Sir Lucious, which dropped July 6 and is still not in my possession.
The elusive Sir Lucious, which dropped July 6 and is still not in my possession.
Today marks two weeks since Big Boi dropped Sir Lucious Leftfoot, Son of Chico Dusty, and I still don't own it, even though I really, really want to. And I'm not the only one.
Rhome Anderson, who writes about music for the Washington Post, has been trying to buy it too. He wants it so bad he's been refusing to listen to the leaks for months. He went to four stores in Washington, D.C., the week the album was released — Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Borders and Melody Records — and got nothing.
Pissed, I went to Crooked Beat, an independent record store in D.C. They didn't have it either, and I asked the owner, Bill Daly, why not. Why couldn't we find a major label release from a musician with an enormously successful history anywhere?
Daly invited me behind the counter of his store down a few steps on 18th Street to look at EDGE Entertainment Distribution's site, one place he checks prices and buys CDs wholesale. Crooked Beat used to carry mainly CDs — five or six thousand along the entire left wall of the store. Now Daly stocks maybe 300. Internet retailers offer better deals for consumers, and almost all the labels, Daly says — independent and major alike — refuse to accept returns on stock that doesn't sell. In places like Crooked Beat, the CD-selling business just isn't sustainable.
Take Big Boi as an example. On EDGE's site the basic version of the album — both clean and explicit — costs Daly $10.67. On EDGE the suggested retail price is $13.95. To stay in business, Daly has to mark each CD up $3 or $4 over the wholesale cost. But he'd really prefer to sell for $2 under suggested retail. "Look at that markup for an independent record store," he says. "It's not going to work." Why? Because Amazon is selling the CD for $10.99. The mp3 version costs even less, just $7.99.
Sure, Rhome and I are crazy fans, and we still want the physical CD. I can understand why Daly can't afford to stock the album I want, why he overhears customers in his store all the time saying, "Don't buy that here, it's like 10 bucks on iTunes."
Sometimes the disparity is so ridiculous, and he knows his customers will be looking for a particular album, that he'll engage in what he calls "guerrilla tactics for independent stores."
"I can go buy 'em from Amazon cheaper than I can direct from the label," Daly says. "That's crazy."
That's what he did with Neko Case's last solo album on Anti, Middle Cyclone, which would have cost him $12.85 wholesale. "There's nothing else I could do," he says. "Customers wanted them." So he bought about 20 copies at Amazon (with free shipping after $25) and sold them with his usual markup.
Daly says the distributor knew what he was up to and wasn't surprised.
He says the guys in the trenches (the sales reps) know the situation is absurd — it's the guys way up high who never interact with store owners, stockers or customers that think they're still getting away with rocking an $18.98 business model, even for product that's already sold millions of copies (we're looking at you, Exile on Main Street reissue: $22 wholesale for the double CD, suggested retail $29.98 and $8.79 wholesale for the regular CD, retail $13.95).
After Daly bought the Neko Case album on Amazon, he sold it to his customers for $11. That's what they'll pay, he says. At Crooked Beat, Daly says, most CDs priced above $11.99 really don't sell anymore. CD sales account for only 1% of the store's total sales. "I really do believe," he says, "that if the labels had lowered the prices of CDs five or six years ago to $11.98 or lower, then downloading would never even be a factor today. People would be inclined to go buy the real physical product."
Daly stays in business by stocking vinyl. We looked up the price on the Big Boi album on wax, and and he said it's actually decent. He plans to stock it. Even though vinyl markup is still a joke and the no returns policy a real problem. But that's another post for another day.