Return to Sender

Best Buy announces that the CD-release party is over.

Naturally, most of these albums never sold, and were sent back to sit in Best Buy's sprawling Eden Prairie warehouse--that is, until recently, when BB began marking packages "Return to Sender." "A lot of the independent distributors that were courting Best Buy, like Matador and Caroline, now realize that they shot themselves in the foot," says Let It Be's Ryan Cameron. "They put their emphasis on stores that would order more, and they'd get more initial billing out of it. But now, they're getting all those records back."

Several locals were hurt by BB returns in '97, notably OarFin, which laid off three staffers. But the crash was as much the fault of bands and labels with unrealistic expectations as it was Best Buy's open-door policy. "The label needs to create the demand for a record before they can expect the retailer to bring it in," says one music bizzer, who asked not to be named. "A lot of times labels think if they get into Best Buy, they're going to sell records. Now that they're cleaning house, everybody's complaining. I mean, whose fault is it?"

While OarFin staffers say they're still able to sell through Best Buy, most other parties are learning to look elsewhere. Ironically, one new alternative could be Musicland, whose employees appeared at a recent convention in faux-Men in Black-wear--the M.I.B. acronym changed to mean "Musicland is Back." Musicland stores do appear to be increasing their local/indie quotient. But Stark, who has put out local records since 1978 on TRG's predecessor, Twin/Tone Records, believes the answer goes beyond retail.

"Two years from now I'm not going to press any more CDs [for stores]," he says, noting that computers of the near future will come with built-in CD burners. "I'm going to be selling downloads on the Internet. Most mom and pop stores won't be around, and chain stores like Best Buy will only be stocking the Top 200."

It sounds like a long shot, but Stark figures he can make more money selling 500 audio downloads than he can selling 5,000 records through the distribution system, which exacts a 40 percent cut. TRG bands will still sell CDs to fans from the stage, he says, and major labels will probably adopt the online system in a few years. "Local music fans already know not to look in the stores," Stark surmises. "We're seeing the end of the retail cycle, and Best Buy is just trying to get out of it without making too much noise."

Then again, Minneapolis's resilient breed of independent record shops is looking forward to the cycle turning back in its favor. Let It Be's Cameron says the indie-music business has already "re-evaluated the importance of the mom and pops as the ones where you can walk in the door and employees are like, 'Hey, this is the new record, this is what you need.' You can't ask anyone about music at Best Buy. That's not what they're there for."

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