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Wal-to-Wal Garth

Pop music: Garth Brooks' fans jam more than 2,000 Wal-Marts nationwide for his live concert via satellite, part of his new album promotion.

November 19, 1998|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To find the reason Garth Brooks has sold more albums than Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson or any other solo artist, you need only have wandered into the Wal-Mart store in Orange on Tuesday night and checked out the commotion between the greeting cards aisle and shoe department.

In a scene that was duplicated in more than 2,300 other Wal-Marts across the country, fans crowded among the stacks of camcorders and video games to celebrate the arrival of the new Brooks album by watching a live concert by the mega-star that was broadcast exclusively to the stores via satellite.

They cheered, they danced and, most importantly, they purchased. "I'm getting it on tape and on CD, so when the tape dies I can record another one," said Santa Ana fan Tammy Bonvecchio as she clutched copies of "Garth Brooks Double Live." More simply put: "I love Garth."

The event--an example of "retail-tainment," as Wal-Mart calls it--was part of a wave of Garthmania this week that began with an appearance Monday night on "The Tonight Show" and continued Wednesday with a scheduled live concert on NBC.

All of it is aimed at fulfilling Capitol Nashville's boast that the new Brooks release would set unprecedented sales records, and label officials said Wednesday that the album was indeed on pace to eclipse the first-week sales total of 950,000 copies set by Pearl Jam's "Vs." in 1993.

"It was a big, big day," said Pat Quigley, the label's president. "The biggest day in Garth's history, definitely. Everyone we talk to is reporting record sales."

Quigley had predicted the album could sell a million in the first day of release, a staggering boast that, on Wednesday, he revised and characterized as "a hope not a goal." Instead, the true goal was 1 million the first week.

While many in the music industry already had dismissed the one-day sales boast as pure hyperbole, few doubt that the discount-priced double album will make retail history of some sort. Brooks has sold an estimated 82 million albums and, on his current concert tour, more than 5 million tickets.

Seven million copies of the new Brooks album hit store shelves on Tuesday, and Wal-Mart officials have said its chain--which sold 50,000 copies in preorders--alone could sell a million copies the first week.

Wal-Mart officials, citing company policy, would not release sales totals, but said Tuesday was the "largest single-day music sales in the history of the company." SoundScan, the industry sales tracking system, compiles its statistics only on a weekly basis, so hard data won't be available until next Wednesday. Brooks' new album was joined on "Super Tuesday" by new releases from Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Jewel, the Offspring and others.

Still, monster sales at Wal-Mart bode well for Brooks, who sells 30% of his albums through the retail giant, Quigley estimated. Wal-Mart is an especially good fit for Brooks with its customer base of rural and suburban families, according to Quigley. Unlike music specialty shops--which draw a primary clientele of young people and mostly men--the huge retail centers such as Wal-Mart get wider age ranges and entire families.

Studies by the Recording Industry of Assn. of America show that last year women bought more albums than men for the first time, while trend surveys show that nearly half of all music buyers are older than 30.

For Brooks, the "loyal, core fans" are middle-income families and they break down to 55% women and 45% men, Quigley said.

"Get the moms and you get everyone," Quigley said before the Wal-Mart concert. "We might get huge crowds. Even if we get Central Park-size crowds, I think Wal-Marts could handle it."

The biggest crowds--totaling in the hundreds--showed up in stores in Brooks' home state of Oklahoma and in country music epicenters such as Texas and Alabama, according to a survey of Wal-Mart managers.

In Morehead City, N.C., Wal-Mart employees served up a "Garth Special" (hamburger with bacon, cheese and barbecue sauce) and in Tupelo, Miss., they gave away Stetson hats.

In Orange, the 75 fans included many who rushed from work or the day-care center to catch Brooks' hourlong concert, which originated from a Burbank soundstage.

Before the concert started, several fans explained that the secret of the singer's success is the man, not the music.

"I didn't like his music at first, I'm not a country music fan, but it just grows on you," explained Penny Prichard, a mother of two from Anaheim. "He seems so grateful and honest and real. . . . The music just happens to come out of him."

Maureen Griego, an Orange County employee, arrived at the store almost two hours early to assure herself a front-row seat for the store concert--even though Brooks would appear on national television about 24 hours later with a similar performance. "I have to remember to buy a blank video while I'm here," she said.

Griego got her front-row seat and joined in the cheering as if she were in front of a stage instead of a screen. For some unsuspecting shoppers who stumbled into the middle of the event, the atmosphere seemed to be an odd mix of retail and revival sensibilities.

"I'm just trying to survive it," said Terry McDermott, who had a hard time getting his cart through crowded aisles. "I don't know about any of this. I just come to the store to shop."

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