Hello, Best Buy; Good-bye, Best Friends

In November, WXRT released ONXRT: Live From the Archives Volume 6. Like earlier volumes, it collects otherwise unavailable recordings of live performances, taped in the station’s studios or at concerts the station has aired, by an assortment of mildly rocking artists. (The lineup this time includes longtime favorites Tom Petty and R.E.M. alongside younger acts Train, John Mayer, and David Gray.) As always, profits from its sales will go to local charities. But while ONXRTs 1 through 5 were sold at any local record store that wanted to carry them, the new one is available only from Best Buy. The electronics chain, which uses low-priced music and movies to lure customers who might buy a stereo or DVD player, has recently ticked off other retailers with its exclusive on the Rolling Stones DVD set Four Flicks.

“We didn’t even know about [volume 6] until it came out,” says Miyk Camacho, operations manager of Tower Records’ Lincoln Park store. “Just about everyone has been looking for it. This store–given its location, we’ve traditionally been ‘XRT headquarters, you might say. Anything that’s on their airwaves we tend to sell the most of. If you look at our top ten in general it pretty much reflects their playlist. For us not to have that disc was embarrassing at times. People were shocked. We try to be a full-service store, and to not have a vital local title was surprising to most customers.”

WXRT programming veep Norm Winer says the station went with Best Buy for the sake of expediency. “We hadn’t done [an ONXRT disc] in four years because it’s work-intensive,” he explains. A lot of that work is licensing–getting the rights to use the songs–which means dealing with artists’ management, labels’ licensing departments, and publishing companies. To ease concerns about cannibalizing profitable sales, the run of each CD is strictly limited to 20,000 copies. Most of the previous volumes in the series sold well, Winer says, but as more and more radio stations started putting out charity compilations of their own, the recording industry grew reluctant to play ball, and the paperwork got even worse. “It’s not like we get a lot of cooperation from the record labels or the artists–they don’t make any money from it, so it’s a very low priority for them.”

The deal with Best Buy was part of a licensing, manufacturing, and distribution package offered by SRO Productions, a Minneapolis company that specializes in streamlining this process. “We wanted to be in the stores before Thanksgiving,” says Winer, “and they told us that if we met their timetable they’d be able to do it for us. They assured us that Best Buy would buy all of the CDs from us, and they guaranteed us distribution throughout the Chicago-area Best Buy stores. That was very appealing to us because we wouldn’t have to worry about that aspect of it.” There are Best Buy locations all over WXRT’s listening area, he adds, and the station will be able to collect the charity money–about $120,000 for the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the People’s Music School–quickly.

“The downside is that we weren’t able to make it available in some of the local record stores that have been fixtures in various communities,” Winer continues. “We heard from people who were accustomed to buying past volumes in their friendly neighborhood stores, and they couldn’t with this one. We’re sensitive to that.”

“The Rolling Stones DVD was the second-most-requested item that we didn’t carry,” says Tower’s Camacho. “But this was the first by far.” According to Sam Greenberg, owner of the Dr. Wax stores, many of their customers asked about the comp too: “There were a lot of disappointed people who said, ‘I can’t believe WXRT did this.’ Some said, ‘Fuck Best Buy, I’m not going there.’ There are some people who want to support independent record stores.”

Exclusive arrangements with chains have become more common over the last few years. When Bon Jovi released Bounce in October 2002, Best Buy sold a special disc of acoustic and live versions of the album’s songs for only seven dollars, and an extended version of Rod Stewart’s latest, As Time Goes By…The Great American Songbook Volume II, was offered only at Target. The most controversial exclusive has been the Rolling Stones DVD; Canada’s HMV chain removed all Stones product from its racks in response.

Deals like these have usually included massive advertising campaigns by the store, but Winer says WXRT got no special promotional benefits from Best Buy. “We assumed that we’d have access to some of those end-cap displays and we’d be showcased,” he says. “But those displays are dictated by national people, so a local project like this one couldn’t have access to that kind of real estate in the store.” Sales don’t seem to have suffered–according to Winer, the CD has nearly sold out.

Just Can’t Stop Loving Him

Eight months ago Robbie Fulks finished recording an album of songs by Michael Jackson, a project he hoped would spotlight the pop icon’s skill as a songwriter. “It was a tough sell, but I was finalizing a deal when the charges came up,” Fulks wrote in an e-mail this week. “It seems like the worst possible time for me to invest (and ask others to invest) in a reappraisal of Michael’s music. I still think, of course, that he’s a spectacular and oddly underrated musician….For now, though, I’d call it ‘indefinite hold,’ pending his trial and other future developments.”

It would be a shame if the record never came out. Watching Fulks perform a wrenching live version of “Billie Jean,” I felt aware for the first time of the substance of that strange song. And obviously being a great artist and a loathsome person are hardly mutually exclusive.

In the meantime Fulks is planning a new album of hard country originals, and the tribute to Johnny Paycheck he produced, Touch My Heart, will be released this summer on Sugar Hill Records; Neko Case, Buck Owens, George Jones, Mavis Staples, Jeff Tweedy, and Hank Williams III are among the participants. Fulks and his band play the Double Door on Friday, January 16.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.