Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Wal-Mart rocks

I’ve been a music geek/freak/dork for about 25 years, dating to early 80s new wave (Depeche Mode and The B52s), punk (Sex Pistols and The Clash), ska (English Beat and The Specials), and rock (REM and U2) and maturing to a blend of several dozen genres. Listening to music is a daily, if not hourly, ante to my awake existence; I can’t imagine going for a run sans iPod. And, my affinity for music rivals my distaste for shopping at a big-box retailer.

Guess who’s the nation’s largest music retailer? You could have stumped me, and I was stunned by the answer: Wal-Mart. Yes, the king of retail accounts for about one-fifth of all music sales in America. Say it ain’t so!

But it is. And, get this: Some 138 million Americans shop at Wal-Mart each week. Yes, each week! As Chris Anderson suggests in The Long Tail, Wal-Mart is perhaps the single most unifying cultural force in the country.

If you unify culture – sounds like a super power! – what are the ramifications? You can control what people consume and what they’re exposed to. You can dictate what is sold and what isn’t. And, you can neuter choice through simplified selection. Chris Anderson turns the clock back to the 19th century:

Before the Industrial Revolution, most culture was local. The economy was agrarian, which distributed populations as broadly as the land, and distance divided people. Culture was fragmented, creating everything from regional accents to folk music. The lack of rapid transportation and communications limited cultural mixing and the propagation of new ideas and trends.
If culture in the 1800s was fragmented and local, did a “unifying force” exist? Anderson continues:
Influences varied from town to town because the vehicles for carrying common culture were so limited. Aside from traveling theatrical acts and a small number of books available to the literate, most culture spread no faster than people themselves. There was a reason the Church was the main mass cultural unifier in Western Europe; it had the best distribution infrastructure and, thanks to Gutenberg’s press, the most mass-produced media (the Bible).
Rewind to Wal-Mart and the music industry. One-hundred thirty-eight million Americans can choose from 4,500 unique CD titles. As a point of comparison, Amazon lists about 800,000. And, of the 30,000 of so new albums released each year, Wal-Mart carries just 750. Quick math: One-third of the population purchases 20% of all CDs from a retailer that offers around 2.5% of available music. Welcome to the Short Head.

Anderson encapsulates Wal-Mart and the retailer’s money-making disconnect:
Scarcity, bottlenecks, the distortion of distribution, and the tyranny of shelf space all wrapped up in one big store. Again, it’s ironic, this paradox of plenty: Walk into a Wal-Mart and you’re overwhelmed by the abundance and choice. Yet look closer and the utter thinness of this cornucopia is revealed. Wal-Mart’s shelves are a display case a mile wide and twenty-four inches deep. At first glance, that may look like everything, but in a world that’s actually a mile wide and a mile deep, a veneer of variety just isn’t enough.
And, I’d wager my three iPods and iTunes library that nary an English Beat CD can be found.

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