Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer, has stunned the music industry by banning an upcoming album by Grammy winner Sheryl Crow from its stores because of a song lyric suggesting that the retailer sells guns to children.
Wal-Mart's decision, which record industry executives estimate could cost Crow a staggering 400,000 album sales, comes two weeks before the album, "Sheryl Crow," is to be released by A&M; Records on Sept. 24.
Stores such as Wal-Mart frequently refuse to sell albums containing lyrics they believe are too sexually explicit or excessively violent. But this is apparently the first time that a major retailer has banned a song in which it is the target of a lyric.
"Selling a record implying behavior that is against all we stand for is something we just could not profit from," said Wal-Mart spokesman Dale Ingram.
What also makes the dispute unusual is that the 34-year-old Crow is hardly the kind of artist one expects to find at the forefront of a music censorship issue. Her upcoming album is Crow's much-anticipated follow-up to her best-selling "Tuesday Night Music Club," whose "All I Wanna Do" single in 1995 won her Grammy awards for best pop vocal performance and record of the year. Crow also won a Grammy that year for best new artist.
Some rock critics wish the popular singer would be more daring. Her lyrics aren't as sexually suggestive as those of an Alanis Morissette. Nor do Crow's songs reflect the kind of violent, gritty street scenes featured in gangsta songs that have embroiled music companies in criticism.
Indeed, Crow grew up in the heart of Wal-Mart country in Kennett, Mo., and is an alumna of the same university as Wal-Mart's legendary founder, the late Sam Walton. Last week, Crow expressed concern to A&M; executives that her sister and her friends might have trouble getting the album if the local Wal-Mart doesn't carry it.
The lyrics at issue are in a song called "Love Is a Good Thing," co-written with Tad Wadhams. The lyrics read:
"Watch out sister,
watch out brother,
Watch our children as they kill each other
with a gun they bought at the Wal-Mart discount stores."
Wal-Mart spokesman Ingram characterized the lyrics as an unfair attack on the Bentonville, Ark.-based chain, which he said has strict policies prohibiting the sale of guns to minors. He said the company believes that the song insults Wal-Mart employees, many of whom are involved in charities for children.
Wal-Mart became aware of the lyrics when the album was screened by a "rack job" company that distributes albums to the chain and checks albums for lyrics before their release. A&M; Records Chairman Al Cafaro said Wal-Mart did not request that Crow change her lyric.
Wal-Mart's gun sales have periodically been criticized and the subject of lawsuits, although the company in recent years has taken steps to tighten its policies.
In 1994, Wal-Mart stopped selling handguns in its stores, making them available only through catalogs. That decision came after the company was sued by relatives of a Texas man who allegedly killed his parents with a gun bought at a Wal-Mart even though he had indicated on a federal form that he had been treated for mental problems. At the time, Wal-Mart denied that the decision was related to the lawsuit.
In 1992, a judge dismissed a lawsuit that had accused Wal-Mart of selling bullets to two minors who used them to kill a man working in a Florida auto parts store, citing a previous legal case that found that a person who illegally sold a gun could not have known it would be used in a crime. In 1994, Wal-Mart was sued by the family of a man killed in a Texas courthouse shootout by an assailant who had allegedly bought a gun from Wal-Mart even though he was under indictment on sexual assault charges.
Asked whether Crow's lyrics were fair to Wal-Mart if the company has policies against selling guns to minors, Cafaro said: "It's difficult for me to answer the question of what's fair. They sell guns, and I'm sure some of those guns have found their way into the hands of people who shouldn't have them. That's a reality."
Crow could not be reached for comment. The Wal-Mart decision brought immediate criticism from record industry executives, who noted the irony that an anti-violence song is being banned from a retailer even as the entertainment industry is under fire from politicians such as presidential candidates Bob Dole and President Clinton for violent content in films, TV shows and song lyrics.
"At a time when the entire entertainment industry is criticized about lyrics being too violent, here we have a cautionary tale about the dangers of guns," Cafaro said. A&M; is owned by European entertainment conglomerate PolyGram, which is controlled by Dutch electronics conglomerate Philips.
Added Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Assn. of America: "Sheryl Crow is a great artist with a lot of positive things to say to young people. Shame on Wal-Mart to censor that message out of its own self-interest."
Although it's rare that artists take aim at a specific company, when they do it can create a firestorm. In the 1980s, the movie "Roger & Me," a Warner Bros.-distributed film that skewered General Motors, brought a full-scale counterattack from the auto maker.
Still, executives were divided over whether the Wal-Mart decision will have any lasting chilling effect on record companies.
"This is not the traditional controversy over violent or sexual lyrics," one music marketing executive said. "This is more like a personal attack, and Wal-Mart is responding. She could have said 'Buy a gun from your local store' and Wal-Mart would have carried the record."
Music executives have been expecting strong sales from Crow's album. Crow's first single from the album, "If It Makes You Happy," also is expected to be banned from Wal-Mart, A&M; executives said, even though the offending lyric isn't on the single.
Exactly how many fewer albums A&M; will sell is hard to say, although executives said that Wal-Mart, with 2,265 stores, could have sold 400,000 or more if the album turns out to be a hit. Discount retailers such as Wal-Mart have emerged in the past few years as the largest sellers of albums as traditional record chains have fallen on tough times. As a result, Wal-Mart's decision carries far more weight than if it been made by a record chain or any other retailer.
Executives said most of her loyal fans will be able to find the album regardless of the Wal-Mart decision, although in some rural areas where Wal-Mart is the dominant record retailer, sales will no doubt be hindered.
Other industry executives speculated that the album could even get a boost from the controversy, although Cafaro said the company has no plans to pick a fight with Wal-Mart or to exploit the decision as a marketing opportunity.
"We are not going to muddy the waters. Wal-Mart is a fine retailer, but we think they made a mistake in this case," Cafaro said.