CHINESE DEMOCRACY: THE SOUND OF EPIC FAIL
We don’t always agree here at the MS Mansion. Despite what Axl said on Wednesday in his editorial, I would like to go on record as saying that Chinese Democracy — at least in the commercial sense — is an epic fail. By now you’ve all seen the numbers; despite a 9-day sales week (including Black Friday), a big promotional push from one of the nation’s top electronics retailers and the hype generated from a 17-year wait, Guns Axl N’ Roses’ long-awaited Chinese Democracy shifted a mere 261,191 units in its first week of release, enough to land the album at #3 on the Soundscan charts. That’s approximately one-third the number of albums sold first week by the other legacy rock/metal acts who released albums this year, AC/DC and Metallica, who both debuted at #1.
So what exactly went wrong?
First thing’s first: I happen to think it’s a really good album, certainly the best of this year’s legacy act rock releases. But I think that everyone — Axl Rose, his managers, his record label, Best Buy, you, me — expected much higher numbers sales-wise from this record. You don’t manufacture 3 million copies of something (half of which are non-refundable) if you only think you’ll sell a quarter of a million of them in the first week. In the modern record industry the first week is always the biggest and most important, and there’s no reason to think this record will be an anomaly. Outside of Kid Rock, I can’t recall a single rock release all year that’s actually increased sales from week to week by any meaningful amount. Barring an unexpected radio smash, this record is dunzo. It’s not completely out of the question for a sudden revival of public interest… It’s just highly, highly unlikely.
Let’s look at the factors that I believe led to the epic fail of Chinese Democracy:
- An exclusive retail deal. Recent success Walmart has had with The Eagles and AC/DC be damned, I’m not convinced that a retail exclusive was the best way for Axl Rose to go. Being out of the market for so long, the GN’R brand needed a push that made it ubiquitous, made it available EVERYWHERE instead of just one chain of stores, no less a chain that isn’t exactly known as much of a music destination. Axl surely got a nice big check from Best Buy for the exclusive… But that check may have cost him dearly in other ways.
- Best Buy fucked it up. The Chinese Democracy kiosks were small and buried deep inside the stores, obfuscated by other high-priority releases (i.e. The Sopranos) and easily missed by those searching for iPods, flatscreen TVs and other electronics. The promotional push paled in comparison to the campaign surrounding AC/DC’s Black Ice waged by Walmart, who created entire in-store AC/DC “islands” and saturated the marketplace with advertisements on every level of life. Best Buy, on the other hand, didn’t even mention the new GN’R release in their free circulars. And not for nothin’, Best Buy is in the financial shitter right now.
- Lack of press. I’ve spoken about this issue in this space before. What the fuck? Not a word out of Axl in months. When you’re trying to generate hype around a record you have to, you know, do press. A publicist can only do so much without personal appearances.
- Geffen fucked it up. They took a completely old-school radio / “big” press hype (Rolling Stone, NY Times, etc) without doing any grassroots marketing. No blogs, no online promotion, no content directly from the band members, nothing. Axl being gone is one thing (see above), but what of the other members? Or did they just think no one cares about the other members? Methinks they thought Best Buy and radio would do all the dirty work and they could just sit back and watch. Either way: epic fail.
- Axl missed the boat. Despite a 17-year wait, the time and climate were just not right for Axl to release this album. Internet buzz and general hype seemed to reach a fever pitch some time around 2006 / early 2007 — this would have been a GREAT time to release the album. The gossip mill was churning with fresh leaked demos, the band was playing live, things were moving… People were excited and talking about Axl Rose. That ship sailed when Axl failed to capitalize on this hype by continuing to waste more time in the studio.
- It isn’t Guns N’ Roses. Most people know that Axl is the only original member in the band. Despite being one of the most distinctive voices in rock behind some of the biggest anthems of a generation, this “Guns N’ Roses” record seems disingenuous to the casual fan who hasn’t been closely following this 17-year drama.
This album release has provided us with lots of drama. But it’s Axl Rose… why wouldn’t there be drama?