Chinese Democracy: Anatomy of a Stiff

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The long-awaited Chinese Democracy fell far below first-week expectations, despite a major promotional push and an exclusive Best Buy retail arrangement.

In a discussion Tuesday, a Best Buy executive declined to offer sales figures, though industry whisper numbers peg the release at around 250,000.  That falls far short of a smashing first week by AC/DC, a band that shifted 784,000 first-week units through exclusive partner Wal-Mart.

The difference is glaring, and a number of factors played into the delta.  Best Buy positioned sales towers and end caps as promised, though the push was less than over-the-top.  Best Buy is a big, warehouse-style retailer, and this release was easily missed by those skipping towards iPods, printers, laptops, and flat-screen TVs.

Just one picture speaks volumes.  In a snapshot recently shared by Peter Kafka of the Wall Street Journal, a Best Buy stand-alone bin for Chinese Democracy battled for attention against a larger Sopranos display, and both seemed swallowed by the broader avalanche of consumer electronics toys.

But according to one on-the-ground executive, the real story is less about an under-delivering Best Buy, an more about an over-delivering Wal-Mart.  “Wal-Mart went all out to promote Black Ice, it was just impossible to miss,” the executive told Digital Music News.  Instead of just a CD-focused display with good positioning, Wal-Mart created a veritable AC/DC island, complete with related items spanning games and merchandise.

The economic backdrop also played into the picture.  Best Buy is now battling a weaker stream of consumers, thanks to a more selective appetite for higher-priced consumer electronics items.  Just last month, the company issued a stark warning, and spooked investors with reports of a “rapid, seismic” drop in consumer traffic.  Wal-Mart, on the other hand, is benefiting enormously from a cost-cutting consumer.

Outside of the exclusives, an apples-and-oranges comparison problem emerges.  Guns N’ Roses means something very different from AC/DC, though both bands are undeniably huge.  But the hard-riffing and relatively tame off-stage opera of AC/DC seems more accessible, importantly across multiple demographics.  In terms of time and place, Guns N’ Roses is largely a late-80s phenomenon with strong ties to hair metal; AC/DC offers a more timeless, bread-and-butter appeal.

Still, Guns N’ Roses, now effectively Axl Rose, carries a massive fan base and an unmistakable imprint.  And ahead of the album release on November 23rd, promotional outlets were pulsing with energy.  As part of a new, exclusive data partnership with BigChampagne, Digital Music News was able to traverse a number of critical data points related to the Guns N’ Roses release.  BigChampagne aggregates a portfolio of online and offline data sources related to songs, albums, and artists through its BCDash.

That includes terrestrial radio, a critical outlet for a band like GnR.  During the most recent week, title track “Chinese Democracy” placed third across Rock Mainstream stations in the United States, according to Mediabase (397 spins; up from 391 spins during the previous week).  That is solid, though ironically, the track was trumped by AC/DC’s “Rock n Roll Train,” which easily topped the category with nearly 600 plays.

Online, download numbers also appeared solid.  On the iTunes Store, “Chinese Democracy” has been hovering in the top 50, based on an hour-by-hour analysis, after peaking at number 11 on November 12th and 13th.  The track is also top-ranked on Napster.

On MySpace Music, the action remains strong.  The album was blasted on MySpace Music shortly before release, and on-demand streams are now nearing 11.4 million.

But MySpace offered an incredibly heavy push on the album, part of a broader blast for the freshly-launched MySpace Music.  On the totally-pull P2P, the story is quite different.  Currently, “Chinese Democracy” ranks far behind a list of predominantly urban and pop tracks, including those from T.I., Rihanna, Kanye West, and Leona Lewis.  And demand for older tracks, including “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” remains unmistakably strong.