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Best Buy delighted with Guns N' Roses exclusivity

Chris Riemenschneider
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Among all the rock fans ruminating about the 14-year wait for the new Guns N' Roses album, you won't catch the bosses at Best Buy complaining.

"Right now, in this economy, it's a great time to have music fans so excited about a single album," said Gary Arnold, Best Buy's senior entertainment officer.

It's certainly great for the Richfield, Minn.-based retail chain: It won the exclusive right to sell "Chinese Democracy," rock's most talked-about record of the past decade, which finally goes on sale Sunday.

For real.

"It'll be there for sure," Arnold promised GNR fans frustrated by the many delays.

With the 2008 holiday shopping season threatening to be as bleak as a Metallica record, Best Buy hopes people will rush in Sunday morning to buy "Chinese Democracy" and maybe pick up something pricier as well, like a new flat-screen TV or digital camera.

It's a ploy increasingly used by big-box retailers. Minneapolis-based Target is the exclusive seller of Christina Aguilera's first greatest-hits CD, which hit the Top 10 last week. Wal-Mart enjoyed even hotter sales of AC/DC's new "Black Ice" album, which has sold 1.5 million copies via its stores and Web site only.

"It's a brilliant marketing coup on Best Buy's part," said former Rolling Stone music editor Stephen Davis. "But I'm sure it's costing Best Buy, too."

To get an exclusive deal with the Eagles last year, Wal-Mart reportedly paid the band $30 million upfront - nonrefundable - for 3 million copies of its comeback CD "Long Road Out of Eden."

Arnold would not disclose terms of the GNR deal, which does not include digital downloads (available only via iTunes), but said: "It's one of the biggest (ever) - probably the biggest one we've done."

A new book by Davis, "Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N' Roses," chronicles the long, stormy and just plain bizarre gestation of "Chinese Democracy." After singer Axl Rose parted ways with the other members of GNR, he reportedly spent several million dollars on recording. He also overhauled the band's lineup several times. (Bassist Tommy Stinson, formerly of the Replacements, is one of the few mainstays who can be heard all over the CD.)

"Axl was the greatest rock star of the late '80s and early '90s, and he possibly wasted that away in the making of this record," said Davis. "When you listen to the album, it seems to be all about Axl trying to justify his megalomania."

Best Buy knew all about that saga when GNR management made its pitch two years ago.

"The phone rang and it was Axl's manager, who said, 'I think the record is done, and we want to launch it in a really big way,'" Arnold recounted. "I said we would of course be interested in selling it, and my first question was, 'Can I hear the music?'"

Months passed before Arnold's crew heard any songs. Another year-plus went by as Rose continued to tweak the album and hired new managers - including music heavyweight Irving Azoff, who helped the Eagles land their Wal-Mart deal.

By the summer of '08, Arnold said, "there was a group of people around (Rose) who - after he believed it was ready to come out - jumped into action. The ball started rolling fast, and there was no stopping it.

"I can't wait for everyone to hear it. Speaking as a music fan, I think it lives up to everything that's been said about it."

A couple hundred Twin Cities fans Tuesday were among the first in the world to hear the record in its entirety. Best Buy hosted one of nine listening parties around the country at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, where party favors included fortune cookies and finger-cuffs (in keeping with the "Chinese" title).

"I can't believe I'm finally going to hear it. I'm ecstatic," said one partygoer, Eric Laine, 26, of Roseville, Minn.

He was there with his new wife, Jenna - whom he met at a concert by the GNR spinoff band Velvet Revolver - and his older brother, Peter, who was more skeptical: "To me, it's a lie he's using the Guns N' Roses name without the other original guys, but I'm anxious it's finally coming out."

Fans sat and listened intently as the 14-song album blared from the club's speakers for about an hour. They applauded after many songs and discussed the omnipresent me-against-the-world lyrics. Afterward, reaction seemed universally favorable but rarely fawning.

"I was very skeptical, but I do think he pulled it off," said Joe Osburn, 27, of Minneapolis.

Lou Baker, 28, of St. Louis Park, Minn., said he already had been impressed by nine songs that leaked on the Internet, but "the ones I hadn't heard were some of the best." As for the Laine brothers, they gave it a mixed reaction but agreed "it should still be a big hit."

Scott Farrell, head buyer at Down in the Valley record store in Golden Valley, Minn., doesn't think the record is a sure thing. "It's not the real Guns N' Roses," he said. As an independent retailer, he has reason to be skeptical. Exclusive deals "hurt record stores like ours that have supported these bands from the beginning," he said.

"We've had a lot of people come in for the AC/DC record or any of these (exclusive) records, and they don't know anything about where they're available. It inconveniences them and can create a backlash" against bands.

Some indie stores stock these albums by buying them from the big retailer and reselling them at a slight markup.

It doesn't look like the GNR deal has backfired with those fans who've heard the album.

"I'll definitely go get it right away," said Baker.

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