Where's the dirty version of Eminem's album? Most CD buyers are now visiting K-Mart or Wal-Mart, says David Browne, and that explains why music choices are becoming so limited
Credit: Eminem: Doug Peters/All Action/Retna

Where’s the dirty version of Eminem’s album?

For employees of Kmart, not to mention anyone who craves an inexpensive garden hose, the news last month that the chain was filing for bankruptcy wasn’t good. But for anyone who loves music, the news may not be so bad.

Last week, a ”national music consumer study” landed on my desk. The most fascinating stats weren’t those about the rise of home-made CDs (half of those polled had them, compared to 30 percent a year before), or that three times as many record-store shoppers are likely to buy an album based on a ”display at end of aisle” than a listening booth, or that new age is making a comeback. (The latter is Sept. 11’s true musical legacy, as opposed to Paul McCartney’s lame ”Freedom” — and could someone PLEASE tell that to Sir Paul?)

No, the most fascinating — and disturbing — part of the survey was the chart listing where people buy their records. Topping the list, with a whopping 32 percent, was Wal-Mart, followed by Best Buy and Target (20 percent each) and Kmart (16 percent). For the most part, those old-fashioned entities known as ”record stores” were relegated to the lower echelons of the chart. Poor Tower, for instance, is third from last, only registering 7 percent of the vote.

That explains why the once gleaming, heavenly Tower in lower Manhattan, a mecca when it first opened in the early ’80s, now seems like one of those deserted Old West towns after the gold rush. It also explains why, more than ever, the same albums sit in the top 40 week after week after week.

Not long ago, I found myself in need of music, and Kmart was the only option within driving distance. The experience was, to say the least, enlightening. The music department, already encroached upon by new aisles devoted to DVDs, had the current hits and only a scant assortment of oldies (meaning music made before, oh, 1998). One of the albums I wanted was Eminem’s ”The Marshall Mathers LP,” but all I could find was the ”clean” version — the other legacy of chains like Kmart. Even THAT was frustrating: The usual four-letter phrases were deleted, of course, but ”bitch” was deemed acceptable enough to retain. Go figure.

”Kmart as Metaphor” may sound like the title of a pompous pop-culture term paper, but it’s not far from the truth. With alarming intensity over the last decade, the music business has become an all-or-nothing world — either an album is a blockbuster or it isn’t. Dominant chains like Kmart and Wal-Mart have largely contributed to that mentality — to the homogeneity of tastes and to the marginalizing of anything that doesn?t sell kazillions. I hope Kmart stays afloat — hey, I admit to having dropped a few bucks there on some good deals — but if it vanishes, perhaps Joe Record Buyer will instead visit the record store down the street. And maybe he’ll leave with a new and vibrant album he never would have stumbled upon at Kmart, even during a Blue Light Special.