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Parental Warning Labels Differ for Different Companies

May 12, 1992

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ In an exchange familiar to blues fans, a cranky Sonny Boy Williamson mutters a 12-letter obscenity at his producer.

When the rock band Little Village inserted a recording of Williamson’s words into a song on its new album this year, the record company decided against placing a label warning parents of explicit lyrics on the disc’s packaging.

Yet when a different record company re-released Williamson’s material recently, the same exchange earned a warning label.

That’s just one illustration of what casual music fans already know - the 2-year-old system of putting warning labels on recordings is far from foolproof.

The music industry’s chief lobbyist and a parent’s group that initially complained about explicit lyrics both say they’re happy with the labels.

But the industry may still fail in its main goal in introducing the voluntary labeling - staving off legislative interference.

″There’s a sense by a lot of people that it’s been a waste of time,″ said Robert Merlis, a spokesman for Warner Bros. Records. ″We sort of bought into this thinking not so much that it would calm the waters, but that it would give people information they could use. I’m not sure how many people have actually used that information.″

The black-and-white labels, unveiled in May 1990, say ″Explicit Lyrics - Parental Advisory.″ They were to be placed on albums that might be objectionable because of lyrics dealing with sex, violence, suicide, drug abuse or satanic worship.

But the labels are like a law without teeth. The Recording Industry Association of America, whose members produce more than 90 percent of the records sold in the United States, said it would leave the decisions on whether a record should have a label up to the individual record companies.

″I think our member companies see it as an effective tool and they’ve created their own standards for what they feel is appropriate,″ said RIAA spokesman Timothy Sites.

Many member companies are reluctant to talk about why some records are labeled, and other records are not.

A Sony Music spokesman said the company follows the RIAA standards. Told the RIAA leaves the standards up to the company, the spokesman said he’d check into it and return a reporter’s phone call. He didn’t.

The rising rock band Cracker released an album on Virgin Records this spring with a four-letter obscenity in a song title. The record had no warning sticker.

Virgin’s president, Jeff Ayeroff, said through a spokeswoman that he didn’t want to talk about the label’s decision-making process. The spokeswoman said Ayeroff has the final call.

At the record giant Warner’s, labeling a record is a committee decision, Merlis said. The decisions are judgment calls with no hard-and-fast rules.

″We don’t have a stylebook like a newspaper would have,″ he said.

That’s left Warner’s open to some second-guessing.

A Neil Young album that included a song title with a common obscenity was not labeled while a Prince album received a sticker when the nastiest term was ″pee,″ according to Rolling Stone.

The organization whose protests about explicit lyrics ignited the controversy, the Parents Music Resource Center, says it’s happy with how the labeling has worked out. The PMRC is getting far fewer complaints than it used to, said spokeswoman Suzie Talaat.

Talaat noted that some record companies appear to base their labeling decisions on more than whether off-color language is used.

″Describing violent or sexual activity is much more important than the words being used,″ she said.

Nothing annoys opponents of the labels more than the PMRC’s apparent satisfaction. The newsletter Rock and Roll Confidential, edited by rock critic Dave Marsh, is spearheading a national petition campaign to encourage companies to ditch the labels.

Marsh calls the labels a step toward censorship and contends the record companies are unfairly targeting rap and heavy metal albums that are particularly appealing to teen-agers.

″A relevant question, it seems to me, is what exactly is it that people are being warned against,″ Marsh said. ″Warning: You are listening to a Negro?″

The recording industry bragged that warning labels initially persuaded many state lawmakers to abandon attempts to pass legislative restrictions. But in an election year, that has changed.

Washington Gov. Booth Gardner this spring signed a bill that could impose a jail term on anyone who sells a recording that a judge deems ″erotic″ to a minor.

A Louisiana representative has proposed legislation that would make it a crime to sell or distribute an album with harmful lyrics to any unmarried person under age 17, Sites said.

In Nebraska, an Omaha city councilman conducted an unofficial sting operation with four youths buying an album by 2 Live Crew. The councilman wants to prosecute the record stores for selling pornography to juveniles.

Bills are pending in the Michigan Legislature that would allow each community in the state to create its own standards for obscenity, which the RIAA says ″could wreak havoc″ on distribution levels.

″It’s an election year, so there are a lot of states out there that are raising the issue,″ Sites said. ″Our role is educating state legislatures about the effectiveness of the logo. In some states we’ve been successful in that and in others we have a long way to go.″

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