A long wait, a fast fall
The downfall of Soviet Communism took 70 years, but “Chinese Democracy” appears to be in jeopardy after just two weeks. The Guns N’ Roses album that was 17 years in the making climbed only as high as No. 3 when it debuted on the national sales chart. It has tumbled to No. 18 in its second week of release.
That’s a disturbing sign for the most expensive to produce album ever in rock, the cost once estimated at $13 million. But the pop world just might have reached its limit in indulging frontman Axl Rose’s appetite for production, which led to delay after delay, year after year.
“Fool me once, shame on you -- fool me 20 times, and I’ll be done with you,” says Guitar Player magazine Associate Editor Matt Blackett on the tepid public reaction to the album so far.
“Chinese Democracy” sold 261,000 copies in the U.S. in the first week following its Nov. 23 release as an exclusive at Best Buy stores -- a respectable figure in an age of diminished record industry expectations, but it’s just half of what 18-year-old singer-songwriter Taylor Swift’s second album, “Fearless,” sold two weeks earlier.
What’s more, the reconstituted GNR tallied one-third of what another veteran hard rock band, AC/DC, sold out of the gate with “Black Ice” in October. That album, a Wal-Mart exclusive, notched a 784,000 first-week sales figure.
Only two albums have crossed the 2 million sales mark during 2008, Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III,” which had a 1-million-plus first week in June, and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends,” which came out a week later and posted 721,000 copies in its first week.
As of press time, GNR’s management and record company did not respond to requests for comments for this article.
The GNR album was outsold by Kanye West’s “808s and Heartbreak,” which logged sales of 450,000 the same week, and Swift’s album, leaving it at No. 3 for its chart debut. Second-week sales plummeted 78%, to about 57,000 copies, leaving its two-week U.S. total under 320,000 copies.
“I think it may have died in the November-December holiday rush of record releases,” said Rita Wilde, program director at classic-rock radio station KLOS-FM (95.5), which has given limited airplay to the new songs.
“The biggest mistake they made was the release of the first single, ‘Chinese Democracy,’ ” Wilde said. “It just didn’t have it. When you wait so long for something, you want to make sure it has it. When we played it, people went, ‘Eh.’ ”
A consensus on the music has been hard to come by.
Giving the album four stars on a five-star scale, Rolling Stone hailed “Chinese Democracy” as “a great, audacious, unhinged and uncompromising hard-rock record,” and Times critic Ann Powers lauded it as “a cyborgian blend of pop expressiveness, traditional rock bravado and Brian Wilson-style beautiful weirdness.”
But Paste Magazine wrote, “Too bad the epitaph’s already scrawled in ‘Chinese Democracy’s’ anachronistic margins: a bottomless pit dug by disposable income, a persecution complex and egomania.”
At Metacritic.com, which employs a 100-point scale, it racked up only 66 points after averaging 23 reviews.
As for fans, “We waited 14 years for this?” Times reader Stan Nicolaides posted at latimes.com. "[I’d] rather listen to the White Stripes or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.”
A reader using the name Greg D, however, wrote: “This is a masterpiece of modern music and when given the opportunity to be fully digested, will leave you stunned.”
Although it’s unlikely that anyone remotely interested in rock music was unaware of “Chinese Democracy” after all the publicity it has generated over the years, marketing efforts were hampered by Rose’s decision not to conduct any interviews or tour in conjunction with its release. (He has, however, communicated regularly to fans through GNR’s online forum.)
Fans are still holding out for one or both possibilities in 2009.
“There are definitely some good tracks on here that could be released next year as singles for various different [radio] formats,” KLOS’ Wilde said. “Probably in the new year the label will rework it and hopefully there will be a tour. If Axl tours, there’s hope they can salvage the record.”
If Rose and those around him should have developed anything during the wait for “Chinese Democracy,” it’s patience, a quality some think will be necessary before rendering a verdict on the album’s success in the marketplace.
“It looks like ‘Better,’ the second single, is getting some traction and seems to be liked by radio,” said Jeff Pollack, one of the nation’s leading radio consultants. “It’s still very early on in the project. The record has had some good reviews, and I think it’s a deep album and there are a lot of potential songs for radio to embrace.”
Mike Boyle, editor of the rock and active rock charts for the industry trade Radio & Records, noted that rock programmers do seem more enthusiastic about “Better” than they were over the title track, which peaked at No. 7 on its active rock chart.
“The band had become the butt of jokes everywhere, so radio initially was cautious,” Boyle said. “But they delivered the goods and, quite frankly, that band wouldn’t have two songs on the chart if they weren’t delivering the goods.”