Bargain-bin CDs settle Md. lawsuit

Payment: Schools and libraries get a few hits and a lot of misses from a price-fixing case against the music industry.

August 05, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Christmas CDs in August

About 1,200 copies of Whitney Houston's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are arriving at Maryland libraries and school systems this week, courtesy of the state's settlement of a price-fixing lawsuit against the music industry.

The fact that "The Star-Spangled Banner" accounts for such a large chunk of the 104,000 free compact discs that Maryland is receiving could be seen as a thoughtful tribute to the place where Francis Scott Key wrote the words that would become the national anthem.

Or not.

"Sadly, it means the companies made way too many copies of this CD," said Lynn Stonesifer, head of collections for the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where workers began opening 208 boxes of free CDs yesterday.

"My feeling was I hope they don't use this as an opportunity to clean out their warehouses. But it looks like maybe some of them did."

The CD giveaway is part of the settlement of a lawsuit filed in 2000 by the attorneys general of 43 states against several major record companies and distributors, charging them with conspiring to keep CD prices artificially high.

The settlement provided for $67 million to be refunded to music customers and $75 million of CDs to be distributed to schools, libraries and universities.

Master list

Through lengthy negotiations, the states and the music industry developed a master list of CDs to be given away. But the states were not allowed to choose the exact titles or quantities they would receive. So the shipments seem to contain few recent hits but plenty of dogs from the remainder bins.

Among the gems Maryland libraries are receiving this week: Michael Bolton's Timeless (or not), Jessica Simpson's Irresistible (clearly not), Wrestlemania: The Album, and Christmas albums from 98 Degrees, Christina Aguilera, Julie Andrews, Yolanda Adams and Linda Ronstadt. Plus 948 copies of The Mystery of Santo Domingo de Silos, a collection of Gregorian chants.

SuperSaver CDs

At the Pratt yesterday, the boxes of CDs that arrived Tuesday were stacked floor-to-ceiling on shelves in a padlocked cage. Some of the CDs had notches cut in the cases, indicating they were for promotional use and that the artists would not receive royalties for them, while others had "SuperSaver" stickers on them. But no one was complaining.

"I feel like a kid in a candy store," said Natalie Haskins, who manages the Pratt's audio-visual collection, wielding a box cutter. "The hardest thing is deciding what you want to add to the collection, what has value."

Stonesifer, while at first questioning the selection, said the 8,594 CDs the Pratt received will make a significant contribution to the library's existing collection of 11,000 CDs, and she was grateful to have them.

"Beggars," she said, "can't be choosers."

And not all the CDs were forgettable. In addition to its 66 "Star-Spangled Banners" by Houston, the Pratt got 17 copies of the Strokes' hit debut album Is This It, as well The Best of Blondie and discs from R.E.M. and Pearl Jam.

Libraries can sell the CDs they do not wish to keep, but they must use the money for music-related purposes. And in some parts of the country, libraries are setting up swap lists so they can trade CDs with each other.

About 1,900 titles make up the 104,000 CDs sent to Maryland. The list sometimes reads as a compendium of has-beens, never-weres and the just plain ridiculous. Some samples:

Ricky Martin's Sound Loaded

Gloria Estefan's Gloria!

The Stuart Little soundtrack

Celine Dion's Unison

Celine Dion's One Heart

Celine Dion's A New Day Has Come

You get the idea.

Two music companies involved in the settlement, Sony and EMI, declined to comment yesterday. The companies acknowledged no wrongdoing in the deal.

Nationally, the first CD shipments arrived in Washington state in June, and problems were immediately apparent. One school district was blessed with 1,300 copies of Houston's Star-Spangled Banner; other systems received CDs bearing parental notification stickers because of their explicit lyrics.

Seeking to avoid such a fiasco, the Maryland attorney general's office asked that none of the CDs coming to Maryland contain parental warnings. The office also surveyed library systems to ask for their priorities by genre. The Howard County system, for instance, put musicals as its first priority. Baltimore County asked for rock.

"Without the settlement, these libraries would have gotten nothing," said Gary Honick, the assistant state attorney general who handled the case. "So this is something. And hopefully each institution's portion reflects their genre priorities and the overall purpose of the settlement -- to make music available to the broadest community possible."

Carroll County library officials listed popular music as their top priority, but within that made a special request for Christmas albums. They were not disappointed. Said spokeswoman Ann Wisner: "We got a lot of Christmas music."

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