Less than a week after Southern Baptists voted to boycott Walt Disney Co., the entertainment company released and then yanked from retail stores 100,000 copies of an obscenity-laced rock music album.
In a virtually unprecedented action in the record business, the company pulled the CDs from stores Tuesday, only six hours after Detroit’s Insane Clown Posse’s “The Great Malenko” was put on sale.
Sources said the decision was made by the top executives in the company, including chairman Michael Eisner and studio chief Joe Roth. In a statement Disney said the record, released by the company’s Hollywood Records division, contained lyrics that were “inappropriate for a product released under any label of our company.”
The episode is the latest in the controversy over violent and sexually explicit lyrics that has been raging since the early 1990s, when Florida rap group 2 Live Crew was arrested on obscenity charges. Despite complaints about music by such acts as Ice T, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg, only one other company is believed to have recalled a record in the last decade. Meanwhile, albums with controversial lyrics have often dominated the pop music sales charts.
The blunder probably will cost Disney more than $1 million, but public relations issues are a far greater concern for the multibillion-dollar conglomerate known for its theme parks, animated films and other family-oriented products.
While many people may regard Disney’s decision as a responsible move by a large company trying to set standards for its entertainment products, the artistic community may not be as forgiving.
The manager of Insane Clown Posse contended that the company buckled to the threat of pressure from the Baptist group. The album is believed to have been shipped Wednesday of last week, the day the religious group launched the boycott to protest what it called Disney’s tolerance of gay lifestyles.
This is also the latest in a long series of problems for the corporation’s sluggish record division, raising questions about whether Disney will ever get a foothold in the rock music market.
“I think Disney is bowing to pressure from the Southern Baptists,” said Alex Abbiss, manager of Insane Clown Posse, which has been signed to Disney since last June. “All of a sudden they had a change in taking the moral high ground. They pulled the record. They canceled our 25-city tour. They haven’t told us what the bottom line is, but it’s pretty clear that they’re dropping the band.”
A Disney spokesman denied that the timing of the recall had anything to do with the Baptist boycott.
“Disney has acted in self-restraint in many other matters before and we will continue to do so in the future, making our own best judgments,” the spokesman said. “Unfortunately our internal review process did not initially flag the lyrics on this album and somehow it was allowed to proceed.”
Sources inside the company, however, said Disney’s legal department had long ago reviewed the lyrics, requested several changes and then cleared the album for release. It wasn’t until the day after the boycott was called that Disney officials had a change of heart about the album, company sources said.
Indeed, Roth, who also now oversees the music division, expressed serious concerns about the company being associated with what he felt was a “foul and offensive” product after reviewing the Insane Clown Posse video last Thursday at the firm’s weekly music meeting, sources said.
Roth, who recently told the Wall Street Journal that Disney would avoid “gangsta rap” and “music that’s about abusing women or encouraging violence,” insisted that the lyrics were offensive to women and that the studio should take some action to stop the album’s release.
By Friday, Roth learned that an anonymous letter of complaint about the album from a Disney employee had been sent sometime earlier to Disney’s chief of corporate operations and senior executive vice president Sandy Litvak, who oversees legal matters. Over the weekend, sources said, Roth, Litvak and Disney chief Eisner discussed the situation and decided to pull the album.
Hollywood Records officials declined comment about the matter, but sources said employees at the label were furious that the record had been recalled. Morale is already dismal at Hollywood Records, where many employees believe that the label’s biggest obstacle may be Disney itself--or at least the parent company’s conservative image as a bastion for wholesome family entertainment.
Although Disney has sunk more than $150 million into the label since its 1989 launch, the company has yet to score a major hit in the rock market. Already perceived as a laughingstock in the creative community, Hollywood Records probably will have even a tougher time attracting new talent after dumping Insane Clown Posse. Indeed, Hollywood Records stands out as a failure in Disney’s otherwise stellar lineup of entertainment and media operations.
“This may be perceived as a great public relations coup for Disney’s family image,” said one source at the label. “But it is a public relations disaster for Hollywood Records.”
Disney is the first corporation to pull a record off the market since 1992, when MCA Music Entertainment yanked New York rap group FU2’s “No Head, No Backstage Pass” single. That song, which included lyrics about a violent sexual attack on an underage female fan, was pulled by MCA just 24 hours after Time Warner stopped production of rapper Ice T’s controversial “Cop Killer” album.
Insane Clown Posse is a white hip-hop band that has self-released several previous albums, including “The Terror Wheel” and “Carnival of Carnage.” None has sold more than 81,000 units, according to SoundScan. A Hollywood Records press release states that the group’s initials came from Inner City Posse, a gang that it says was founded by ICP members “Violent J” and “Shaggy 2 Dope.”
Insane Clown Posse was signed to Hollywood Records by the company’s former president Bob Pfiefer, who was recently ousted after an unsuccessful three-year stint running Hollywood.
Disney paid about $750,000 last summer to sign the band, sources said. That figure is believed to have covered the cost of recording the album and making a video. The company sank an additional $700,000 into the project to manufacture, distribute and finance a hefty marketing campaign that included posters, tote bags and stickers for retailers nationwide.
It is unclear whether Insane Clown Posse has any legal recourse regarding the recall.
“There is nothing on [this album] that isn’t in a movie like ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ” said Abbiss, referring to the Disney-affiliated Miramax hit that is packed with profanities. “I don’t see them taking ‘Pulp Fiction’ off the video shelves.”