Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Can the big box capture the indie record market?

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Richfield based Best Buy says it wants to "bring the local record store feel into the big box." It's trying to make that happen by partnering with an iconic online independent music distributor called CD Baby. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
Big box retailers aren't usually considered champions of independent music. That's because local record shops, where indie music is typically sold, have complained they are run out of business by competition from big box stores. But now Richfield-based Best Buy says it's trying to do its part to support independent music. The big box retailer is partnering with an online indie music distributor called CD Baby.com. CD Baby is widely known in music communities as one of the best distribution options for musicians who can't--or don't want to--get a contract with a major label.

St. Paul, Minn. — In a lot of ways, CD Baby is to musicians what online publishing has been to writers. It allows musicians to get their work distributed nationally at little cost.

That was the allure for Mark Wade. He runs a small local label and handles business for his 17-year-old son, who goes by the name A.D., short for "American Dream." Earlier this year, Wade started selling his son's music online at CD Baby.

"CD Baby was something a lot of musicians had always told me about. The other one was garagebands.com," he says. "I thought CD Baby offered better opportunities and marketing, so I went with them."

Here's how CD Baby works: artists pay a flat fee of $35 to get CD Baby to set up a page for them on the Web site. The artist then sends a few CDs, which CD Baby keeps in a warehouse. When a customer orders a CD from the Web site, CD Baby staff members take care of all the billing and shipping. Artists decide themselves how much to charge per CD, and CD Baby gets $4 from every sale.

Mark Wade says he's only sold a handful of his son's CDs through CD Baby so far. But he believes there's still value in posting on that site. According to CD Baby, the site has 150,000 visitors a day and has sold nearly 2 million CDs.

Kelly Egan of Best Buy is an avid CD Baby customer. He's also one of the people behind the big retailer's new partnership with CD Baby. So far, the partnership, which launched with little fanfare in November, is exclusively online. Best Buy's music page links to CD Baby.com through a small banner on the side of the page offering "Independent Music."

Egan says the idea for the partnership derived from research at stores in Best Buy's chain. He says he often saw Best Buy employees referring customers to local record shops, because the clients were asking for indie music CD's that Best Buy doesn't carry.

"Being a large music retailer, many of those smaller titles we can't get, because of distribution [limits] on the artists' end. So as a result, I observed a demand of our customers wanting to have these smaller artists, more independent artists, and I mean not smaller by their artistic endeavor, but by their audience," he explains.

Egan says it was a no-brainer to turn to CD Baby to get access to those indie titles, because CD Baby's founder, Derek Sivers, is widely regarded as a hero of the indie community.

It might seem odd that such an indie music hero would want to partner with a big box retailer. Sivers says he's aware that some indie music artists might balk of the arrangement, at least initially.

"Best Buy is the bogeyman until all of a sudden they're selling your music and love your music and want to sell it, and then all of a sudden it's like, 'Hey, they're not so bad!'" he says.

Sivers says Best Buy will get a cut of CD Baby's commissions. But that won't change how much musicians receive from a sale. And Sivers insists his first priority is still to provide exposure to lesser-known artists. He says the website won't lose its character just because it's hooked up to a mass merchant.

Jennifer Toomey of the music advocacy organization Future of Music Coalition takes Sivers at his word. She says he's been a trustworthy champion of independent musicians.

"This is someone who has been offered huge amounts of money by big corporations to put advertising into his system, and somebody who could charge artists far more money for what he's giving them, and doesn't," she asserts. "Derek has always done the right thing."

Local music producer Mark Wade doesn't seem wary of CD Baby's new partnership with Best Buy from an artistic point of view. But he doubts it will actually help attract new people to his son's music.

"My understanding is that most people that are into finding independent artists and grassroots type artists, they know about CD Baby, and don't need to go to Best Buy to find it out. And most people that go to Best Buy are looking for the latest artist they're trying to search for. So I don't see it as being a big deal to me," he says.

Best Buy and CD Baby say they're hoping that will change, and that Best Buy customers, hungry for something new, will find it through the CD Baby web link.

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