The Back Page: Thinking Outside The Box Store

back-page71510So you’re leafing through the ads in the Sunday paper and what to your wondering eyes should appear but the new Cat Power CD for $7.99. At Best Buy. This, you figure, is a great thing. Cheaper than iTunes, way cheaper than the $12.99 they’ll probably be charging at the local record store. And look: You can pick up Broken Social Scene, the Arcade Fire and a couple other titles at the same ridiculous price. It’s almost free, and therein, gentle indie rockers, lies the problem.

A quick confession: I have been guilty of buying music and DVDs, as well as appliances and such like, at Best Buy. Oh, I resisted at first. When they built the monstrous new store up the highway from my house, I avoided it entirely for a few years. Better to spend money with local businesspeople, I figured. Better to support the stores and shops run by entrepreneurs with an investment in our community. I wore down.

Time for a new computer? You look through the ads, do your homework and damn it if Best Buy doesn’t have the best stuff at the lowest price. TV? Same thing. Washing machine breaks down? Best Buy, again. Like those old propaganda films about marijuana leading to harder stuff, pretty soon you find yourself browsing the CD racks on the way to the electronics. Then, well, you’re swinging by Best Buy on Tuesdays, scooping up new releases for a few bucks off the normal retail price. And then you’re hooked.

It remains Sheridan household policy that none of our money is spent at Wal-Mart. That’s political as well as simple resistance to the proliferation of box stores at the expense of unique local businesses. So I’ll admit to a certain amount of queasiness whenever I bought a CD or DVD at Best Buy. And really, I could’ve quit at any time. I was in control. I pretty much bought only major-label stuff there, since that’s pretty much all the store carried. A lot of times, I was buying a CD that one of my daughters had already downloaded, in my ongoing (though probably doomed) effort to make sure we’re paying artists for their work. I rationalized, and then came the $7.99 Cat Power CD in the full-color Sunday circular, and I could rationalize no more.

We don’t have the time, space or inclination to get into a long talk about economies of scale, loss leaders and the niceties of co-op deals. I don’t really understand all that stuff myself and sure as hell don’t expect you to hang around while I try to make it all clear. So let’s keep it to this: Best Buy sells these CDs at a loss because its real agenda is to lure new customers into the store. A monster retailer like that can lose a few dollars on a Cat Power CD because it believes you’ll be lured over to the electronics or appliances while you’re there. At the very least, maybe you’ll pick up two or three other CDs. This means little or nothing to Best Buy.

It means a great deal, however, to the small independent record store that’s getting undersold, the independent distributors that dedicate themselves to getting smaller labels’ products into stores and the indie labels that rely on the distributors and smaller shops to survive. Ultimately, although you aren’t aware of any of what’s going on, it means a great deal to you as a music fan.

Patrick Monaghan runs a label and distribution company, both called Carrot Top, out of Chicago. When this new Best Buy ploy hit, Monaghan set off a small tidal surge of discussion, debate and tension in the indie community. (The ongoing conversation can be read at www.sakistore.blogspot.com.) Basically, Monaghan felt labels that cut deals with Best Buy were selling out everyone else. Since that included respected labels such as Merge, Matador and Secretly Canadian, things got a little heated. By pushing the issue, Monaghan found out that the labels didn’t even know Best Buy was going as low as $7.99 for the group of albums being advertised. He also found out that the issue was more complicated than it first appeared.

If you’re running an indie label and one of your artists breaks out, you have a choice: Stay true to your indie ideals and sell fewer records, or find a way to get that record out where people can find it. The first sounds good, although of course it also means the band will want out of your deluded clutches as soon as possible. The second means making some compromises. It means cutting a deal with Best Buy, Target or Wal-Mart.

As hard as it may be for indie-rock urbanites to believe, there are vast segments of this country where those are now the only places to go and buy a record. Sure, you can order online or download stuff. But for fans who hear about an album and want to pick it up, that’s where they go.

If you’re the Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene or Antony And The Johnsons, you want people to hear your music. That means you want your label to make smart business deals on your behalf. The reality, though, is that most of the bands on indie labels aren’t going to have that opportunity. They’re going to need the indie infrastructure that gets more obscure CDs from that pressing plant in Canada to stores as big as Amoeba in L.A. and San Francisco and as small as Positively Records in Levittown, Pa. And that infrastructure is deeply vulnerable to monster retailers like Best Buy and Target. So what’s the point?

I have no clue. Really. After reading Monaghan’s broadside earlier this year, then talking with him and reading replies from labels, record-store owners and others, there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer. Informed consumers would help. If you care whether your tuna is dolphin-safe or your clothes were made in a sweatshop somewhere, then you should be aware of the impact of spending your money in a giant box store. With appliances, maybe you’ll just get a good deal. But music isn’t just metal, rubber and wiring. It’s an art form. And the source of that art could dry up if Best Buy is able to trample indie labels, bands and distributors.

As Monaghan points out, though, smart music consumers rely on the integrity of indie labels and artists for guidance. If you can buy Merge and Touch And Go records at Best Buy, you might assume that the store passed some kind of litmus test. Expecting music fans to figure all this stuff out from an ad circular is basically ridiculous, which is why the whole thing feels so sneaky.

Worst case scenario: Best Buy suckers a bunch of indie labels into deals like this, realizes there’s no real money in it and pulls the plug. By then, a lot more independent record stores and distributors have shut down, and there are fewer and fewer ways to hear new and challenging music. It could happen. Hell, it did happen, when Best Buy and other box stores got excited about “alternative” rock back in the ’90s. It happens elsewhere, too. Stop in at a Home Depot or Lowe’s and ask the folks in the kitchen and bath departments where they used to work. They’re almost always small businesspeople or contractors who couldn’t compete with the megastore.

You can still get kitchens installed. The difference here is that the giant store can clumsily stomp out the very source of the music. So that’s it for me. No more music at giant chain stores. Period. You can do what you want, obviously, but at least now you know the deal. And for the smartasses who are quick to smirk about how they never pay for music anyway, that’s no answer. Try downloading silence sometime.

—Phil Sheridan

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