front Line Management arranged for the Eagles’ “Long Road Out of Eden” to be sold exclusively through Wal-Mart in 2007, an album that has since sold more than 3 million copies, reports Billboard. (Both Azoff, who was recently named chief executive of Ticketmaster, and Gould were unavailable for comment by deadline. A corporate spokesperson for Universal Music Group was contacted earlier this week, but also did not respond by deadline.)
Such retail moves are becoming increasingly common. AC/DC’s “Black Ice” shot to No. 1 after selling 784,000 copies in its first week in stores. The album was a Wal-Mart exclusive. It was AC/DC’s first studio album since 2000’s “Stiff Upper Lip,” which Billboard noted opened with 130,000 copies sold.
Michael Kurtz runs the Music Monitor Network, a coalition of independent record store chains, including such West Coast shops as Dimple Records and Rasputin Music. He has been outspoken against such practices, arguing that they are detrimental and unfair to smaller businesses -- the surviving stores that still stock more music than hi-def TVs, cellphones and laundry detergent.
“It’s an insane world where music stores are not allowed to buy music in the United States,” Kurtz says. “Every record store in the world gets to carry it, except for the United States. Same thing with AC/DC.”
Best Buy will be selling “Chinese Democracy” for $11.99, the price it has been taking pre-orders for on its website. While they offer limited space to music, major retailers such as Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart have become dominant players in the business by discounting new releases, often for prices of less than $10. New releases from Beyoncé and David Cook , for instance, were both advertised by Best Buy last week for $9.99.
Kurtz is armed with a consumer-friendly argument, theorizing that exclusives are driving up the price of CDs. AC/DC’s “Black Ice,” by comparison, retailed for $11.88 on its week of release. “By eliminating competition, the price of the CDs are going up,” Kurtz says. “The biggest United States retailers are partnering with the biggest labels, driving the price up by not allowing competition.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Arnold says. “We price each project based upon the number of factors, including the investments we’ve made into it, and what we believe the right and fair retail is. That’s also the price on Day 1. We can do anything we choose to do -- run various promotions and sales at various times.”
The practice likely won’t be ending anytime soon. In last week’s Billboard, retail columnist Ed Christman noted that if “Black Ice” had not been a Wal-Mart exclusive, it would have been projected to sell closer to 200,000 first-week copies.
What accounts for nearly a 600,000-copy difference? Christman's sources praise Wal-Mart’s extensive campaign, which devoted a section of its stores to “Black Ice” and AC/DC merch, including a branded Rock Band video game. Additionally, the company had makeshift stores set up in New York and at Hollywood & Highland here.
Christman points to the stores' high foot traffic, which is in the multi-millions. Thus, Wal-Mart was able to take advantage of customers who aren't also going to music stores. “Typically, they sell more records just based on that traffic," he says.
And a portion of those sales, albeit an unknown amount, likely went to other retailers, as exclusives turn the benefiting store into a distributor of sorts. At Amoeba Music in Hollywood, general manager Karen Pearson notes that she may have to march her staff over to Best Buy early Sunday to stock up on copies of “Chinese Democracy,” although she stresses that the store hasn’t decided how it will handle the release (the other option, for stores not wanting to buy from Best Buy, is to purchase the album as an import).
“Sure, a big part of me, and my indie brothers and sisters, would just as soon sit this one out,” Pearson says. “But that’s only hurting our customers.
"It’s just not cool," she adds of exclusives on this level. "It’s just not rock 'n' roll.”
Best Buy’s Arnold says the retailer will not police other stores from purchasing copies of “Chinese Democracy.” “There will be record stores who show up at Best Buy,” Arnold says, “but that happens every week. Record stores sometimes buy stuff from us and resell it, but the vast majority of the consumers who buy this album are going to be real fans of rock music. The majority of sales will not come through secondary sellers.”
Thus far, Best Buy has run a relatively restrained marketing campaign for “Chinese Democracy.” Just a few days before its release, there were no signs announcing the album inside the West Hollywood location (there was a sign outside the store). The album is now up for streaming on MySpace, but not playing into the hype was the design, says Arnold.
“It all starts this weekend,” Arnold says. “We’re trying to time everything for the grand release this Sunday. There wasn’t a giant buildup, in terms of over-promising. We wanted the music to stand on its own.”
It’s been a terrific season for rock music sales. Prior to AC/DC, Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” also debuted at No. 1, selling 490,000 copies in its initial weekend in stores (the album was released on a Friday, and Nielsen SoundScan ends its tracking period on Sunday evenings).
Worth noting is that both those bands were actively touring and supporting their new albums. Perhaps Sunday's launch day will see Rose break his silence, but what if it doesn't?
Granted, Rose is not running for president, and there's no reason he should talk to the press if he doesn't feel so inclined, but will that silence, and a lack of any announced tour, hurt the album’s long-term prospects? Or will the 14-year anticipation, and the positive reviews, carry "Chinese Democracy" for months to come?
The holiday foot traffic through Best Buy may be enough to make “Chinese Democracy” one of the biggest, if not the biggest, albums of the year. An electronics store first, Best Buy will surely benefit by turning "Chinese Democracy" into one of the great impulse buys of the 2008 holiday season.
But like everything surrounding “Chinese Democracy,” skeptics -- and mystery -- remain, even as the album is on the verge of release.
“A certain portion is going to sell, no matter what,” says one industry observer. “Will it live to its full potential, absent all the attendant marketing creators of supply and demand? No, I don’t think it will. With AC/DC, you feel like you’re buying a known commodity. With Guns N’ Roses, it’s not the band, it’s Axl. It’s an Axl Rose solo project, and you’ve got him participating in a very limited fashion.”
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Frank Micelotta / Getty Images