Commerce and Community

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By Errol T. Louis
Time for Tish to Face the Music
With less than a month to go before the Democratic primaries, a tough race is shaping up for the city council seat in district 35 (Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Crown Heights and Prospect Heights). Incumbent Letitia “Tish” James is fighting off a challenge by Eric Blackwell over the issue of economic development in Central Brooklyn.
As Tish has known for months, her opposition to the Atlantic Yards project carries significant political consequences. Developer Bruce Ratner’s $2 billion proposal for a sports arena and more than 4,500 units of new housing – half of it specially subsidized to keep it affordable – is the best economic news to hit the district in decades.
But Tish never stopped trying to slow or kill the project, even as community activists with impeccable credentials announced their support for Atlantic Yards, including Rev. Herbert Daughtry, Bertha Lewis of ACORN, the Rev. Al Sharpton and James Caldwell. That gives Blackwell an opening to argue that Tish is out of touch with her district’s economic needs.
Tish has been dead wrong about Atlantic Yards, but strong on other issues. Most notably to her credit, she recently joined a bloc of councilmembers that cast a key vote to reorganize the city’s garbage-disposal system so that less waste will be trucked through black and Latino neighborhoods.
Look for Blackwell’s campaign to make the case that many of us have been screaming about for years: there is no more pressing challenge facing Central Brooklyn than the need for more capital investment, economic development and job creation.
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Keeping it Fake…in the Music Business
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s landmark $10 million settlement last month with Sony BMG for using bribery to manipulate the playlists of stations around the country – an illegal practice known as payola – provides an opening to reclaim popular music from the greedy, no-talent hacks at record labels and radio stations who are hastening the ruin of American culture.
It turns out that the monotonous repetition of awful music played on commercial radio stations is largely caused by companies like Sony, the world’s second-largest record label, that regularly paid millions of dollars in under-the-table bribes to radio hosts and producers to get specific songs played over and over, without regard to a tune’s worth or initial popularity.
The select handful of illegally hyped tunes eventually catch on from sheer repetition and sell well, but the overall result has been a tidal wave of mediocrity that causes record sales to drop year after year.
In the category of hip-hop music, industry insiders have long complained that payola bribery has fueled the rise of marginally talented gangsta rappers – who endlessly boast of “keeping it real” even while relying on corporate bribery to purchase airplay and popularity they could never dream of achieving honestly.
It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time in the music business, the key to success was “having ears” – spending long nights haunting bars, nightclubs and juke joints scouting new talent.
The legends in the business were men like the late John Hammond, who exchanged a Yale degree and wealthy pedigree as part of the Vanderbilt family for a life in the Greenwich Village jazz clubs, where he discovered and promoted a 17-year-old unknown named Billie Holiday in the 1930s, along with groups like the Count Basie Band.
Decades later, as a talent scout for Columbia Records, Hammond helped launch the career of another teenager named Aretha Franklin and had the ears to discover folk singers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.
One of Hammond’s last finds before his death in 1987 was a kid from Jersey named Bruce Springsteen.
Clive Davis, another talent scout for Columbia, signed Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana and Billy Joel in the ’60s and ’70s, then formed Arista Records in 1974 and brought us pop giants like Patti Smith and Whitney Houston.
Arista was later bought by Sony, which last year fired 110 Arista workers and folded the label into RCA.
As corporate giants purchased and shut down independent labels, the men with ears have been replaced by lazy, greedy company men who see popular music as nothing more than a commodity to buy, sell and manipulate by any available means.
These payola crooks are denying the rest of us access to the real talent in our land – and breaking the law to boot.
As Spitzer’s probe continues, these frauds will be exposed, along with bribe-taking radio executives at stations in New York and elsewhere.
If we’re lucky, the scandal will start a revival of the music business as a place where extraordinary talent and unique voices can be discovered, promoted and shared with the world.