Wal-Mart's CD Standards Are Changing Pop Music
NEIL STRAUSS / New York Times 12nov1996
[More on Wal-Mart]
MURPHY, N.C. — The CD rack at the Wal-Mart in this small town in southwestern North Carolina, like the racks in 2,300 other Wal-Mart branches around the country, is a world of shrink-wrapped packages marked "edited," "clean" and "sanitized for your protection." Other compact disks are not marked this way, but they have been altered from the original version available at most record stores. Some of the teenagers shopping here say they are not happy about this. But they have no other choice: the closest record stores are 50 to 150 miles away in Gainesville, Ga., and Atlanta.
"They blank out all the words they think are bad," Adam McLean, a 13-year-old from nearby Andrews, N.C., said of the albums he has bought at Wal-Mart. "I hate It. It doesn't sound the same."
On other CD's he has bought at Wal-Mart, record companies had removed songs or altered artwork on the covers to make them acceptable to the discount chain, although Adam said he was not aware of it.
Adam's mother, Arlene, said she did not like Wal-Mart's policy. "It should be my decision instead of theirs," she said.
Not every parent agrees with her. One teenager here said that after he ordered "Incesticide," by Nirvana, in the mail, his step-mother saw the title, smashed the CD and told him he could buy records only at Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart is the single largest seller of pop music in the country, accounting last year for sales of an estimated 52 million of the 615 million compact disks sold in the United States. Its refusal to stock albums with lyrics or cover art that it finds objectionable has long been a frustration for some customers, musicians and record-industry executives.
What is harder to spot, many in the music business say, is the way the discount chain's distribution decisions are affecting the production of music. Because of Wal-Mart's clout, record labels and bands will design different covers and booklets, omit songs from their albums, electronically mask objectionable words and even change lyrics in order to gain a place on Wal-Mart's shelves.
airbrushing a bikini onto the CD cover, Geffen Records can sell White
Zombie's "Supersexy Swingin' Sounds" through Wal-Mart.
But Wal-Mart is not alone, nor Is music the only entertainment form affected. Retail chains that designate themselves as family stores, including Kmart and Blockbuster, are having a profound impact on pop culture. Like their counterparts in the music industry, film studios are recutting movies, removing scenes and changing video packaging, often without the director's consent, so that Blockbuster, the huge video chain, will put them on ifs shelves.
"This is a new form of censorship that's come into being in this country," said Oliver Stone, whose director's cut of "Natural Born Killers" was banned by Blockbuster, Kmart and Wal-mart. "Essentially, it's the sanitization of entertainment. Studios like Warner Brothers won't even release a film rated NC-17. They poin to economic pressure from Blockbuster and Wal-Mart, who won't carry these videos. People don't understand how much power these corporations have.
It's not only in rural areas that these companies wield influence. In larger cities, cost-cutting chains are forcing independent retailers out of business, making unaltered music and videos harder to find. In Charlotte, 200 miles from Murphy, 8 of 13 independent record stores have gone out of business in the last year. The reason, said Don Rosenberg, the owner of the Record Exchange in Charlotte, is because corporations like Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy are undercutting them, selling CDs for little profit, no profit or even as loss leaders to lure customers.
Independent video retailers sometimes by films from Wal-Mart because the chains sell them more cheaply and the distributed does, said Bruce Apar of Video Business Magazine.
"When you have somebody selling music who is not a music retailer," said Mr. Rosenberg of the Record Exchange, "it changes the complexion of the business dramatically, especially when they control that much business. So if you're an artist and you want to write something controversial about race, related, politics or sex and you know it's not going to be carried by a large percentage of retailers, you're in the position of either singing with on your mind or selling your records. The music industry is now hostage to a group of retailers that don't care a whit about music or the music industry."
Though other discount chains have similar policies, music executives described Wal-Mart has a most powerful, unpredictable and unyielding. Responding to this assertion, Dale Ingram, the director of corporate relations at Wal-Mart, said, "Producers of music no upfront that Wal-Mart is not going to carry anything with a parental advisory on it, and that's something they're going to have to factor in when they produce the product. Our customers understand our music and video merchandising decisions are a common-sense attempt to provide the type of material they might want to purchase."
The cover of John Mellencamp's new CD, "Mr. happy-go-Lucky," depicts Mr. Mellencamp surrounded by two children and a dog. In the background on either side of him are faded-out drawings of Jesus and a devil. At Wal-Mart, Jesus and a devil have been airbrushed out.
Elsewhere in the discount-chain racks, songs have been dropped from albums by Jackal and Catherine Wheel; a Nirvana song title has been changed from "Rape Me" to "Waif Me," the word "nigger" has been removed out from the covers of rap CDs, and music by White Zombie, 311, Type O Negative, Primitive Radio Gods, Beck, Outkast in dozens more groups have been altered to remove obscenities.
