California Libraries Flooded With Lame CDs

Record companies seem to be unloading their leftovers to satisfy antitrust settlement.

California librarians have had just about enough of Jessica Simpson. And they’re not too crazy about Ricky Martin, Mandy Moore or Christina Aguilera, either.

As part of a 3-year-old antitrust settlement with music companies, nearly 700,000 CDs are being shipped out to California schools and libraries; the shipments will continue until June. Some Golden State librarians, however, are scratching their heads over the packages, which are heavy on overhyped but undersold CDs that apparently were gathering dust in the record companies’ storage rooms.

“It’s kind of a shock to see things you’d expect at a garage sale,” said Steve Sloan, supervising librarian of Sunnyvale Public Library, whose shipment will include 16 copies each of Martin’s Sound Loaded and Everclear’s Songs From an American Movie, Vol. Two, 14 copies of Simpson’s lackluster Irresistible and nine copies of Christina Aguilera’s 2000 Christmas album. “It’s like what you’d see if you walked into a used-CD store and went to the dollar bin. It seems like the record companies are going through their warehouses and donating what won’t sell.”

Sloan was particularly puzzled by the 16 copies of albums by Samantha Mumba and Mark Wills that he’s scheduled to receive. “I do all the CD buying for the library and I’ve never heard of [these people],” he said. “We already have three copies of the Ricky Martin album. Do we really need to have 19 now?”

John Roberts, head of the Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library at the University of California, Berkeley, said his shipment includes many titles that are out of place in an academic library. “I don’t see it as getting junk or leftovers, but it does seem that the record companies want to satisfy their legal obligations by sending large quantities of CDs that they don’t expect to sell. We received 24 Christmas albums — that particular kind of popular music is something that people are less likely to see as artistic expression, and therefore they are less likely to be studied here. I don’t want to say we’re ungrateful for receiving a gift from the state, but we feel that it might have been done in such a way that would be more useful for our educational process.”

The CD distribution stems from the 2002 settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed by dozens of states two years earlier (California is among the last states to receive its CDs). The suit accused major record labels and retailers of price-fixing, an illegal practice whereby chains like Sam Goody and Tower agreed to jack up the price of a CD in exchange for the labels’ financial assistance with advertising (see “Labels Owe Consumers $140 Million From Inflated CD Prices, Settlement Says” ). As part of the deal, California schools and libraries are expected to receive $9 million worth of CDs, figuring that each CD is valued at about $13.50.

“But most of the CDs we’re getting wouldn’t sell for a dollar,” Sloan said. “I think the state of California got ripped off by about $8 million.”

The quantity and quality of what the labels are pawning off on the public’s educational institutions have met intense criticism before, such as when a school district in Washington received 1,300 copies of Whitney Houston’s rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” last year. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, whose office is handling the statewide CD distribution, has taken measures to ensure that his state’s libraries aren’t flooded with obscure albums or too many duplicates. One of his requirements is that all pop albums must have spent at least 26 weeks on the Billboard chart. Unfortunately, Lockyer’s office could only choose albums from a list that was finalized in 2003 — meaning one that’s chock full of Crazy Town, Oleander, 98 Degrees and Eagle-Eye Cherry.

“There’s no accounting for taste, I guess,” said Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for Lockyer. “We would encourage the recipients to go through the collections they receive carefully and find uses for them. We also encourage them to contact our office with any questions, concerns and problems they have, and we will work out solutions with them.”

He added that libraries are free to sell the CDs at fundraisers or give them away. “We think, by and large, recipients will be pleased with the wide variety.”

Other libraries and schools are eager to receive their shipments and put them to good use. “We certainly welcome any donation to our school district,” said Bill Card of the Glendale Unified School District. “You get a gift, and you do the lemons-into-lemonade thing.”

Some recipients were outright pleased. “I would say that there’s more variety than I would have expected, and actually I was surprised to see so many classical titles,” said Nancy Mahr, public information officer at Los Angeles County Library. The library is receiving nearly 37,000 CDs, which will be divided among 84 libraries and four bookmobiles.

“With our 405 copies of Ricky Martin, we’ll have plenty to go around,” she said.