What the hell's going on in the music biz?

Kids say: Limp Bizkit rock! Wallflowers suck! And why is Best Buy selling CDs $2 below cost?

By Eric Boehlert

Published October 26, 2000 6:24PM (EDT)

Welcome Limp Bizkit to this year's million-selling club. According to SoundScan, the band, which nearly incited a riot at Woodstock '99 with a pissed-off performance of its signature song "Break Stuff," sold 1.05 million copies of its new CD, "Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water."

Earlier this year 'N Sync (2.4 million), Eminem (1.7 million) and Britney Spears (1.3 million) all broke that magical one-week sales mark -- the most acts ever to do so in a calendar year.

Leaders of the burgeoning rap/metal rock hybrid, which marries the bravado of the streets with the boredom of the burbs, Limp Bizkit, with their brash, juvenile style, represent the clearest snapshot of where rock in America stands today.

The bestselling albums of late have been pop ('N Sync, Spears, Christina Aguilera) and rap (Eminem, Dr. Dre, Nelly, DMX). Radiohead, a more classically styled art-rock outfit, had a surprisingly strong opening week (for a critics' darling band, that is), moving 200,000 copies of "Kid A" two weeks back; and big releases from U2 and others are still in the pipeline. Does that mean that Limp Bizkit's big payday marks a comeback for guitar solos?

Um, no.

The fact is, rock sales have remained weak this fall. Just look at recent efforts by multiplatinum acts such as the Wallflowers, Green Day, Barenaked Ladies, Collective Soul and, yes, Radiohead.

Several weeks after their release, all of those CDs are posting decent numbers, selling roughly 50,000 copies a week. But in the age of the diamond (i.e., 10 million-selling) album, they're not the modest type of fourth-quarter tallies that major labels build annual projections around.

Take, for example, "Breach," the egg laid by the Wallflowers, an album anticipated by many in the business to be one of the year's biggest sellers. Coming off the 6 million-selling "Bringing Down the Horse," the band in two weeks has sold just a fraction of what Limp Bizkit did in seven days: 130,000 copies.

Despite the fact that frontman Jakob Dylan finally opened up about his dad (i.e., Bob), which garnered him lots of pre-release press and won him the cover of Rolling Stone, the album has already dropped to No. 19 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart. (Although generally well received by critics, the more you listen to "Breach," the more it morphs into a Matchbox 20 release: bland and forgettable weekend bar rock.)

And the warning signs do not look good for a recovery. The band's single, "Sleepwalker," is virtually AWOL on mainstream and modern-rock radio, as well as on MTV. VH1, though, is plugging the band hard, which begins to explains the Wallflowers' dilemma; in the four-plus years since blockbuster "Bringing Down the Horse" was released, the rock landscape has changed dramatically.

In other words, it's now dominated by brash boys like Limp Bizkit.

While Jakob croons semideep thoughts over the meticulous guitar-drum-bass production on "Breach," Bizkit's frontman and self-described redneck, Fred Durst, is spitting out "fuck" 46 times in just one hard-as-nails song from his new No. 1 album.

Last week, Durst opened the band's national arena tour with Eminem with this tirade: "Christina Aguilera is a fucking bitch! I did her a fucking favor and she turned around and started talkin' shit. She's a fuckin' whore." (For those who missed lunch recess, the favor Durst was referring to was a cameo appearance he made during Aguilera's performance at the recent MTV Music Video Awards show; Durst, Aguilera, Spears and Eminem have an amusing, headline-grabbing range war going on.)

By contrast, MTV hosted a Wallflowers listening party recently, inviting teens to a studio to hear cuts of the Wallflowers' record on the eve of its release. While Jakob and the boys discussed the tracks in person, you could almost see through the polite smiles on the faces of MTV's assembled faithful who were cursing their bad luck, wishing they'd been picked for a 98 Degree or Mystikal unveiling.

Meanwhile, U2's camp may be watching the Wallflowers' stumble with nervous stomachs. The band's new record, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" -- dubbed a return to its straight-ahead rock roots after a flirtation with electronic sounds -- arrives in stores next week. U2's sweet, catchy single, "Beautiful Day," has been out for weeks, but again, modern-rock radio, which caters to a younger and more active CD-buying crowd, has stayed away in droves, while MTV is taking a tentative wait-and-see approach.

In other words, sure things have become a rock 'n' roll rarity.

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Even in these shock-rock days, the rebellious boys in Limp Bizkit stand out with their over-the-top testosterone. So it's ironic that they have the family-friendly, mass-merchant chain Best Buy to thank for hitting their million-selling mark. That's because the chain decided to sell "Chocolate Starfish," which has an official list price of $18.99, as a loss leader for just $9.99.

Emphasis on loss.

You do the math: The chain paid roughly $11.99 to buy each CD from Limp Bizkit's label, Interscope, and sold close to 500,000 copies. That means Best Buy lost nearly $1 million selling Limp Bizkit CDs last week as it ushered the band into the No. 1 spot. With friends like that ...

Of course Best Buy had its reasons. In the midst of an aggressive expansion, particularly in the New York metropolitan area, the chain used Limp Bizkit's CD to try to solidify its spot in the marketplace as the place for new CDs at cheap prices. Plus, loss leaders are a key way to build foot traffic on the eve of the crucial holiday shopping season.

Best Buy's bold pricing move was the first since the major labels, at the pestering of the Federal Trade Commission, agreed to do away with what in effect was a de facto ban on stores selling records below cost. This was the "minimum advertised price" policy, known as MAP; the labels withheld crucial ad dollars from stores that didn't toe the line on prices.

MAP was originally put into effect to stop precisely what Best Buy is doing. Will Best Buy's move provoke an across-the-board price war? Consumers hope so. Mom and pop retailers, which can't compete at those prices, hope not. If stores like Best Buy and the Good Guys start low-balling prices again, it could finish off an independent record-retail industry that already took a mighty hit in the pre-MAP years.

The picture will be clearer when the Backstreet Boys' soon-to-be-blockbuster "Black and Blue" is shipped Nov. 21. It's the highest-profile release of the year, and may turn out to be too tempting for mass-merchant retailers like Best Buy and Target, nervous about the competition, not to give away.

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As if all that weren't enough, the jury's still not out on Napster. There's still lots of industry chatter about how Napster is affecting record sales. Advocates point out that when acts post larger-than-expected sales numbers (the way Radiohead did its first week out and Eminem did months back), there's evidence that Napster helped spread the word about the new music. Yet the Wallflowers' "Breach" was available on Napster weeks before its release; so why did so few shoppers show up in stores?

The song-swapping service's partisans point to strong music sales in 2000, arguing that Napster's free access to music does not cannibalize CD sales. But year-to-date CD business, which had been robust through most of the year -- often running up 8 percent over '99's sales -- has slipped in recent weeks, quietly dropping below 5 percent.

So unless this fourth quarter turns out to be a runaway blockbuster, with all genres posting strong sales, come Dec. 31 the music industry could suddenly be facing an essentially flat year.

Who's going to take the heat for that?

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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