August 22, 2008

Big Chains Putting Squeeze on Small Artists

By Jason Bracelin

The pickets never seem to relent, and neither does the heat.

Outside the Wal-Mart on East Lake Mead Drive they march - day in, day out, sometimes in 115 degree temperatures - protesting the hiring of nonunion workers to build the store.

And music fans soon might be joining them.

It all started with The Eagles. Last year, the band decided to issue their latest record exclusively through Wal-Mart, cutting out any traditional music distributor and starting a trend that includes Garth Brooks' most recent box set and AC/DC's forthcoming new album.

Great. Score one for censorship and limited choice.

Remember, this is the company that forced Nirvana to alter the artwork for "In Utero" because they objected to the images of fetuses on the back of the CD sleeve and refused to stock a Sheryl Crowe album because she commented on the chain's gun sales policy.

By occasionally treating CD sales as loss leaders to lure folks into their stores so that they'll buy other products, Wal-Mart (along with Best Buy) has played a leading roll in squashing independent record stores. Now that they're gone, Wal-Mart offers a much more limited selection of music in their place, putting the squeeze on indie artists and any act that the company brass may find objectionable.

Now, it's Wal-Mart's right to stock whatever it wants in its stores, but why would artists support an entity that has a history of limiting free expression?

It's no big mystery why some bands would want to cut record and/ or distribution companies out of the mix and go directly to a retailer. Most would be surprised to see just how little bands make per each CD sold (and this only comes after their album recoups all costs, which, on a major label, means it needs to sell between 300,000 and 500,000 copies).

On their Web site, Australian metal band The Berzerker recently broke down where the money goes for each CD sold through a traditional retailer. The percentages go something like this: retail (52.3 percent), distribution (23.3 percent), record label (12 percent) and manufacturing (9 percent).

That leaves a little more than 3 percent for the artists, so it's understandable why they would want to consolidate the retailer/ record company/distributor business model. The Berzerker, for instance, have started their own label and are selling their music exclusively online.

This isn't feasible for all bands, but that doesn't mean artists have to jump in bed with Wal-Mart.

And really, do acts like The Eagles and Garth Brooks really need to sell out any more? Guess money is more important than such trivialities as free speech.

No, I won't be marching in any picket lines in the near future, but I also won't be buying music at places that support censorship.

Which reminds me, can somebody burn me that new AC/DC disc?

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at [email protected] or 702-383-0476.

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