What Axl Could Learn From Angus
So the numbers are in, and "Chinese Democracy" is officially a commercial disappointment in addition to being a mild artistic disappointment. (OK, TWP's review was fairly positive, and the album is sitting at 67 points on Metacritic. But David Cook got 67 points, too! And let's face it: Come March, who's breaking out "Chinese Democracy"?)
The long-delayed -- can't really say it was long-awaited, can we? -- album only sold about 260,000 copies in its first week. Of course, 99.9 percent of bands would be thrilled to sell that many albums. But for a decade-and-a-half-in-the-making white whale of an album from the formerly biggest band in the world to get outsold by 69,000 in its first week by Nickelback? To get outsold by Cook?
This is a recording that famously cost millions of dollars (three years ago, The New York Times called it "the most expensive album never made"). At various times, it was seen as a last great hope to save a sinking industry. That makes the first week number an outright failure.
Here's the storyline that Axl -- and the people who signed all of Axl's checks -- were hoping would play out: A pantheon-level rock band returns from a long recording layoff to top the charts, selling more albums than even the most optimistic folk could have anticipated, helped out by a clever distribution campaign that saw the album made available only at a top retail store. The band then embarks on a sold-out nationwide tour that is well-received by fans and critics alike, launching the group into another extended period of success.
The thing is, that storyline already played out this year. Except it wasn't Guns 'N Roses. It was AC/DC.
AC/DC's "Black Ice" sold a whopping 784,000 copies in its first week of release and continues to post big numbers as a Wal-Mart exclusive. The band's tour is a hit. Lots of shows sell out, but few are actually tough tickets. Craigslist usually serves as a decent gauge for what's a hot ticket, and for AC/DC's Verizon Center show last month, there were more people looking for tickets than looking to unload them.
So how did AC/DC succeed where Axl failed?
The biggest problem with "Chinese Democracy" is that all the years of delays turned Guns 'N Roses into a nostalgia act. They lost an entire generation of would-be fans due to Axl's insanity. And the thing with nostalgia acts is that people don't want anything too different. People wanted badass "Appetite for Destruction" rock-and-roll, not the over-processed studio manipulations of "Chinese Democracy."
Plus, the circus around the album turned it into a curiosity more than an artistic statement. People were able to get their fix of GNR without actually paying for the music. It's sort of the same reason why Lindsay Lohan is supposedly very famous and in tabloids all the time, but nobody would actually pay to see her in a movie. (Well, that and she's in terrible movies.)
AC/DC, on the other hand, did things the AC/DC way. There was no new album for eight years because, well ... what's the rush? The band took eight years off, but there wasn't any high drama involved. They had been a functional band long enough to earn the long break.
When "Black Ice" came out and -- surprise -- it sounded a whole lot like "Stiff Upper Lip" and the dozen or so albums that came before it... well, so what? It was AC/DC doing what it did best, and what it still did better than all of its imitators. "Black Ice" contains zero surprises. It's exactly what people wanted. You can't really blame the band for not pushing the artistic envelope, because AC/DC perfected riffy hard rock and has been the best in the world at playing it for 30-some years. Ain't broke, don't fix, etc.
The other place where AC/DC (well, the band's management) had the right idea was in going with Wal-Mart as its exclusive retailer. Bob Lefsetz covered this yesterday. But really, it doesn't take a retail genius to know that Wal-Mart is where you want to be. Unless, maybe, you're a KCRW or Pitchfork-plus-Fader fave. Best Buy? Bzzzt.
But it mostly comes down to having a proper grasp on what your band is all about. It should come as no surprise that Axl fails when it comes to "having a proper grasp." He mistakenly believed that people wanted Axl Rose, when they really wanted Guns 'N Roses. (Sort of like the hecklers at this show.) Angus Young has never used AC/DC has a tool to promote himself, just as a vehicle to deliver the same old chords he's been playing for 35 years.
It's the riffs, stupid.
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