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Axl Rose stays mum

November 22, 2008|Todd Martens | Martens is a Times staff writer.

After a decade and a half in the making, the release of Guns N' Roses' "Chinese Democracy" has everything a good rock 'n' roll myth needs. There's bitterness, as leader Axl Rose is the only original member left standing. There's excess, as the album's cost seems to escalate with each media story, but there's no question millions of dollars have been spent. And there's an enigmatic artist at the helm, one many critics and hard rock fans agree is a genius.

There's only one thing missing: An artist to sell it. It's been a 17-year wait since the last Guns N' Roses album with new material, and the biggest questions -- why now and why link with a major retailer? -- look to remain unanswered, at least for now. Rose, according to a representative, "hasn't been available for interviews," and it doesn't sound like any are on the horizon.

Meaning that "Chinese Democracy" will hit retail shelves -- in this case, shelves belonging exclusively to Best Buy -- on Sunday with a bit of mystery. Speaking anonymously because of the business' sensitive nature, one manager noted, "It starts to feel a little bit like the movie that doesn't let reviewers in to see before it comes out. You'd think they'd want to platform it, do some sort of live broadcast, let the music talk for itself -- instead of just the innuendo."

But unlike many films that aren't screened for critics, "Chinese Democracy" isn't getting panned. Instead, it's a work, most early reviews seem to say, that deserves to be celebrated. (The Times' review will run in Sunday's Calendar section and is now available online.)

Best Buy senior entertainment officer Gary Arnold is throwing down the gauntlet. "I will defy anyone to say this wasn't worth the wait," he says.

Arnold said he began negotiating for the exclusive rights to sell "Chinese Democracy" more than a year ago, before Guns N' Roses linked with managers Irving Azoff and Andy Gould, and he then continued structuring the deal with the new management team.

Azoff's Front Line Management arranged for the Eagles' "Long Road Out of Eden" to be sold exclusively through Wal-Mart in 2007. (Both Azoff, who was recently named chief executive of Ticketmaster, and Gould were unavailable for comment by deadline. A corporate representative for Universal Music Group was contacted earlier this week but also did not respond by deadline.)

Such retail moves are becoming increasingly common. AC/DC's "Black Ice," the band's first album since 2000's "Stiff Upper Lip," shot to No. 1 after selling 784,000 copies in its first week in stores.

Michael Kurtz, who runs the Music Monitor Network, a coalition of independent record store chains, has been outspoken against such practices, arguing that they are unfair to smaller businesses.

"It's an insane world where music stores are not allowed to buy music in the United States," Kurtz said. "Every record store in the world gets to carry it, except for the United States. Same thing with AC/DC."

Best Buy will be selling "Chinese Democracy" for $11.99, the price it has been taking pre-orders for on its website. Although they offer limited space to music, major retailers such as Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart have become dominant players in the business by discounting new releases, often for prices of less than $10. New releases from Beyonce and David Cook, for instance, were both advertised by Best Buy last week for $9.99.

Kurtz theorizes that exclusives are driving up the price of CDs. "By eliminating competition, the price of the CDs are going up," Kurtz said. "The biggest United States retailers are partnering with the biggest labels, driving the price up by not allowing competition."

"I don't think that's true," Arnold responded. "We price each project based upon the number of factors, including the investments we've made into it, and what we believe the right and fair retail is." Billboard columnist Ed Christman noted recently that if "Black Ice" had not been a Wal-Mart exclusive, it would have been projected to sell closer to 200,000 first-week copies.

What accounts for a nearly 600,000-copy difference? Christman's sources praise Wal-Mart's extensive campaign, which devoted a section of its stores to "Black Ice" and AC/DC merchandise, including a branded Rock Band video game. Additionally, the company had makeshift stores set up in New York and at Hollywood & Highland here.

Christman points to the stores' high foot traffic, which is in the multimillions. "Typically, they sell more records just based on that traffic," he said.

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