Brad Sedderth, an 18-year-old from Murphy, said he returned a CD by the rapper Onyx after discovering that the bleeped-out words interfered with his listening. Other albums he was looking for, including No. 1 albums by Tupoc Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dog, were not available in the store because of Wal-Mart's chainwide policy not to carry any albums affixed with the industry's standard "parental advisory" label denoting explicit lyrics.
The decision to change in problem might be initiated by a record company aware that a stickered album will not fly at Wal-Mart. Or it could come from one of the independent companies like Handleman and Anderson that do the entertainment buying for most discount chains. Or it could come from Wal-Mart's corporate offices in Bentonville AR. The soundtrack to the movie "Beavis and Butt-head Do America," for example, cleared both its record label, Geffen, and Anderson before it was rejected by Wal-Mart because of a chainwide and on Beavis and Butt-head merchandise.
Blockbuster, which is run by Bill Fields, a former Wal-Mart executive has similar policies. It's 4500 outlets, which account for 25 to 30 percent of video rentals nationwide (a number expected to double in the next four years), are filled with movies in altered versions like "raided," "unrated" or "edited." The most often cited example of a film's re-editing for blockbuster is "Showgirls," an NC-17 film that was re-edited by Paul Verhoeven, its director, so that it would be unrated.
Blockbuster, which stocks unrated movies on a case-by-case basis, felt that Mr. Verhoeven's unrated versions still did not meet the chains standards, and it have to be caught, to an R-rating. Lesser-known cases range from unrated B movies like "Sgt. Kabukiman," which was trend to a PG-13 films for eventual distribution by the chains, to better-known films like "Wide Sargasso Sea," edited from an NC-17 rating to and R- rating. Though the changes are always made by the studios that released the film, few directors have final approval.
"Oftentimes, editing changes are made without the filmmaker's knowledge," said Chuck Warn, a spokesman for the Directors Guild of America. "But the movie goes out with his or her name on it. It can be very damaging to someone's career."
Jonathan Baskin, a spokesman for Blockbuster Entertainment, responded: "we respect the needs of families as well as individuals, and within that broad spectrum we tried to maximize choice. The NC-17 or unrated films are such a small percentage of the broad selection we offer in our store. As a general rule, we support the artistic integrity of the films we carry."
In the recording industry, bands are usually allowed to decide whether they want to make changes in their music or album packaging to meet a discount chain's standards. Wal-Mart recently chose not to carry Sheryl Crow's new album because of a lyrics that accused the chain of selling guns to children. "Wal-Mart carries rifles, knives, handcuffs and handgun ammunition, though it says nothing is sold in violation of Government regulations.) A spokesman for the record label that Ms. Crow records for, A&M, said the chain asked the company to change the offending lyric not just on copies sold in Wal-Mart but in all copies. (Mr. Ingram of Wal-Mart denied this, saying no attempt at negotiation was made with the label.) Ms. Crow decided not to remove the lyric. In the end, said Al Cafaro, the chairman of A&M, she sacrificed 10 percent over sales.
In most cases, the ban goes along. "These are records that should be in chains like Wal-Mart, and there are too many occasions when a ban does not agree to make the change," said Jason Whittington, head of sales and Geffen.
Andy Gould, the manager of White Zombie, a ban on the Geffen label, said the group had changed its albums "very reluctantly" because its singer, Rob Zombie, "comes from a small town in Massachusetts and the only place he could ever by records was Wal-Mart."
In many cases, people buying altered videos and compact discs are not aware that they have been changed. When the products leave Wal-Mart and Kmart, they often circulate been detected along with their unaltered counterparts in secondhand stores. Even when customers understand that they are buying an altered version, they rarely know exactly what has been changed.
"We're fighting for legislation in Congress to put through a new consumer protection law," Mr. Warn said. "It would force companies, including Blockbuster, to inform their customers that the products they are selling is different from the product that was available in theaters and to tell them how it is different."
Some music and film executives say they are concerned about how these policies will affect the creation of music and films as a whole, not just the titles that are carried in "family-oriented" chains. Mr. Stone said he would think twice before directing the movie with explicit sexual content because of this. Other directors shoot different versions of the same scene for the video or television versions of their movie. And several film distributors said that they rejected certain titles because they felt they work to explicit for Blockbuster.
Several record presidents said they did not feel that Wal-Mart's policies influenced their decisions to sign a ban or release and album. But one talent Scout who spoke on condition of anonymity said that a ban he worked with had omitted a song without sanity is in choosing songs for its album so that it would not carry a parental advisory sticker.
Nina Crowley, executive director of the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition, which has initiated a letter-writing campaign to Wal-Mart to protest its policy, recalled a recent experience at a local conference. "I sat in Rome's with hundreds of musicians who were very concerned with how to get airplay and how to get their CD in the store," she said. "And the fact that stores like Wal-Mart are declining how music should sound is creating a chilling effect. Some of these kids are wondering if they are going to have to change what they do if they want to make any money."
p.A1 & C12