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Image: AC/DC
Joerg Koch  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Guitarist Angus Young and lead vocalist Brian Johnson of the legendary heavy metal rock band AC/DC during a 2003 concert in Munich. The band's latest album, "Black Ice," is only available through Wal-Mart.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/27/2008 9:48:20 AM ET 2008-10-27T13:48:20

The only problem with AC/DC’s “Black Ice” is that it’s a bit of a misnomer. It’s more like “White Heat,” at least in the eyes of a certain big box retailer.

The Australian head-banging rock band is releasing its first compact disc in eight years, and it is doing so through an exclusive agreement with Wal-Mart.

No other chains. No iTunes. No Amazon. Just Wal-Mart.

And no big deal, really, since this new reality of music marketing has been done before. Wal-Mart has released CDs through exclusive agreements from Garth Brooks, the Eagles and Journey.

But while the strategy is sound anyway — Wal-Mart gets plenty of boomer-rocker shoppers through the doors to buy AC/DC music and paraphernalia, while picking up diapers, deodorant and Halloween candy, etc., at the same time, and the band gets a dependable revenue stream in these challenging economic times — the retailer is taking no chances.

The chain is setting up veritable AC/DC playgrounds at its stores, with “Black Ice” as well as the group’s entire music catalog along with apparel and souvenirs. And in Los Angeles and New York City, where Wal-Mart has been big box non grata, the chain is setting up temporary “pop-up stores,” renting retail space to sell AC/DC goods.

Wal-Mart even has an ice cream truck in each city painted black to cruise around the respective towns treating fans to samples of the new album.

“When the band was looking for new ways to distribute their album, this was a great fit,” said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Melissa O’Brien. “We’re doing this a bit differently. It’s not only about the album. We’re setting up a whole AC/DC destination.”

When risk becomes habit
Wal-Mart is also doing a promotion with the “Rock Band 2” video game. In the past, AC/DC has not participated much in video games, lending only one song to “Rock Band” and none to “Guitar Hero.” But in November, Wal-Mart will again team with the band to release “AC/DC Live: Rock Band Track Pack,” an expansion of “Rock Band” that will contain 18 of the group’s songs.

“These past exclusives have been very successful,” Wal-Mart’s O’Brien said. “The Eagles in the first week hit No. 1 and went multi-platinum shortly thereafter. What’s different is the relationship with the ‘Rock Band’ game and MTV, and the band loved that.”

Image: AC/DC record "Black Ice"
PR Newswire
"Black Ice" is the name of AC/DC's new album, which was released exclusively at Wal-Mart stores on Oct. 20.
Russ Crupnick, president of NPD Music, a division of the NPD Group, which does market research, said these types of promotions are both smart and safe.

“The CD business is dropping pretty precipitously,” he said. “When acts can get what they can get from retailers with that level of promotion, like in the case of Wal-Mart, the potential uptake is a whole lot more valuable than any risk. It’s becoming more and more of a habit.

“The other thing it does, it tends to create traffic. That’s what retailers in music are looking for. Traffic level is down. Overall if you put an album out, they’re not going to get on radio. Radio won’t promote them anymore. So they have to look for promotion in a different way.”

The outcome, said Crupnick, is almost always positive. With the right act, even a struggling chain can get — ahem — back in black.

“You have to say these deals have been rousing successes,” he said. “The sales level isn’t like it was 15 or 20 years ago, but nobody’s getting those kinds of numbers. It used to be you could sell five, six, 10 million units, but now the numbers are closer to one or two million.”

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Targeting a specific audience
Such deals are not for everybody. Wal-Mart, for instance, tends to lean toward the mainstream classic rock crowd. “They have to be an established band and brand,” O’Brien said. “Plus social gaming is such a phenomenon now.”

Video: The death of album art Target plans to release a greatest hits album by Christina Aguilera in November. “We look to partner with artists who both best align with our guests’ preferences in music, and who we believe have created a truly outstanding album,” Target spokeswoman Anne Rodgers said.

Said Circuit City spokeswoman Jennifer Sills: “Circuit City has a long history in the music distribution business, and we’ve launched a number of successful exclusive distribution deals, including Mary J. Blige (‘Mary and Friends’ CD/DVD) and most recently Rihanna’s ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’ Live Music DVD. We feel the added promotion around the business helps to build public interest and excitement.”

Every deal is different. Some chains have an exclusive period for the album, or DVD. Some have one for just a single to be used in a promotion.

“It’s a case of fitting the retailer and the program to that act,” Crupnick said. “For instance, a chain like FYI might appeal to a younger customer. Circuit City might appeal to a more urban customer.”

In Wal-Mart’s deal, the only place fans can buy AC/DC’s new CD is at its stores and its Web site (where there is an extensive AC/DC online presence complete with promotional videos). The rest of the band’s catalog is available at other stores, of course, although its music is not available on iTunes.

There may be a fringe effort to do an end run around the Wal-Mart deal. According to a report on the undercover.com.au Web site, some independent chains have indicated they might purchase the CDs from foreign territories and then re-sell them in the United States.

“It’s more of a distraction and an annoyance than a big volume issue,” Crupnick said. “I can’t believe any of the big retailers would partake in behavior like that.”

For now, even in these bleak economic times, “Black Ice” figures to generate heat of the retail variety.

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