Return to Sender

"Some places are known for great music." With those words, Best Buy let the Alternative Nation know that this was the CD store for them--and drove the point home with TV commercials celebrating the rock scenes of cities like Boston and Minneapolis. A 1993 Best Buy ad had members of the obscure-as-hell Minneapolis punk band Quincy Punx proclaiming, "If you've got Screeching Weasel, I'll shop there!" followed by a money shot of the Weasel's latest DIY disc fitting snugly in the Best Buy racks. And let's not forget those Real World-esque vignettes of gorgeous young hipsters shooting pool and declaring their deep love of Pavement and PJ Harvey.

Alas, those commercials don't exist anymore. These days, the Best Buy spot in heavy rotation depicts one Wayne Apple: a lovably hapless Bloomington-ite who somehow wins front-row tickets to the Stones concert courtesy of Best Buy's "Idea Box." It's a cute ad, and it illuminates how Best Buy's marketing agenda has reverted to a more conventional industry ethic: It's easier to sell a million copies of one Rolling Stones album than 1,000 copies of 1,000 Screeching Weasels.

In September, the Minnesota-based superstore chain announced that its rock & roll party was effectively over: Best Buy is scaling back its inventory of 55,000 music titles by at least a third, clearing floor space for the introduction of books, magazines, and exercise equipment. The one-third music reduction reportedly includes a large number of non-mainstream (independent and local) CD titles--hardly a surprise.

For much of the '90s, Best Buy sold music at extremely cheap, wholesale-or-lower prices, ostensibly to lure consumers in to buy electronics--and to eliminate the competition. It was a situation that couldn't last forever. As planned, CD prices climbed steadily in the last year or two, while overall BB profits helped end the priority status of music sales. So it's on to the books market.

There are several ways music fans might react to this news. One is to feel a smug sense of relief that those pandering commercials are no more. You could even chalk up a bloody victory to those independent "mom & pop" record stores that are still standing. A few years back, conventional wisdom held that Best Buy's enormous stock and price-gouging tactics would doom the smaller, more community-minded stores. And to some extent, that prophecy has come true, particularly in smaller towns. But the outcome was less devastating in Minneapolis. "Two or three years ago, everybody was asking who would be the first to pack it up," says John Beggs of the indie-rock stronghold Garage D'Or Records. "But everyone's held on and recarved their niche."

Northern Lights was an unfortunate casualty, but Let it Be Records--the only record store in downtown Minneapolis outside City Center--has survived the '90s and even tripled its floor space by expanding niche departments like imports and dance vinyl. If any locally based business seems to have suffered from Best Buy, it's Musicland Corporation, which teetered on the edge of Chapter 11 for years, and has only recently shown signs of rebound. In the last year, Musicland closed 107 of its ailing stores, resulting in a significant increase in the company's stock prices.

The new Best Buy seems most apt to hurt suburban consumers and new artists: BB represents one of the country's biggest CD sellers, its core clientele including the pool of suburban kids that take chances on underground and otherwise unproven artists. "If they don't know about it or see it at Best Buy, they don't know where else to buy it," says Chris Strouth, director of artists and product for local record label TRG. "And if they can't find it easily, they aren't going to buy it."

This situation is compounded in the case of local music. Surprisingly or not, the majority of independent, Minnesota-produced music is still sold at Best Buy, thanks to a long-term commitment that has included donated "Made in Minnesota" displays, radio sponsorships, and a Made in Minnesota CD series of varying quality. Best Buy also forged a tight relationship with local distributor OarFin, which flooded BB's racks with hundreds of regional titles. But now, many small distributors are finding it harder to make it into Best Buy's catalog. "We're finding that we can get half of our records in there right now. A year ago we got all of them in," says TRG President Paul Stark. "I'm guessing that a year from now we'll get a quarter of our new ones in."

At present, a new Rank Strangers or Marlee McLeod album can take several weeks to appear at Best Buy, if ever. But then, the selling of indie music at BB has always been something of a mixed blessing. Previously, any band could get into the store provided it had three things: distribution (usually from OarFin, which accepts bands indiscriminately); the dough to put together a demo-quality recording; and artwork to fill the jewel box. The result was that Best Buy's sprawling local section was largely irrelevant, overloaded with artists who had minimal experience and virtually no name recognition even among scenesters. Local CD production reached an unprecedented level of glut, as the no-budget compact disc became the unsolicited demo tape of the '90s.

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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