Strange Currency: One Staff Writer's Seven Year Journey to Sell the Most Toxic Used CD of All Time
Monster sells for a penny on the Internet and used record stores can't give the album away. But at one moment, it was good enough to gain four million buyers.
In 2002, I did some record store browsing with some fellow copy reporter interns-to-be in Austin. While I was fishing through the 'R's, one girl next to me said "One thing you can count on when you go into a used record store is at least five used copies of R.E.M.'s Monster will be on hand." At that moment, I saw a solid brick of orange CDs, proving her point. Several hours and several beers later, we started wondering why so many people turned on Monster. A few months later, I vowed I would get a record store clerk to buy my copy – a feat that took more than seven years to complete.
Before going into why people have sold the album en masse, it merits looking back to see why so many people picked up the album in the first place. After all, a used CD once had a buyer. Document put R.E.M. in the majors, but was followed by three less rock-oriented albums that made the band superstars nonetheless. Automatic for the People was regarded in many circles as one of, if not the best work from the band. Still, once that album was released, there was a definite rumbling in the band's fanbase for the band to return to the more rock-oriented sound of their earlier albums. Enter Monster.
From the opening roar of "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?", Monster was at first warmly greeted by fans. The album went on to sell more than four million copies in the United States alone. The band embarked on a stadium-sized tour. And the album landed on several magazines' "Best Albums of the Year" list.
But once Monster had a chance to linger in people's CD players, some serious buyer's remorse kicked in. Their follow-up, the insanely underappreciated New Adventures in Hi-Fi, didn't even sell a quarter of what Monster sold. R.E.M.'s smash album was one that fans demanded and eventually rejected, proving that giving fans what they want is sometimes not the best strategy.
After doing a few cleanings and replacing a dusty, cracked jewel case, I was ready to sell my copy. I had two rules: I needed a record store clerk to give me something, ANYTHING for Monster. $2, a penny, five of those useless AOL installation CDs that were on the "free stuff" pile. I also could not tell the record store clerk about my intentions to avoid them taking pity on me.
From 2003 to 2005, I tried slipping the CD in with stuff that clerks would definitely buy (new releases, Pink Floyd or Metallica albums). A clerk would fish through the stuff the store would by and shoot back Monster like it contained a downloadable computer virus. "Nope, too many of those" and "Oh, hell no" were the common responses.
Around 2006, I got desperate enough to consider selling it on the Internet. Another no-go. For at least three years, a used copy of Monster could literally cost you a pretty penny on Amazon. True, most of those albums will cost about $3 for shipping, so you're just as good going down to a local store, buying the album for $3, and getting instant gratification from both not having to wait for the album to arrive and knowing you supported your local record store.
Finally, last year, I was at a used record store and saw a small, torn cardboard box filled with either unmarked promos or huge sellers like Jagged Little Pill and Cracked Rear View. The box was marked "As Is – No Guarantees." After buying a few records, I realized this was possibly the only time I could unload this unwanted CD. I even made a mock pitch: "What if in addition to these used CDs, you also purchase a very good copy of R.E.M.'s blockbuster album Monster, which was selected as one of the best albums of the year from BOTH Spin and Rolling Stone?" I couldn't believe I was stooping so low to give a sales pitch for an album. Fortunately, the easygoing clerk shrugged and said "all right".
Seven years to unload. It's definitely not an album that deserves the near-toxic reception it receives in used record stores. There are far worse albums that deserve that fate. But for whatever reason, one of R.E.M's most successful albums put the band back in the commercial underground.