Wal-Mart and Music

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Wal-Mart has become the 600-pound gorilla in the music business. It is the country’s single biggest seller of CDs (antique silvery round things that contain collections of songs – in the 20th century, it’s how we used to get our music before everything went online). So when Wal-Mart tells the major record labels to jump, the labels say hey, we’re still dangling in midair from the last time you told us to jump. Wal-mart is so big and so successful that it makes an inviting target, but give them their due – the chain seems to make good business decisions. In terms of music, that means selling lots of copies of just a few CDs. This is a much more efficient way of making money – for the store and for the labels – than trying to sell a decent amount of the hundreds and thousands of CDs that the labels release each year. In the musical equivalent of Trickle Down Economic Theory, that would mean that the labels would have enough cash from a few big sellers to bankroll all the interesting but not very commercial artists they’d ideally like to work with. This is in fact how the industry used to work – Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was a big wave that floated quite a few little boats in the early 80s, for example. (Of course, that wave eventually passed and the little boats capsized, but it was a nice analogy while it lasted.)

But now, labels are looking for a leaner, more Wal-Marty way of working, and selling 3 million Eagles CDs in one place (as Wal-Mart did) is a lot better business than trying to sell 1,000 copies of 3000 different records in little stores around the country. And there’s no question of the revenue from that Eagles CD bankrolling a few edgy, underground acts – because Wal-Mart won’t carry them. So here’s that inviting target I mentioned before: people claim that the Wal-Mart model is good for the bottom line but bad for music. (And if it’s so good for the bottom line, why aren’t workers paid more? But that’s another, bigger story…)

I am not one of those people. I don’t actually believe Wal-Mart is bad for music – because it’s just not a record store. Like my local Barnes & Noble, it’s a store that happens to carry a few CDs that tend to sell well. If you want to complain about Wal-Mart’s very restricted list of artists, basically ignoring anything that’s not mainstream and commercial, go ahead. But if you think about it, you could lob those same complaints at almost all of American radio. The frustrating thing is, there are alternatives out there, both to Wal-Mart and to commercial radio – but the labels are so shortsighted that they feel it’s not in their interest to help you find out about them. (And then they wonder why they’re in such trouble…)

So, what do you think of Wal-Mart – a disease attacking our music industry, or merely a symptom? Leave a comment.

[Photo credit: Flickr/trp0]