Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Building the Imperfect Beast

“We’re looking for a new paradigm” is how Don Henley put it when discussing The Eagles’ choice of WalMart as an exclusive distributor of the band’s first studio album in 27 years. The comment is laughably patronizing - as though we just aren’t smart enough to see his new commercial nirvana. They own the biggest-selling album of all time; just what “new paradigm” could they be looking for? Speaking of that album (and the more recent Greatest Hits 2), you could bet a large fortune that Eagles fans everywhere would harken for the old stuff anyway.

In July, Prince placed his new album with The Mail on Sunday (UK) for free. He then sold out at least five huge shows later that summer in London. That’s a new paradigm. Radiohead’s new album is available for download at whatever price you think it is worth and Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams II was sent to me free as part of the ticket package for his upcoming shows in New York. New paradigm indeed.

Contrast the minimal attention that this release seems to have garnered with those of other current releases. In the UK, it is being reported that The Eagles will top the Billboard charts and edge out Britney. Now, you might be thinking, is that any competition? But, in fact, her album has been well received over there and broadly here as well. In the US, The Eagles album may not debut in the top three; moreover, because distribution is not widely seen, it may end up dropping like a stone soon after. Since Walmart doesn’t report sales at an item level, you won’t see any of the usual excitement that ensues when a new album moves up the charts. Ergo, ignominious mediocrity. If you contrast the lack of hype around this album – remember, the first in 27 years! - from one of the biggest bands ever and the reaction to Radiohead’s new paradigm; it is comical by comparison.

As a result, fans showing up on the concert tour which is bound to follow aren’t likely to have heard the new stuff. Perhaps, if The Eagles had been more innovative, they could have created broad anticipation for the new stuff. As it is, concert-goers will hit the head when the group launches into those unrecognizable ‘hits’.

Aside from the silliness (or ignorance) of Henley’s comment, there is also a perception issue. Millions of people travel to NYC to shop on 57th Street. Why? Because the experience is evocative of exclusivity. It is unique and the stores are attractions in and of themselves. If something is sold on 57th Street, the consumer characterizes that product in a very particular way. This is no less the case with a big-box retailer like WalMart. Your association with the products sold at Walmart has everything to do with how you perceive WalMart. So, if you have a negative view of Walmart (and not everyone does) will that transfer to The Eagles? It does for me. Mrs PND has an emotive reaction to WalMart, believing the shopping environment to be soulless and barren. I, on the other hand, think of their intolerance and their overarching belief that they can influence culture by limiting or manipulating choice.

When you think about it The Long Road Out of Eden is a rather unfortunate choice of title for this album when you remember that Walmart has a history of locking up employees, dissuading employees from their legitimate right to union representation and engaging in an active effort to deflate employee wages. Clearly, for some Walmart employees there is no “road out of Eden”

Henley said they got some grief for the Walmart deal but I am simply baffled by the fact that they needed to consider this option at all. Indeed, if they were truly looking for a new paradigm, they only needed to poll some of their ‘friends’ from MySpace who could have given them any number of ideas. And I will bet none would have included Walmart.

1 comment:

Doc said...

Two points:
1-The Eagles CD has been very prominently displayed in all the Walmart stores that I've shopped. In fact it was featured in several locations, including (young) women's clothing. Similarly, the AC/DC Ironman 2 CD was heavily promoted - though I don't know if this was an exclusive.
2-(A nit-picking point): Walmart is *not*, by any definition, a big-box retailer, it is a large discount retailer. There is a difference, Costco, BJs, Sam's Club - those are big-box retailers (aka wholesale clubs). You can't just buy, say, a 12-pack of toilet paper, you can only choose between 48 and 72 (in a big box - well in this case package). Similarly, you get a 9-pound (big-box) of oatmeal. Yours is a very common error, but an error nonetheless.

What's to stop, for example, Amazon or B&N from distributing to each other and even to other retailers? Presumably, they're already doing distribution from a central location or locations (in the case of B&N), probably have their own trucks (like Walmart), know how to handle the logistics and routing and certainly have a handle on warehousing.