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Springsteen Gets it in the Ass from Starbucks

WWW- Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics are too hot for Starbucks. NEWSWEEK has learned that the nation’s favorite coffee chain has retreated from a potential deal to sell the singer’s new album, “Devils & Dust,” because of one steamy tune on the 12-song disc. The song, “Reno,” is in part about an encounter with a prostitute. Springsteen includes a description of anal sex, including the price she charges for the act. Critics generally are hailing the CD, which was released last week on Columbia Records, a Sony Music label. It is the only Springsteen album to carry a parental warning due, ap­parently, to “Reno.”

The episode appears to be the first time Starbucks has declined to stock an album by a major act because of concern over lyrics, notwithstanding the warning sticker. The java juggernaut, with almost 6,400 outlets in the U.S., has become an influential link in music distribu­tion in just a few short years, especially in 2004. Starbucks boldly demonstrated its power in music last year when its outlets accounted for at least a third of sales of the million-selling album of Ray Charles duets, “Genius Loves Company.” Record labels increasingly view Starbucks as an attractive outlet for reachng fans of adult contemporary music, in­cluding baby boomers flush with disposable income but who’ve long since stopped browsing record-store aisles. What’s more, the mix of coffeehouse and music has a nostalgic appeal.

People familiar with the Springsteen situation say they doubt it will raise any general alarm within the music industry about censorship. Still, it remains to be seen whether the caffeine-beverage giant’s move becomes another stimulant for First Amendment advocates and others concerned about free-speech rights. In recent years, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has come under frequent criticism for what detractors believe is censorship involving books, CDs, books and other packaged media. And now the ubiquitous brand-name coffeehouse could find itself swept up in the broader indecency debate that’s been raging since Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl.

Starbucks declined to comment on the flap, refusing to elaborate on a statement issued by the chain after a NEWSWEEK query. “When considering new projects, our primary goal is always to help our customers discover and acquire quality music,” Starbucks said in the statement. “To that end, Starbucks is currently in discussions with many different artists and labels and therefore, we do not comment on rumors and speculation.”

According to those involved in the matter, Springsteen was never involved directly in the potential deal, which was handled by Columbia Records. Columbia also refused to comment. However, those close to the deal-speaking on condition that they not be identified-told NEWSWEEK that Starbucks initially wanted a promotional link between the new Springsteen CD and the Starbucks brand. But Columbia Records, apparently without consulting Springsteen, balked out of deference to the artist’s long­standing aversion to becoming a pitchman. The sources said Starbucks countered with a proposal to merely sell the CD at its out­lets. But after listening to the album, Starbucks executives stopped negotiations after hearing “Reno.”

The full album has received positive reviews, with critics generally hailing it as among Springsteen’s best work. “An extraordinary intermediary, Mr. Springsteen, with his grainy voice, brings us time and again into his intimate stories and we feel the struggles and conflicts of his finely wrought characters,” The Wall Street Journal wrote today in a review of “Devils & Dust.” The newspaper judged the work “a mature, affecting album” with the “qualities of art that will deepen and grow richer in the fullness of time.” The review didn’t focus specifically on “Reno.” Other reviewers have singled out the song, however. The critic for the Los Angeles Daily News labeled it “totally unnecessary.” Meanwhile, Britain’s Guardian newspaper devotes a hefty chunk of its review to the song, describing Springsteen’s “sudden interest in sodomy … genuinely startling.” “Reno,” wrote the Washington Post, “will rip your heart out for sure, and the ballad sets the tone for an album chock-full of world-weary drifters, many of whom are lost far west of the Mississippi.” According to those involved in the Springsteen matter, Starbucks never requested that the singer provide a “clean” version of “Reno” because they knew the artist would decline.

A spokeswoman for the chain declined to comment to NEWSWEEK on the company’s selection process for its music sales. Leveraging its expansive chain of familiar Star­bucks outlets, the coffee retailer began ex­panding aggressively into the entertainment arena in 1999. That’s when it purchased Hear Music, an alternative music retailer, for $8 million. Hear Music now bills itself as a tastemaking arbiter of good music. “Hear Music, with a catalog of nearly 100 CD compilations, handpicks songs from new and classic records to create CDs that help people discover music they might not hear otherwise,” Starbucks says in its PR packages. The music unit also creates the music programming and CDs for Starbucks worldwide. Last year, Starbucks and Hewlett-Packard formed a partner­ ship that enables the chain’s 35 million weekly consumers to burn CDs from a library of 250,000 songs for a fee at in-store kiosks called Media Bars. Hear Music also launched a satellite radio station on XM Satellite Radio. After showing its potential clout as a music retailer last year, Starbucks has begun to launch a chain of music stores, starting in Seattle.

Some music-industry executives say the Springsteen incident doesn’t raise censorship concerns because Starbucks only offers a very limited selection of CDs at any one time-no more than two or three artists-and it is understandable that they choose their selections carefully.

Still, concern could percolate as the coffeehouse giant continues to expand, especially given the numerous Wal-Mart controversies. Last year, for instance, the retail giant cancelled orders for “America (The Book)” by Jon Stewart and other writers from “The Daily Show.” The retailer objected to a picture in the book of nine aged bodies with the heads of Supreme Court justices superimposed, citing its belief that “the majority of our customers would be uncomfortable with it.”

Starbucks might well also have reason to be uncomfortable now. Even if Springsteen doesn’t roast the coffeehouse in future lyrics, late-night TV hosts surely will

 

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