When the nation's major record labels decided to adopt a standard warning label advising parents of explicit language or adult themes, musicians, critics and many consumers feared the worst.
But seven months of the labeling agreement has, for the most part, produced a much-ado-about-nothing result.Ask Pittsburgh record store owner James Spitznagel what effect the labels have had on his business, and he'll tell you a story.
"A woman came in and bought a bunch of tapes for her 14-year-old daughter," he said. "It was a good variety of artists, but two of the tapes had parental advisory warning labels on them. I told her what was on them . . . just a few profanities, really. She thought for a moment, and then said, `She hears worse on the school bus' and bought every one of them."
Spitznagel, owner and operator of Jim's Records, said his tale typifies parental and consumer reaction to parental advisory stickers adopted by the nation's major record labels last spring.
"Most people haven't even noticed. Parents don't really police what their children listen to. Most times, kids are really on their own."
The first albums to feature a standardized parental warning label hit records stores in August, displaying a black and white logo in the right-hand corner that read "Parental Advisory - Explicit Lyrics."
Developed by the Washington, D.C.-based Recording Industry Association of America, the sticker was uniformly adopted by the RIAA earlier this year in response to mounting pressure from parents' groups and legislators.
The labels appear on album covers - or, as with Madonna's controversial "Justify My Love," music videos - at the discretion of record companies and artists.
Opponents said adopting the sticker would result in a subtle form of censorship as certain forms of music were singled out as obscene or offensive. However, that fear doesn't seem to have developed into any sort of reality.
"It hasn't affected any of our sales in the negative or the positive, " said Bob Wayne, management supervisor for Record Outlet, which has five outlets in Pittsburgh. "I don't think it prevents anybody from buying or excites them to purchase material . . . because nobody cares."
Before the RIAA developed its stickers, George Balicky, director of advertising for National Record Mart, often felt uncomfortably sandwiched between two warring sides on the labeling issue.
He said the new standardized stickers have eased pressure on retailers because they shift responsibility for determining what is objectionable from the shoulders of record merchandisers.
"It's unfair to put that responsibility on store employees," he said. "A 17- or 18-year-old clerk who is working in our stores after school for extra money shouldn't have to make that kind of decision."
National Record Mart sells millions of records a year at 100 locations east of the Mississippi River.
The chain receives about 10 stickered titles a month from record labels, amounting to 20 percent of its new releases, Balicky said, adding that the stickered titles are not sold to those under 18 nor are they played over the stores' in-house sound system.
But much of that concern - common among many record outlets - is not so much the result of labeling as it is caution that springs from potential vulnerability to prosecution under state obscenity laws, said Dana Kornblugh, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Record Merchants.
In October, record store owner Charles Freeman was convicted in a Florida court for selling a stickered 2 Live Crew album to a minor. Last week, he was fined $1,000 by a Fort Lauderdale judge. Freeman says he'll appeal the decision, but the case has caused retailers to rethink their selling polices regarding controversial items, Kornblugh said.
"Retailers have a bigger concern than the possible adverse effects on artists from labeling. They have to worry about being arrested."
Concrete statistics on the number of recordings and music videos bearing stickers are unavailable because each record company makes its own decisions on what to label, Kornblugh said.
NARM represents about 600 record stores and retail chains across the country. The organization has advocated the voluntary stickering of possibly offensive selections since 1985 and fully supports the new effort, she said.
"We believe that the more information you can provide to parents, the better choices they'll make. Voluntary labeling is an attempt to offer information on the product . . . like an ingredient list on a box of cereal."
Although some merchandisers have adopted restrictions in selling stickered material, Kornblugh said those policies could vanish as parents become more inconvenienced.
"More than one retailer, including the 300-store Camelot Music chain, ended up rescinding 18-to-purchase policies for labeled records because so many parents called to complain," Kornblugh said.