What price shelf space? Alterations: Wal-mart and Kmart say it's smart business to refuse to sell videos and albums with offensive words or images. But critics of marketing policies that change the products say it's nothing short of censorship.

November 13, 1996|By Neil Strauss | Neil Strauss,NEW YORK TIMES

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 discs are not marked this way, but they, too, have been altered from the versions sold at most record stores. Some teens here aren't happy about this. But they have no choice: the closest record stores are 50 to 150 miles away in Georgia.

"They blank out all the words they think are bad," said Adam McLean, 13, from nearby Andrews, N.C., about the albums he has bought at Wal-Mart. "I hate it. It doesn't sound the same."

On other CDs he has bought at Wal-Mart, record companies have removed songs or altered artwork to make them acceptable to the discount chain, the single largest seller of pop music in the country.

Wal-Mart last year sold an estimated 52 million of the 615 million compact discs sold in the United States. Its refusal to stock albums with lyrics or cover art it finds objectionable has become 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 have begun directly affecting music production. Because of Wal-Mart's clout, record labels and bands will design new covers drop songs from albums, electronically mask objectionable words and even change lyrics in order to gain a place on Wal-Mart's valuable shelves.

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 video stores, are having a profound impact on pop culture. Film studios are recutting movies, removing scenes and changing packaging, often without the director's consent, so the store will stock them.

"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. ... People don't understand how much power these corporations have."

"If you're an artist and you want to write something controversial about race, religion, 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 what's on your mind or selling your records," said Don Rosenberg, the owner of the Record Exchange in Charlotte, N.C. "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 as the most powerful, unpredictable and unyielding.

Examples of altered CDs include John Mellencamp's "Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky," whose cover depicts Mellencamp surrounded by two children and a dog. In the background are faded-out drawings of Jesus and a devil. At Wal-Mart, Jesus and the devil have been air-brushed out. Songs have been dropped from albums by Jackyl and Catherine Wheel, a Nirvana song title has been changed from "Rape Me" to "Waif Me," rap albums have the N-word blacked out on their covers and music by White Zombie, Beck, 311, Type O Negative and dozens more have been altered to remove obscenities.

Blockbuster, run by Bill Fields, a former Wal-Mart executive, has similar policies. Its 4,500 outlets, which account for 25 percent to 30 percent of video rentals nationwide (a number expected to double in the next four years), are filled with movies in "rated," "unrated," "edited" and otherwise altered versions.

Changes are always made by the studios that released the film; few directors have final approval.

Jonathan Baskin, a spokesman for Blockbuster Entertainment, said: "We respect the needs of families as well as individuals, and within that broad spectrum we try to maximize choice. The NC-17 or unrated films are ... a small percentage of the broad selection we offer in our store."

In the recording industry, bands are usually allowed to decide whether or not they want to make changes in their music or album packaging to meet a discount chain's standards.

When singer Sheryl Crow refused to change a lyric in a song that accused the chain of selling guns to children, Wal-Mart refused to carry the album. Al Cafaro, chairman of A&M Records, Crow's label, said the decision cut her sales by 10 percent. But in most cases, the band goes along.

Often, people buying altered videos and compact discs are not aware that they have been changed. These products can leave Wal-Mart and Kmart and will circulate nearly undetected along with their unaltered counterparts in second-hand stores.

Chuck Warn, a spokesman for the Directors Guild of America, said an effort is under way to pass legislation requiring companies to alert consumers to altered products and explain the changes.

Some music and film executives say they are concerned about how the chain-store policies are affecting the creation of music and films as a whole.

Already some directors shoot different versions of the same scene for video versions of their movies. And several film distributors said that they rejected certain titles because they felt that they were too explicit for Blockbuster.

Nina Crowley, executive director of the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition, said, "Stores like Wal-Mart ... deciding how music should sound is creating a chilling effect."

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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