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Garth Brooks a Wal-Mart Exclusive

Times Staff Writer

Country music superstar Garth Brooks is hanging his Stetson at Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Two months after ending his 16-year relationship with Capitol Records, Brooks has used his newfound freedom to cut a deal to sell his music exclusively through the world’s largest retailer, the company announced Friday.

Capitol parent EMI is free to sell its remaining inventory of Brooks’ albums but is prohibited from making new CDs because he owns his master recordings.

Brooks’ arrangement is the first time an artist has made an entire catalog available only through one outlet. Exclusive albums as special one-time promotions are becoming increasingly common, such as when Alanis Morissette and Bob Dylan limited sales to Starbucks Corp.

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Music retailers complain, however, that such deals are bad for the industry. Some pulled Morissette’s albums from their shelves after she cut her Starbucks deal.

“Exclusives are always a bad idea,” said Joe Nardone, owner of Gallery of Sound, an 11-store chain in Pennsylvania. “Music sales are declining every year. No one should be making it harder for customers to find the CDs they want to buy.”

Brooks’ deal comes at a time when he has effectively put his recording and performing career on hold to spend time with his family. But Brooks sang at Wal-Mart’s annual shareholders meeting in June, wearing a blue smock like the ones worn by store employees.

Brooks was one of the top recording stars of the 1990s, with 25 No. 1 singles on the country charts. He has sold 105 million albums in the U.S. and has outsold all other artists except the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Led Zeppelin, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America. His hits include “Friends in Low Places,” “The Dance” and “The Thunder Rolls.”

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During the peak of his career, Brooks enjoyed close ties to Wal-Mart, which aggressively promoted and sold his albums. In 1998, he launched “Garth Brooks Double Live” with a live concert broadcast exclusively into Wal-Mart stores.

But Brooks’ last album, 2001’s “Scarecrow,” sold only 2.9 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, a small fraction of the 16 million copies of his “No Fences” bestseller in 1990.

Brooks’ deal with Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart is unlikely to significantly affect other music retailers in the short term. Since scaling back his workload, the singer has sold fewer than 400,000 albums annually and has said he does not intend to record a new album soon. But other music sellers may feel the loss when Wal-Mart begins selling multiple-disc boxed sets, including previously unreleased material.

The multiyear deal means Brooks’ musical recordings will be available only at Wal-Mart stores, its Sam’s Club chain and online at Walmart.com. Neither executives at Wal-Mart nor Brooks would provide further details.

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