Not even the Man of Steel could stop the new album by critically acclaimed artist Sufjan Stevens from hitting most store shelves on its July 5 release date. He came close, though.
Stevens’ latest set, “Illinois,” originally featured a comic-book-style cover image of Superman soaring over the Chicago skyline. When the singer’s label, Asthmatic Kitty, realized the image was not licensed, it asked retailers to pull the album. By the end of the release day, however, it was back on most store shelves — if it had even left them.
The confusion began in late June, when the Lander, Wyo.-based label was informed by its lawyers that it should contact “Superman” publisher DC Comics for copyright clearance. (Contrary to published reports, DC did not contact the label first.) Most retailers, however, had already received their orders of “Illinois.”
The label’s distributor, Bloomington, Ind.-based Secretly Canadian, sent notices to retailers June 30 asking them to not sell the album. Chris Swanson, who heads Secretly Canadian’s distribution department, says the company opted not to recall the album while it awaited word from Asthmatic Kitty’s talks with DC Comics.
“There’s no one overriding image in the artwork, and nothing was trying to be capitalized on,” Swanson says of the original cover. Still, the distributor is manufacturing copies without the superhero image that should be in stores by the end of this month.
“There are a number of people who feel that they should have noticed it, and I’m one of them,” Asthmatic Kitty co-owner Lowell Brams says. “Someone we work with in the U.K. asked us about it, so we asked our attorney, and that’s when we realized we should do something.”
“Illinois,” which generated a bounty of critical buzz, is the second album in Stevens’ “50 States” project. The first, “Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State,” has sold 27,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Indie retailers were looking to the new set to boost depressed summer sales.
Swanson says most indie outlets complied with Secretly Canadian’s request and did not sell “Illinois” on its release date. However, the distributor sent another notice July 5 giving indie stores the go-ahead when it realized larger chains were still selling the album.
Eric Levin at Criminal Records in Atlanta says he brought in 100 copies and sold about 30 once he was allowed to Tuesday evening. Others, including East Coast chain Newbury Comics, were still getting the album back on shelves as of July 6.
Predictably, as word of the alternate cover spread, copies of the set with the Superman character were selling for as much as $75 on eBay. But at least one indie retailer says it will take more than superheroic snafus to substantially boost sales.
“The people who are interested in it are interested it,” Newbury Comics buyer Carl Mello says. “We don’t expect a bunch of Shania Twain fans to buy it because of Superman.”