But Wal-Mart's mass-market efficiency, argues BusinessWeek, carries a cultural price tag. The company's purchasing decisions are beginning to influence not just the production of toothpaste and shampoo -- where it controls about 30 percent of U.S. market share -- but also entertainment and literary items. "Wal-Mart also is Hollywood's biggest outlet, accounting for 15 percent to 20 percent of all sales of CDs, videos and DVDs," says BusinessWeek. "They pile up best-sellers like toothpaste," said Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio.
The cultural left finds this troublesome. "Wal-Mart's cultural gatekeeping," says BusinessWeek, "has served to narrow the mainstream for entertainment offerings while imparting to it a rightward tilt." It doesn't sell "CDs or DVDs with parental warning stickers."
Yet, if Wal-Mart abandoned its apparently conservative bias and started making purchases with the same sensibilities that inspire television networks to program raunchy sit-coms, it would be conservatives who complained. Indeed, BusinessWeek foresees just such a change as Wal-Mart continues expanding from its rural base into urban areas. "The market for profanity-laced hip-hop may be tiny in Bentonville, Ark.," says the magazine, "but it is big in Los Angeles."
What's the antidote to homogenized Cher concerts in 189 arenas and "profanity-laced hip-hop" someday hitting the shelves even at Wal-Mart? Freedom to choose.
I found an excellent choice just a couple of days before attending Cher's concert. My wife and I went to the Birchmere, a music venue tucked into an old warehouse in Alexandria, Va. About 500 people gathered there to see the Mavericks, a unique country band led by Raul Malo, whom a reviewer for The Los Angeles Times once said "delivers a sweet croon as well as anyone since Roy Orbison."
For years critics have predicted the Mavericks will be huge stars. I agree they should be. But, so far, my view is not shared by the masses that crowd Cher concerts and the aisles of Wal-Mart.
They make their choices; I make mine. Cher makes her music; the Mavericks make theirs. And someday, maybe, they'll play the MCI Center, too.
But truth be told, I'd rather see them at the Birchmere -- even if that's one choice the Mavericks hope the free market denies me.