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No pot shots on Willie Nelson album cover

Retailers get a choice between marijuana leaves and palm trees
/ Source: Billboard

Pot leaves or palm trees? Retailers have a choice as to which of those images will grace their shelves as the cover of Willie Nelson’s new Lost Highway project “Countryman,” a reggae album a decade in the making.

Though marijuana is a substance long associated with reggae and the red-headed stranger, the label is taking no chances in its push to attract as wide a consumer base as possible.

“We made a decision months before the record came out,” says Ben Kline, senior VP of sales and marketing at Universal Music Group Nashville. He denies that the label bowed to pressure from Wal-Mart for a safer cover.

“We anticipated that some (retailers) might not want to carry the version that has a pot leaf on it. So we made two covers from day one, and in fact, the majority of our customers have chosen the alternate cover (the palm tree) ... There’s a perception that this was done for one customer. That was simply not the case.”

Kline declined to comment on which version of the album any particular retailer is carrying. “Countryman” went on sale July 12.

Virgin Megastores is carrying both covers. “We really feel it’s up to the customer to decide which version they prefer to buy,” says Virgin chief marketing officer Dave Alder, who observes that both album covers are selling equally well. “When there are two versions offered, we’ll usually carry both versions and let the customer decide ... We’re located in considerably different types of locations, from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles and New York’s Times Square. We need to make sure we appeal to a very broad section of music buyers.”

According to Musicland spokeswoman Laurie Bauer, “We have (the version with) the weed on the front. Generally we tend to appeal to a little edgier audience, and we don’t shy away from the controversy.”

'We're talking Willie here'Brian Smith, VP of store operations for Value Central Entertainment, sees the controversy as much ado about nothing.

“His fans are seeking out the original cover, according to our store managers, and sales are proving that out,” Smith says. “I imagine other traditional music retailers feel the same way. The true fans don’t want the palm tree version. Hey, we’re talking Willie here.”

“Countryman” sold 21,000 units its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “At the end of the day, we want this music to be heard,” Kline says. “It’s a very unique Willie record. I didn’t want anyone in America to not be able to walk in any store and buy this record. It was a pre-emptive move on our part to ensure that people could hear the music.”

Retailers understand the label’s sensitivity. “People have different tastes, and you need to appeal to different preferences,” Bauer says.

Jon Kerlikowske, general manager of Tower Records’ downtown Nashville location, says his store is carrying the pot leaf version. He says it is not unusual for a label to offer different cover options, if there is a risk of alienating a potential sale. “There’s always going to be someone out there like that,” he says of people who take offense, “but that’s not necessarily our customer base.”