No. 137 / December 1996:
EVIL EMPIRE.... "Wal-Mart's CD Standards Are Changing Pop Music," Neil Strauss's excellent piece in the November 12 New York Times, details how the bully-boy Arkansas-based retailer throws its weight around. Wal-Mart's explicit censorship policy bans all music carrying a warning label along with, for example, all Beavis and Butthead merchandise (including the new soundtrack album). With its 2,300 stores, which last year sold 52 million CDs, Wal-Mart is the biggest music retailer in the country and that fact alone is the biggest impetus toward record company and artist self-censorship.
"Because of Wal-Mart's clout," Strauss writes, "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."
John Mellencamp, who had to airbrush Jesus and the devil from the cover of his new album in order to get Wal-Mart's approval, joins a long list of artists ranging from Beck to Outkast who've had to hack up their art to reach their audience. Wal-Mart makes sure that, in hundreds of cities, they are the only place for fans to shop by selling music at or below cost and driving independent stores out of business.
In a prepared statement issued the same day as the Times piece, Wal-Mart denied that it has any impact on music, while making it quite clear how restrictive its standards are. Spokesperson Betsy Riethemeyer (501-273-8510) claims that Wal-Mart is simply "family oriented." The way Wal-Mart treats its employees, whose families depend on them to survive, indicates otherwise. Wal-Mart defied the embargo of Haiti's military regime, it pays its workers there just 14 cents an hour. When Wal-Mart bought the Woolco chain in Canada, it immediately eliminated 1,500 jobs. In the U.S., most Wal-Mart workers are minimum wage part-timers with no benefits, and full-timers are charged so much for their benefits that many decline them.
The real family values of Wal-Mart are made obvious by its pivotal role in pushing Bill and Hillary Clinton out of the sewer of Arkansas politics onto the national political stage. The sons and daughters of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton are America's richest family and the President they've helped foist on us has given us both the family-destroying welfare "reform" bill and a Telecom bill that makes it a felony to distribute the music that Wal-Mart refuses to carry.
Yet it would be a mistake to focus completely on Wal-Mart. Other chains, such as K-Mart and Best Buy, are little better, and the major record labels, while whining about Wal-Mart's policies when the media's around, do much of the chain's dirty work by putting warning labels on their releases.
[The Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition is spearheading a letter-writing campaign to Wal-Mart to protest its policies: Wal-Mart, 702 S.W. 8th St., Bentonville, AR 72716].
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