I was a slacker twentysomething, I, like many of my slacker
twentysomething kin, worked in a record store. It was a pretty big
record store in the business downtown of Washington DC, part of a chain
that no longer exists and whose name now escapes me. It catered mostly
to the lawyers, admins and paralegals who worked around there, so it
was pretty mainstream, but I still remember the aisle of import records
(mostly British new wave, since it was the mid-80s) that stretched the
length of the store near the stool where I sat watching the door and
answering questions. The entire back wall was 12-inch singles, and
classical had its own room, with excellent acoustics for refined
This all came back to me last week as I toured Wal-Mart's music department, doing research for the book. Wal-Mart accounts for about a fifth of America's music sales (I mistakenly said a quarter in this post), and is by far the nation's largest music retailer. As such, it was an essential field trip, mostly to learn more about the opposite of the Long Tail.
Wal-Mart is the Short Head. And I was soon to discover just how short short really is.
This is probably the right time to confess that until I visited I was probably the only person in the country who had never been to a Wal-Mart. It's not that I'm a snob; I'm just not much of a shopper and when I do the big box thing it's Costco. But some 138m Americans shop at Wal-Mart each week, making it perhaps the single most unifying cultural force in the country. So everyone else has already noticed what I discovered, which is that Wal-Mart is a charmless but impressive demonstration of the power of container ships and monopsony to arbitrage global labor rates. Everything is freakishly, how-do-they-do-that cheap.
But it's a depressing way to buy music. Although the size of the inventory varies from store to store, the average number of titles in each, which was 5,000 last year (there are, as a point of reference, 800,000 CDs available on Amazon), has reportedly fallen since then as shelf space for music has been given over to DVDs. At the store I visited in Oakland, California there were about 4,100 titles, distributed as follows:
- "Rock/Pop/R&B": 1800
- "Latina": 1500
- "Christian/Gospel": 360
- "Country": 225
- "Classical/Easy Listening": 225
There were two main aisles. One was "Rock/Pop/R&B"; the other was "Latina". All other categories were lumped into single racks, such as this one:
That is, by the way, the entire Jazz, Classical, World Music, Easy Listening and New Age section.
Of the estimated 30,000 new albums released each year, Wal-Mart carries just 750, according to David Gottlieb, a former label executive interviewed in this Frontline documentary. Entire categories, from dance to spoken-word, are either missing or buried in Rock/Pop/R&B.
[I should note here that this just applies to the physical stores. Walmart.com actually has what appears to be a pretty good music site, with 80,000 CDs, 500,000 downloadable tracks at a market-leading $0.88 each and the option to create your own mix CDs. Unfortunately it doesn't support Firefox, so I can't tell you much more than that.]
Rolling Stone had a revealing article last year about the power of Wal-Mart in the music industry and the effect on our culture of its small (and shrinking) music shelf space and ban on music with a Parental Warning sticker.
No one in the music business ever expected Wal-Mart to become the most powerful force in record retailing. In the past, the business was shared among smaller local and regional chains such as Musicland, which once had an estimated ten percent of the market. But as Wal-Mart and other national discount operations such as Target and Best Buy have grown -- approximately half of all major-label music is sold through these three -- an estimated 1,200 record stores have closed in the past two years, according to market-research firm Almighty Institute of Music Retail. Last February, Tower Records, with ninety-three stores, declared bankruptcy and is now up for sale; Musicland has already changed owners, with many local outposts shuttered.
Wal-Mart is like no traditional record seller. Unlike a typical Tower store, which stocks 60,000 titles, an average Wal-Mart carries about 5,000 CDs. That leaves little room on the shelf for developing artists or independent labels. There's also scant space for catalog albums, which now represent about forty percent of all sales. At a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Thorton, Colorado, for example, there were no copies of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street or Nirvana's Nevermind.
So there you have it. Scarcity,
bottlenecks, the distortion of distribution and the tyranny of shelf
space all wrapped up in one big store. Ironic that a place that seems
to have so much could in fact have so little in each category. It's the
paradox of plenty: a mile wide and an inch deep may look like
everything at first glance, but in a world that's actually a mile wide
and a mile deep a veneer of variety is not enough.