Will Voluntary Labeling Work?

Some charge it smacks of censorship, others that it actually will promote explicit albums. RECORDINGS: CONTROVERSY

THE March announcement by the American recording industry that it plans to voluntarily label albums whose lyrics might be considered offensive or obscene has raised some important questions among record buyers and industry insiders: Will the labels merely inform the public, or will they also smack of censorship?

Will they really keep potentially offensive albums out of the hands of minors, or simply make them a sought-after commodity and boost sales?

The warning label, whose design is being finalized by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), will read: ``Explicit Lyrics - Parental Advisory.''

The labeling decision grew out of public pressure, particularly the deliberations in several state legislatures over requiring conspicuous and detailed labels and making it a crime for record stores to sell offensive albums to youngsters.

The issue dates back at least to 1985, when the PMRC (Parents' Music Resource Center), a group spearheaded by Washington wives, including Tipper Gore (wife of Senator Albert Gore Jr.) and Susan Baker (wife of Secretary of State James A. Baker III), approached record companies with the idea of placing warning labels on albums that parents might deem offensive.

The PMRC was disturbed by what its members considered a growing use of obscenity and violence in the lyrics of popular songs, especially in heavy-metal music. Some companies complied with the request, but labeling was spotty.

Since 1985, in the wake of continued activism on the part of the PMRC and other concerned groups, a number of bills were introduced in state legislatures - many of them patterned on a bill introduced in the Missouri legislature by Republican Representative Jean Dixon - calling for a fluorescent yellow label with a long, detailed message [see accompanying box].

Rep. Dixon's bill would also impose criminal penalties on retailers who sell noncomplying products and would make concert promoters criminally liable for admitting anyone under 18 to performances containing objectionable songs.

But Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), asserts that the percentage of objectionable material, even by the standards of the PMRC, is small.

``We put out over 25,000 records a year,'' he said by phone. ``Tipper Gore and the PMRC identified only 120-something that they felt should be stickered. Tell me that that's not a pretty good record!''

George David Weiss, president of the Songwriters Guild of America - who wrote a 1985 Billboard magazine editorial advising the record industry to clean up its act in order to avoid censorship - believes that the bills proposed are nothing more than thinly masked censorship.

``I am against any of these bills,'' he said in an interview. ``I don't care how innocuous some of them may seem. Even if one happens to come along that is just saying, `Well, we only want you to do this - once they turn it into law, that's censorship. And there goes the First Amendment. I am scared to death of that, and I would fight it.

``I am totally, 100 percent opposed to any kind of censorship. And, remember, I'm the one who for five years has been fighting my own industry. I have no idea what abyss we would be going down if we ever allowed censorship to come into play.''

Still, Mr. Weiss believes that the record industry should respond to the concerns of parents, and therefore he supports the voluntary stickers. ``We know that there are five-, six-, seven-, and eight-year-old kids who are the siblings of teenagers, who are listening to these records in the home,'' he says. ``These kids are at such a tender, impressionable age that I think we should be concerned about it.''

Weiss claims there's a small portion of the record industry - writers, producers, and record company executives - who are ``letting anything happen. Everybody has always said we should be able to say anything and write anything that we please.''

But he believes the pressure currently being applied to the industry, especially from parents, will ``start to shrink and dry up that small segment that is causing all the upset.''

He also predicts that the voluntary labeling will cool things off in those legislatures still contemplating action.

``I think the whole thing is going to quiet down some,'' he says. ``What's good about this is that it's going to be one common label that will be the same size, same color, same wording. I think that may alleviate a lot of the trepidations that many of the states have.''

Indeed, in the wake of the record-industry announcement that voluntary labels will soon be coming, a number of the proposed bills - including those in Tennessee, Arizona, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and West Virginia - for state-mandated stickering have been withdrawn or have died.

But Mr. Greene, disagrees. ``This is not something that ever goes away...,'' he says. ``The impetus from these people [who want labeling] will always be there, and freedoms are not taken away all at once. It will always start up again.''

NARAS agreed to cooperate with the PMRC in 1985, but Greene has never felt entirely comfortable with the decision. Now, with the stickering becoming standard, he says, ``You've got to ask yourself the question: How does this potentially affect the creative person?

``It affects them in a number of ways, and I think one of the most important ways is that the person starting to write a song or put a rap together starts having to filter their work for considerations that have nothing to do with artistry or creativity.''

Furthermore, Greene feels that the stickers are targeting only certain sectors of popular music. ``We know who are in the sights of the gun: rap, hard rock, and metal. `Metal heads' give Jean Dixon and Tipper Gore the vapors; and rappers give Southern law-enforcement officers the opportunity to rattle their sabers a little.

``I personally wouldn't let a lot of this material close to my home or my kids. I'm a parent who thinks about those things, but in these kinds of circumstances you always end up defending the people or the groups that you have no artistic empathy for. It's always the fringe elements of any artistic endeavor that will get the axe first; so the entire community has to be protected. And that's the unenviable position we find ourselves in.''

Greene's fear is that stickering is just the beginning of something far more ominous - not just for the record industry but for society in general.

``You're witnessing a group of white, right-wing zealots who apparently don't have communism to worry about any more,'' he says. ``So they're going to try to make us part of that big Norman Rockwell painting in the sky. It's scary!''

Another concern voiced by some observers is that the stickers will serve as advertisements rather than deterrents, as in the case of the rap group 2 Live Crew. Their stickered song ``Nasty As They Wanna Be'' has sold over 1 million copies, nine times more than its cleaned-up version, ``Clean as They Want to Be.''

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