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Wal-Mart Versus Green Day: It's More Complicated Than It Seems

Wal-Mart considers electronics to be a big opportunity and it is using entertainment -- including sales of CDs and DVDs -- to help pursue that chance, yet it's deeper involvement has led it into a new controversy and likely will lead to more in the future.

The band Green Day released its new CD 21st Century Breakdown in mid May, and it sold over 215,000 copies in its first week out, putting it atop the Billboard charts. Yet, none sold through Wal-Mart, which wouldn't stock the album because it carries a parental advisory label. By policy, Wal-Mart doesn't carry CDs with the advisories, asking record companies to offer versions without the material that prompted the warning. The Associated Press ran a feature story about Green Day's refusal to comply with Wal-Mart's policy, quoting band frontman Billie Joe Armstrong as saying, "There's nothing dirty about our record."

Newspapers across the United States picked up the story. Naturally, the controversy gained the attention of the retailer's organized labor-backed foes at Wal-Mart Watch, who reiterated the AP story on its website and concluded with a variation on one of its themes:

As always, we're confronted with the dilemma: Wal-Mart controls an ever-increasing share of the U.S. retail market and is using that to continually homogenize and censor the product that it sells.
Yet, Wal-Mart makes the point that musicians regularly provide edited versions of their material for radio presentation. Even if they don't, the groups know that certain words or references will be removed in broadcast, and they still allow their music to be aired.

Unlike the movie industry, the music industry doesn't have a recognized industry-wide ratings authority. The music companies themselves decide whether or not to put a parental advisory on a CD, Wal-Mart spokesperson Melissa O'Brien points out. In so doing, they help to create Wal-Mart's headaches and, coincidentally or not, some extra publicity. Ironically, if Green Day didn't think 21st Century Breakdown was dirty, someone at its record company did, hence the parental advisory.

Said O'Brien:

Unfortunately, there's no consistency and parental advisory becomes more of a 'badge of inappropriate content' than as assistance to actual content. We have had a long standing policy that we can not carry records with a parental advisory label since very likely an edited version usually will or can exist, such as for standard radio play. The record label knew our policy before they made the decision, but it is theirs to make, and to the misfortune of many fans who don't really care about owning a parental advisory version.
Wal-Mart faces a particular dilemma as it becomes more involved in entertainment, and not only electronic entertainment. The company has been attacked about magazines and books it has chosen to carry, and the criticism hasn't only emerged from foes of censorship or its corporate policies. Conservative Christians asked Wal-Mart to ban Harry Potter books for promoting witchcraft, but the retailer resisted the call.

Still, any refusal to carry books or music will open Wal-Mart to attack, and it will become a more conspicuous target as it expands in entertainment. While the no parental advisory policy will strike some folks as appropriate, it might seem disingenuous to others who consider that Wal-Mart carries not only R-rated but some unrated DVDs as well.

Wal-Mart has an argument. Record and movie companies aren't necessarily consistent in how they respond to their own ratings standards, and Wal-Mart doesn't want to be an arbiter of content. Yet, if it backs off a new release, critics can put Wal-Mart on the defensive, which could make its nuanced position look wobbly.

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