Last week, while music fans were scrambling for tickets to Barbra Streisand's concerts, the music industry was wrestling with a sellout of a different kind: Geffen Records' decision to end a six-month face-off with the nation's discount stores by changing the art on Nirvana's lauded 1993 album In Utero.
In the fall, stores such as Kmart and Wal-Mart refused to stock In Utero, claiming its back cover a pinkish photo of fetuses strewn on a field of innards, daisies, and tiger lilies was unfit for ''the family-oriented customer.'' At the time, the label didn't fight the judgment a decision that has since proven costly. Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, and other so-called rack accounts were responsible for nearly a quarter of all record sales last year, and it's no secret that In Utero, with sales inching toward 2 million copies, has been a pale commercial follow-up to the 5 million-selling Nevermind.
Geffen's marketing staff reapproached the band earlier this year about revising the back cover, including enlarging the photo to block out the fetuses and renaming the song ''Rape Me'' to ''Waif Me.'' ''We wanted to find a way of getting in there so that kids (could) buy the record,'' says Geffen sales exec Ray Farrell.
While rap albums regularly come out in dual versions (clean and dirty), this case is being viewed as a new signal that record companies may be forced to sacrifice creative expression on rock albums for the tastes of heartland America. As a Kmart spokesman warns, ''The rule is, if it's got a (warning) sticker, we don't carry it.''
With that in mind, an altered version of Mellow Gold, the new disc from slacker wunderkind Beck, will be released by Geffen in May, featuring songs technically altered ''when the word f--- or s--- is used,'' says Farrell. ''You listen to it and you imagine the word, but you don't hear it.'' The CD will carry no sticker.
While such revisions are limited to a handful of recent rock albums (the alternative metal band Tool changed the cover of Undertow to a generic bar code rather than delete provocative package art), some see Nirvana's capitulation as a turning point. ''Whether they sell 2 million or 10 million records, they're leaders of this kind of music,'' says former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra. ''If the leaders hold steady, then other people will, too.''
Nirvana, for its part, doesn't see it that way. Two thirds of the band, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, grew up in Aberdeen, Wash., ''and the only place they were able to get their music was Wal-Mart and Kmart,'' the band's spokeswoman, Janet Billig, has said. ''They really want to make their music available to kids who don't have the opportunity to go to mom-and-pop stores. They feel strongly enough to make some alterations.'' (Additional reporting by Heidi Siegmund and Robert Seidenberg)