When REO Speedwagon launched its first studio album in more than a decade, it went the Wal-Mart way: signing a three-week exclusive agreement with the store and doing some in-store promotion.
This is nothing new: Wal-Mart has had plenty of artists play its stores, either inside or in the parking lots, over the years. The retailer is also known to broadcast exclusive concert footage over closed-circuit in-store TV monitors.
What is new is Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target are replacing the brick-and-mortar record stores of yesteryear. And, unlike other artists that have played Wal-Mart, REO isn’t a developing country act.
The question is, despite the unusual juxtaposition of "Wal-Mart" and "concerts," will more artists follow this trend?
REO representatives have stressed that the band did not play full-on concerts. Rather, it was a couple of acoustic tunes by Kevin Cronin and Bruce Hall followed by meet-and-greets at four stores in the Midwest April 3-6.
The in-store appearances came from a concept generated more than two years ago. REO recently released its first studio album in more than a decade – on its own record label, no less – and wanted to market it the old-school way, just like they did when they signed to Epic in the early ’70s.
That included throwing a bunch of CDs into the trunk of a car and visiting radio stations. The idea also included in-store appearances at record stores, especially in the Midwest, where the band has its most-devoted followers. The only difference between the ’70s and now is the band had no record stores to visit.
REO played at a corporate event for Wal-Mart, which led to a discussion with execs, and a three-week exclusive distribution deal was hammered out. Then, Wal-Mart suggested in-store visits. The band came back with one better: a couple of in-store tunes as well.
Wal-Mart jokes are easy and a few people have posted them on Internet bulletin boards ("Roll With The Changes / Rollin’ Back The Prices"), but the band doesn’t see it that way.
REO got to do the old-fashioned promotion it wanted. And hundreds of core fans lined up to see Cronin and Hall, sang along to "It’s Time For Me To Fly" and picked up some merch on the way out. Also, the in-store appearances didn’t hurt with product placement: REO’s album got prominent positioning during the band’s visits.
"I see a direct relationship between REO Speedwagon’s audience and the consumer at Wal-Mart. That’s an easy one," Justice Records founder Randall Jamail told Pollstar. "For any of us in the business, it’s difficult for us to find ways to get our artists exposed, particularly in light of the fact that radio has vice-gripped the distribution lines.
"Significant penetration of commercial radio is expensive. … I don’t know what the financial arrangements were between REO Speedwagon and Wal-Mart, but I can see this is a slam-dunk. As the rock demographic has started to age – the 45- to 60-year-old target age group – Wal-Mart becomes a perfect place for REO. If an indie-rock band did it, it wouldn’t make any sense."
The blogosphere, which tends to go for the easy punchline, was surprisingly fair to REO.
"In far too many small towns, the Wal-Mart is pretty much the only place you can physically buy new music," DailyKos said. "It’s completely normal and great to see in-store performances at Virgin or Amoeba Music or HMV; this is just an extension of that."
If there are any other rock ‘n’ roll artists planning to make appearances at Wal-Mart, nobody’s talking. One of the most intriguing concepts would be Eagles, which, according to Don Henley in a recent interview, has a one-year exclusive agreement with Wal-Mart for its new record (which Pollstar has learned is out in late June).
Maybe the Eagles playing a Wal-Mart parking lot is a stretch, but there’s no sign that live music at Wal-Mart is trending downward, either.