Store Wars

Indies battle chains over product as industry kicks John Doe

In its first two weeks, Good Charlotte's The Chronicles of Life and Death has sold more than 270,000 copies and totally pissed off a bunch of small record stores. The problem isn't that it's available in a "life version" and a "death version," each with one song that's not on the other; it's that the copies sold at Target have yet another extra track, included on the CD and listed on the packaging.

Among independent retailers, this is known as a "superior product," and they flip out when chains like Target or Best Buy offer one—not least because locally owned stores, which pay higher wholesale prices than chains and get more stringent billing terms, often don't learn about it until they've already placed their orders. "We're the ones that usually break those bands, and we have to find out about these things from our customers," complains Lenny Sblendorio, manager of Vintage Vinyl in Fords, New Jersey. In retaliation for Epic Records giving Target an advantage with Good Charlotte, several large independent stores have taken recent releases by Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, the Clash, and everything else on Epic off display for a few weeks.

"In our eyes," says the Coalition of Independent Music Stores' president Don Van Cleave, "it's as if Barnes & Noble got a version of a book with more chapters than the independent booksellers' version. If Epic had given Target a separate CD with 15 live tracks to sell with the album, we wouldn't have said a word. But they put the song right on the CD itself, and that's where we think it crosses the line." A few other recent albums have been sold in longer versions at chains: In particular, indies objected to Further Seems Forever's Hide Nothing and Atreyu's The Curse, appearing with extra tracks at Best Buy.

CIMS doesn't object to the increasingly common practice of albums being sold exclusively through a particular chain—they do the same thing, in fact. (Belle and Sebastian's EP Books and John Mayer's live album As/Is are among CIMS's exclusives.) Van Cleave also reports that sales at independent record stores are significantly better this year than last, attributing the change to better releases, diversified inventory, and lower prices—and definitely not to the Recording Industry Association of America's lawsuits against file sharers. "We think any industries that sue their customers are idiots," he says bluntly.

This particular idiot industry sued another 762 of its customers on September 30. Nielsen SoundScan reported that overall album sales for the first nine months of 2004 are up 5.8 percent from the same period last year, and the RIAA recently announced that labels shipped over 10 percent more CDs to stores in the first half of this year than in the first half of 2003. Shipment figures, though, are not sales figures; the RIAA also notes that shipments of the top 50 albums are down 16.7 percent from 2001. Instead of pointing out that retail ordering has gotten more efficient, RIAA chairman Mitch Bainwol segues from those numbers to announcing that "thousands have lost their jobs" because of piracy—rather than, say, major-label mega-mergers.

The only obstacle to Big Music recently has been the U.S. Supreme Court. On October 12, it declined to hear the RIAA's appeal in its lawsuit against Verizon over a provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act; as a result, the RIAA has to continue to file "John Doe" lawsuits against file sharers, instead of getting Internet service providers to turn over users' names without judicial oversight. The same day, the Department of Justice's intellectual property task force recommended, in John Ashcroft's words, "the strongest, most aggressive legal assault against intellectual-property crime in our nation's history": criminalizing both file sharing and cracking protection software, and spending more money investigating the crime wave of teenagers downloading songs missing from Good Charlotte CDs.

Speaking of strong, aggressive types, last month Arnold Schwarzenegger officially ordered his chief information officer, J. Clark Kelso, to figure out how to restrict the use of peer-to-peer programs on California's state-owned computers, as well as computers at state universities. Bainwol responded with a press release praising the governator for recognizing "that technologies can be hijacked to compromise sensitive governmental information and, more importantly, for illicit purposes that rob the creative community of its future." Interesting use of "more importantly" there. The creative communitydoesn't necessarily like Bainwol speaking for it, either. Above the FBI logo warning about unauthorized copying on the back cover of Elvis Costello's new The Delivery Man, there's another message: "This artist does not endorse the following warning. The F.B.I. doesn't have his home phone number and he hopes that they don't have yours."

 
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