When Eagles Returned to the Studio on ‘Long Road Out of Eden’
Eagles fans got an early Halloween treat on Oct. 30, 2007 with their first new studio album in almost three decades. The group’s sizable fan base was justifiably thrilled with the news that, after a 28-year dry spell, a new LP, Long Road Out of Eden, would include 20 songs in a two-disc set. But it came with a catch. The album would be released as a Walmart exclusive. (Since then, it's shown up other places.)
The idea that the ’70s superstars, including outspoken environmental advocate Don Henley, would partner with the world’s largest retailer was an odd one. Many conservation groups criticized Walmart for its ecological ignorance, and free-speech advocates called out the chain for censoring or outright banning music it deemed controversial. Even Henley, in a 2004 editorial, attacked what was then the country's biggest music retailer.
“Independent music stores are closing at an unprecedented pace,” he wrote in the Washington Post. “Today, the three largest music retailers are Best Buy, Walmart and Target. In those stores, shelf space is limited, making it harder for new artists to emerge.”
Besides the obvious conflict between the band's values and the box-store behemoth, people wondered if the exclusive deal would hurt sales. But Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit, orchestrated a crafty contract: They would receive a larger portion of the profits than one offered by a standard record deal, basically cutting out the record-company middle man.
“I am in the business of selling records, and I want to be in a place where we have the opportunity to sell the most records,” Frey told Billboard in 2007. “It's also nice that Walmart pays us a very lucrative royalty, a royalty that no record company could come close to matching. But that's because we are not a loss leader at Walmart. If the Eagles put out a record at Warner or any other major record label, part of the reason they can't pay up is we've got to pay for all of the bad acts they sign and release.”
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The Eagles also thought the deal as its best alternative in a landscape where millions of fans were getting their music free from the internet and brick-and-mortar stores were shuttering by the score. After announcing the Walmart deal, Henley changed his opinion of the store.
“You would have thought we made a deal with the devil,” he told Billboard around the release. “Walmart is getting their environmental and labor act together. ... They can’t be any more evil than a major record label, that's the way I look at it.”
While the Walmart deal was one of the first of its kind, it was part of a series of unorthodox releases that took place during the late '00s. Around the time of Long Road Out of Eden, Radiohead asked fans to “pay what they want” for In Rainbows, Madonna inked a record deal with concert promoter Live Nation and both Prince and Ray Davies gave away CDs in a London newspaper.
On Nov. 5, 2007, Walmart proudly announced that Long Road Out of Eden had sold more than 700,000 copies in its first week of release. The impressive number represented the largest first week sales of any music product at Walmart in the past two years.
“We were confident that Eagles fans would embrace Long Road Out of Eden, but it has exceeded our first-week projections,” said Gary Severson, Walmart’s senior vice president of entertainment. “With the holiday season approaching, we are confident that the double-CD package will be one of the biggest sellers in Walmart history. … We’ve notified the RIAA of the sales to quickly certify Long Road Out of Eden’s multi-platinum status.”
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Severson’s confidence wasn’t misplaced. Maybe thanks to the long drought of Eagles tunes, maybe due to the price of the two-disc set ($11.88 or $10.88 as a downloadable MP3 online), the release became a blockbuster. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the group's sixth chart-topping album, and became the bestselling release of 2007. Since then, it’s been certified seven-times platinum.
Critics weren’t as thrilled. Many thought the Eagles' first studio album since 1979’s The Long Run traded country twang and cool Southern California grooves for the slick Top 40 Henley and Frey championed during their solo work in the ’80s. For many writers, the album’s only great song was the country rocker “How Long,” a J.D. Souther tune the Eagles played as early as 1974.
Nevertheless, Frey considered the release a milestone in the Eagles catalog. “I think it's going to stand up,” he told Billboard. “I think it's going to be right up there, if you want to know the truth. If you look back on our previous albums of the '70s, those albums are four or five songs deep, and you can just about name them off of each album. You can name the three smash hit singles and then one or two album cuts that were essential to the record. This record is like 15 songs deep, and the other thing that I am really heartened by is that the quality of the recording is so much better now. I think the production level is far superior.”
As Long Road Out of Eden expanded throughout the rest of the world, its success continued: The project hit No. 1 in at least 13 countries. It scored five Grammy nominations and walked away with two. And the tour became a global sensation. Even for the Eagles, a band known for raking in the cash on the road, the Long Road Out of Eden Tour proved to be huge. They kicked off on March 20, 2008, at London’s O2 Arena, and the trek unfolded over seven legs and 161 concerts until it wrapped at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Still, in 2007, Henley was skeptical they’d follow up their 28-year absence with another album, telling CNN: "This is probably the last Eagles album that we'll ever make." Frey’s death in 2016 seemingly ended any possibility for a new Eagles record. Then again, Henley announced the band's breakup following his longtime musical partner's death, but the Eagles were back on the road not long after.
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