Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Album of the Year

My album of the year for 2008? Chinese Democracy.

Musically, I give a slight edge to Death Magnetic, Metallica's sprawling return to their epic metal roots. That album is to heavy metal what Coldplay's Viva La Vida is to alterna-pop. Where the latter soothes the savage beast, the other grabs it by the balls and twists until the beast sees red. Then the beast is unleashed. Without a question of doubt, Metallica have reclaimed the metal throne that many thought they'd relinquished over the past decade.

The release of Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, on the other hand, was met by nothing but questions and doubt. The album's "pending" release has been an industry joke since the turn of the millennium. Half the album has been floating around the internet, and many of those songs have already been unveiled live on any number of Axl Rose and band's scattered tours over the past few years. The album's budget has received more press than former guitarist Slash's subsequent releases - with more alleged release dates than KISS has had farewell tours - and Axl Rose has been about as visible in the media as those weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq.

Then it was announced that the album would not only come out Nov. 22, but it would be available exclusively in Best Buy stores, much like the Eagles, Journey and AC/DC released albums exclusively through Wal-Mart. When Metallica debuted with first-week sales in excess of 800,000, and AC/DC followed suit with sales just short of 900,000 (in Wal-Mart alone, no less), the general consensus (myself included) was that GNR would splash somewhere around the gold mark. But they fell very short, with first-week sales less than a third that of their metallic brethren.

In this day-and-age of instant gratification and snap judgements, many were quick to let album sales dictate that the album was a failure. And those figures gave credence to the people who didn't need to listen to the album to argue, "It's not Guns N' Roses without Slash," or "It sounds disjointed, like it was recorded over 15 years. There's no continuity..." But those arguments don't hold water when you give the album a few serious listens. No, Slash is nowhere to be found, but lead guitarists Robin Finck, Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal and Buckethead leave their own signatures. Solos abound, and while they don't always bleed with a blues-rock squeal, the sound is unmistakably Guns N' Roses. Yes, the punk rock audacity of their legendary Appetite for Destruction debut is gone, but it was gone on their two Use Your Illusion releases, so that should come as no surprise. Just as UYI I & II took Guns N' Roses a step beyond their 1987 debut, Chinese Democracy takes yet another step - albeit more than a decade later. Was it worth the wait? Maybe not, but what in life is worth waiting 15 years for? Plain and simple, it's a fantastic record that not only holds up with repeated listens, but gets stronger.

As I said earlier, by musical merits alone, I'd place the album a hair's length behind Metallica's Death Magnetic, but I don't judge an Album of the Year by music alone. Obviously, I also don't judge an album by its sales. No, with Chinese Democracy, I'm hailing an album that not only rose to the occasion musically, but also spoke to the time and era in which it was released.

With a reported budget of more than $15.0 million, there seemed no chance of label Interscope/Geffen recouping their expenses. But they found their bailout in Best Buy, whose guaranteed payout for the exclusive rights to the release was said to be substantial enough to recoup the vast majority, if not all, of the label's investment in the album (it is reported that the retailer purchased a non-returnable 1.3 million copies of the album). With only a fraction of the retail presence of Wal-Mart (less than a fifth, to be exact - according to the company websites, Best Buy have nearly 1,300 stores to Wal-Mart's 7,400), marketing would have to be at a premium to compete with the numbers Metallica and AC/DC reported in first-week sales. And there was no marketing. At all. In fact, the album was all but lost on the shelves in many Best Buys for fans who went looking.

Guns N' Roses apologists blame Interscope, but is it fair to blame the label? Metallica were everywhere in the months preceding the release of Death Magnetic, from radio festivals to magazine covers, and nearly every website in between. Axl Rose was nowhere to be seen. Wal-Mart built a store-within-a-store to promote AC/DC's Black Ice, and Chinese Democracy was lucky to have end-cap space in Best Buy. The argument has been made that Rose has lost credibility in the eyes of many fans, but credibility is nothing more than a marketing guru away. Just ask Britney Spears. Or Tom Cruise. Or Bret Michaels. I'm not saying Axl Rose needed to star in his own "Rock of Love," but a little media presence can go a long way - Axl didn't pick the best time to go back into hiding.

Did Interscope drop the ball by not making the most of their Best Buy deal, or were they never even handed the ball to run with? You can only work with what you're given, and it doesn't seem like they were given anything more than a damn-good album, and little means by which to promote it. Welcome to the music industry in the 21st Century. It's a jungle, baby. It's not enough to have a great album, you need a machine behind that album. And in order for the machine to work, it needs fuel. The dollars and cents of the label's deal with Best Buy represented everything brilliant about the big business side of the music industry. The way that deal was handled, represented everything that's wrong with the industry today.

Bands need to work with their labels, not against them. That didn't happen with Chinese Democracy. But it's not too late. In December, Axl promised that a video for lead single "Better" would arrive soon. We're still waiting. Similarly, a tour is being talked about in Spring. That, too, will do a lot to promote sales. It's no secret that Axl Rose does things differently. And some might argue that is part of his mystique. Couple that mystique with the marketing machine responsible for more record sales than any other major label last year, and there's still a lot of potential for Chinese Democracy to show substantial legs.

Make up for the album's ill-presence at its release with a blockbuster Best Buy promotion to coincide with the tour. How about an in-store or two? It's totally anti-Axl, which is exactly what would make it so brilliant. Grant a few high-profile interviews. Make a few television appearances. Take hold of the opportunities that are made available to only someone of Axl Rose's stature, and watch how fast cynics turn tail and believe in Chinese Democracy. The sales will follow.

Once that happens, Guns N' Roses may have the Album of the Year in 2009, as well.

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Click here for an archived Hollywood Reporter review of Guns N' Roses' 09.23.06 performance at the Hyundai Pavilion in Devore, CA, and here for an archived LiveDaily.com review of their 12.17.06 performance at the Gibson Amphitheater in Universal City, CA.

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