Grociers un­der­cut the mu­sic com­pe­ti­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEWS CDs - Jim Car­roll jim­car­roll@ir­

YOU have to hope that Westlife will be buy­ing all their Christ­mas presents at Tesco. It would be the right thing for the band to do, to thank the su­per­mar­ket chain for all it’s done for them, es­pe­cially in the last cou­ple of weeks.

With­out Tesco and the other su­per­mar­kets who sell mu­sic in the same way as they sell de­ter­gents and stain-re­movers, it’s highly un­likely that Westlife would have sold more CDs in a week than Oa­sis, The Bea­tles and U2.

The su­per­mar­kets will play a key role in the com­ing weeks as the sea­sonal mu­sic wars kick off in earnest at a re­tail out­let near you. Be­tween now and the end of the year, CDs and DVDs will be pur­chased with greater gusto than at any other time. The next four weeks will de­cide many things, from whether your favourite Ir­ish band gets dropped by its ma­jor la­bel to the share-price of the big­gest mu­sic com­pa­nies in the world.

Great­est hits, big sell­ers from ear­lier in the year and ever­green com­pi­la­tions will be stacked high in shop aisles and on walls as ev­ery la­bel bat­tles for a share of the Christ­mas pie. It will have a knock-on ef­fect on me­dia sec­tors as well, as ev­ery record la­bel and re­tail out­let tries to buy the space and air­time to flog its wares. Ra­dio sta­tions sim­ply don’t have enough slots in the day to cope with the amount of ad­ver­tis­ing com­ing their way.

At this time of the year, it does seem as if ev­ery­one in the mu­sic game is a win­ner. But when Jan­uary comes and the busi­ness of sell­ing and brand­ing to­mor­row’s U2s and Westlifes be­gins all over again, it’s a dif­fer­ent story, es­pe­cially in the su­per­mar­kets. Chances are your lo­cal Tesco, the one where you’ll find CDs cheaper than at any other store in the neigh­bour­hood, will have lit­tle in­ter­est in or en­thu­si­asm for stock­ing the Cold War Kids or Bonde Do Role or any of the other mil­lions of next big things warm­ing up on the side­lines for 2007.

Once those bands make a break­through else­where and once ev­ery­one else has made an in­vest­ment and leap of faith, the su­per­mar­kets will jump on­board – pro­vided, of course, the dealer price and sales terms are right.

Hav­ing re­ally only be­gan to sell mu­sic from about 2000 on, the su­per­mar­ket sec­tor now ac­counts for one in four of all CD sales. It’s a sign of the times, as pun­ters aban­don tra­di­tional mu­sic re­tail­ers in favour of pick­ing up a CD along with their corn­flakes and frozen piz­zas.

Of course, it’s easy to see why so many in the mu­sic in­dus­try wel­comed the ar­rival of the su­per­mar­kets on the scene. This is the same in­dus­try, af­ter all, which fa­cil­i­tated giv­ing away free CDs with news­pa­pers in re­turn for a few quid for the bot­tom line. Most of the la­bels and dis­trib­u­tors were not go­ing to turn away some­one who wanted to sell CDs. This wasn’t like MyS­pace or YouTube, but some­thing even the chair­man could un­der­stand.

For the su­per­mar­kets, record com­pa­nies are up there with whole­salers and ware­house­men as just an­other sup­plier to be dealt with in the swiftest and most prof­itable man­ner pos­si­ble. Un­like tra­di­tional mu­sic re­tail­ers, su­per­mar­kets have no in­ter­est in break­ing and sup­port­ing new bands, but the mu­sic in­dus­try never thought this was a prob­lem.

Be­cause ram­pant short­ter­mism is now the way of the walk in the cor­ri­dors of record com­pa­nies, no one thinks about the long-term im­pli­ca­tions any more. All the cat­a­logue pimps want is cash and they want it now. The fore­sight to re­alise why mu­sic is in such de­mand from telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies (and how this can be ex­ploited) is just not there any more.

It’s prob­a­bly too late now. Shop­pers have be­come ac­cus­tomed to buy­ing their CDs at knock­down prices when they go to Tesco. If the lo­cal la­bels pull the dis­tri­bu­tion plug, the su­per­mar­kets will ship in the CDs from an­other ter­ri­tory.

Westlife may have won this week’s su­per­mar­ket sweep, but it’s the record la­bels who are the real loss-lead­ers in this cam­paign.

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