Garth Brooks, one of the most successful recording artists of all time, won't be selling his CDs just anywhere any longer. If you want a Brooks album, you'll soon have to go through Wal-Mart.
In an arrangement that advances a recording-industry trend, Brooks has agreed to sell his work exclusively through Wal-Mart, its Web site and Sam's Clubs, the Wal-Mart-owned chain of warehouse stores. The country crooner isn't making new music -- he retired from recording in 2001 and has vowed not to tour or record until his youngest daughter graduates from high school in 2015 -- but he still sells about 300,000 copies a year of his multi-platinum albums.
While several artists have given exclusive sales "windows" for new CDs and DVDs to certain retailers for a limited period of time, the Brooks-Wal-Mart deal goes much further. It is apparently the first in which all of a superstar's music will be available only through one seller, after all copies now available on the retail market are sold.
It's not clear how long Brooks's deal with Wal-Mart will last, or how much money is involved. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, yesterday announced a "multi-year agreement" with Brooks, 43, but didn't spell out details. A company spokesman said the company would release more information in coming weeks. However, Billboard magazine reported yesterday that Wal-Mart, starting in late fall, will carry 15 albums Brooks has released under the Capitol Nashville label since 1989, plus a $25 multidisc box set containing previously unreleased material.
Exclusive partnerships between big-box retailers and musicians have been growing in the past few years. The trend may have started in 2003 when the Rolling Stones gave consumer electronics retailer Best Buy a six-month exclusive on its "Four Flicks" DVD set. Since then, artists such as Elton John (Best Buy), Rob Thomas (Target) and Alanis Morissette (Starbucks) have released work through exclusive retail deals. Beginning Aug. 30, Bob Dylan's album "Live at the Gaslight 1962" will be on sale only at Starbucks's 4,000-plus outlets for 18 months.
In addition, musicians such as Staind, Coldplay and Sheryl Crow, among others, have made songs exclusively available for purchase and downloading via such online sites as iTunes Music Store and Napster.
Consumer advocates and record buyers have expressed concerns about such exclusive deals, saying they stifle competition and enable retailers to keep prices for popular CDs high.
The deals reflect -- and indeed may have been a cause of -- the changing nature of music retailing. Specialty record stores, such as Tower Records and Sam Goody, have been shrinking for years, with much of the bricks-and-mortar record business shifting to huge retailers like Wal-Mart and Target.
Musicians like the partnerships with big retailers because they get extra promotional support from their exclusive partners. Distribution through department stores also helps expand an album's potential sales because such stores cater to people who don't shop in traditional record stores. The deals also offer a kind of market segmentation, enabling artists to target likely fans in a simpatico setting. For example, the restaurant chain Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores recently marketed a disc from bluegrass musicians Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart is already one of the nation's largest music retailers, and the largest seller of country albums -- a fact surely not lost on Brooks. What's more, Wal-Mart is primarily a domestic chain, which fits with Brooks's primarily American fan base.
But the move to big-box retail distribution hasn't stopped a long slide in music sales. Album sales were down 7.6 percent in the first six months of this year compared with the same period in 2004, according to Nielsen Soundscan, the industry tracker. And with one exception, sales have fallen in every six-month period since 2000.
Brooks parted ways with his recording label of 16 years, EMI-owned Capitol Nashville, in early June. At the time, the label said "no compensation was requested by Mr. Brooks or paid by EMI for the license termination." But Brooks retained ownership of his master recordings, which permits him to distribute his work through Wal-Mart without EMI's permission.
Brooks hinted at the impending deal when he was invited to sing at Wal-Mart's shareholder meeting in June. Reporters covering the meeting were surprised and mystified when the singer told the audience at one point that "it's great to work for Wal-Mart."
He apparently didn't mean stocking the shelves or working the register.