November 29-December 5, 2006

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Life in the Checkout Lane

In aligning with Wal-Mart, the Eagles truly lose their minds

By Gabe Meline

Once upon a time in the early 1970s, hundreds of independent record stores around America stocked albums by a country-rock band from Los Angeles. A series of hits, sold hand over fist through the recommendation of the retail owners and employees who were confident in the band's greatness, gave birth to an AM-radio legend. That legend, of course, is the Eagles, who not only have the independent retail store to thank for their widespread success, but who also last month signed a far-reaching exclusive deal with the least indie of them all, Wal-Mart.

The dollar amount is undisclosed; the enthusiasm is not. Declaring itself "America's biggest supporter of the music business," Wal-Mart's deal provides sponsorship, preferred placement in its stores and exclusive audio and video releases. This has already taken form in time for the holiday season, and is expected to include the distribution of an album the band are currently recording, their first new studio album in over 25 years.

Comments from Wal-Mart about the deal have the strange ring of absolute naiveté, like a child convinced of its own fantasies: "Our partnership with the Eagles demonstrates how serious we are about giving our customers a choice of new, unique, world-class entertainment products!" says David Porter, Wal-Mart's vice president of home entertainment. "We are very pleased to be able to bring our customers an alliance with America's greatest rock icons."

OK. First, let's look at the Eagles. The Eagles are neither new nor especially unique, and, for crying out loud, they can hardly be taken seriously as America's greatest rock icons. This pales in absurdity, of course, next to Wal-Mart's claim as America's biggest supporter of the music business, which is like Robert E. Lee claiming to be the country's biggest supporter of African Americans since, you know, he housed and fed so many on his plantation.

And, what the hell, let's throw out the obvious accusations. Let's throw out Wal-Mart's policy of censorship, which forces every artist from Slayer to Willie Nelson to alter cover art and edit album content before the megastore will stock their albums on its megashelves. And we can even ignore Wal-Mart's 88-cent undercut on digital downloads, forcing artists to accept fewer royalties than under every other download service.

No, let's just ask one basic question: Why in the world would the Eagles need to ink a deal with the lamest, most uncool conglomerate on the planet when their pockets are already billowing over with middle-American money?

A case could be made among certain circles that because the Eagles' music is already well-known as the spawn of Satan, the two corporations make harmonious bedfellows. But since defining the multibillion dollar reunion tour in the 1990s, to defining the never-ending "Farewell Tour" payday of today, to signing a temporary exclusive deal with Best Buy in 2003, it has been apparent that the Eagles have one very obvious priority on their minds.

Why this necessitates alignment with the Worst Store Ever (and, by association, with Garth Brooks, whose entire recorded output is only available at Wal-Mart through a similar deal signed in 2005) is an indicator of why rich people stay rich: they keep making sleazier and sleazier business decisions to ensure that the numbers at the bottom of the paper keep growing.

Naturally, there is little expectation that a new album by the Eagles would sell exceptionally well in independent stores; indie outlets are bastions of flippancy toward soft-rock dinosaur acts, and in all probability the new album could prove to be a commercial flop. But after helping the Eagles achieve the record for the bestselling U.S. release of all-time (Their Greatest Hits 1971-1974), what are mom 'n' pop stores supposed to tell a customer who comes in asking for a new Eagles album? "Sorry, but Don Henley now only allows his music to be sold by evil forces hell-bent on destroying America"?

By locking out the stores that helped propel them on the way up, the Eagles are inadvertently ensuring that everyone knows how desperate they are to maintain visibility.

This might not be working out as well as the Eagles had hoped. Last week, as an experiment, I walked into a Wal-Mart and asked the clerk in the music department if the store had anything by the band. Um, the Eagles? She had no idea what I was talking about.

Now there's an alliance with America's rock icons.

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