Amazon's Cheap Trick

The popular rock band signs an exclusive with the Seattle online retailer.

CHEAP TRICK STILL wants you to want them—they'd just prefer you to show your love by shopping at Amazon.com. The respected rock band will make its new live album, Music for Hangovers, available only at the online record store for 60 days before releasing it to traditional retail outlets. (The promotion begins April 20.)

The alliance between Cheap Trick and Amazon.com comes amidst an array of music-biz wheeling and dealing. Web sites touting MP3s make almost daily announcements boasting new downloadable tracks by well-known artists, and last week, BMG and Universal Music Group unveiled a joint venture called GetMusic, which will compete with online retailers like Amazon.com and CDNow.

But Cheap Trick's move may be the most controversial, as it's a snub to brick-and-mortar retail stores—which sold 2 million copies of the band's 1979 breakthrough concert album, Live at Budokan. It also forces diehard fans to point their mouse at Amazon if they want to be among the first on their block to hear the new album. Some retailers and fans aren't happy.

"I think it sucks," says Sean Tessier, an employee at Seattle's Orpheum Records, who bills himself as Cheap Trick's no. 1 fan. "It sucks for me because I don't have a computer, and it sucks for my store because we can't sell it."

Cheap Trick manager Dave Frey says he expects such vitriolic responses, but he paints the deal as both more lucrative and market-savvy than the traditional distribution route. He estimates that the band will make a threefold profit on records sold through the Amazon.com arrangement. More valuable is the scope and quality of the information he can gather by selling online. Sellers and advertisers love consumer contact through the Internet because the medium allows them to harvest data about consumers and their buying habits. Frey notes that the ability to chart the demographics and locations of Internet customers will allow him to target certain markets when shipping the record to retail in June. "We're warming up the pizza for delivery," he says.

CHEAP TRICK ISN'T the only big cheese looking for fresh approaches to selling records. The widespread consolidation and downsizing of major labels has led to the shunning of older acts, which in turn look to the Internet to maintain fan support—and to make money. With online record retail already making a sizable dent—it's estimated that 2 percent of all music compact discs are sold over the Internet—more and more artists may look to Amazon and other online outlets.

"This could happen a lot in the future," says Terry Currier, chairman of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores. But he adds that there may be consequences for bands that completely turn their backs on the traditional stores, which still account for the overwhelming majority of all record sales. "It's not a retail-friendly move to do this," he says, ominously.

But Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson says that record stores need to adapt to the times. "Retail's got to get it together," he says. "Like radio or big record labels, they start to slack off. Once everybody gets comfortable, then they lose it, and somebody else with a better idea comes along and undercuts them." He sees Cheap Trick, whose first record hit the non-virtual shelves in 1977, as a pioneer. "Everybody's gonna be in this situation," he quips. "We just happen to be one of the first."

 
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