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MODEST PROPOSAL: Set Made In America Free

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay originally appeared in Philadelphia Magazine in 2012. It’s no less true today.

BY JONATHAN VALANIA Time is short, and Labor Day weekend is almost upon us, so I will cut to the chase: Made In America, the genre-bending, two-day concert curated by Jay-Z and sponsored by Budweiser to be held on Ben Franklin Parkway on Saturday and Sunday, should be made a free concert, and all ticket holders refunded the full ticket price PLUS the $15 in service charges. Why? There are many good reasons, not the least of which is it would create the kind of goodwill for the Jay-Z and Budweiser brands that money simply can’t buy.

But the biggest and best reason Made in America should be free is this: In a city that is as impoverished as ours, it is unconscionable to fence off public space and charge the citizenry of Philadelphia the princely sum of $95 a day to stand on land they already own. That is just plain wrong, even if Skrillex is spinning.

Before we go any further, let’s go over some numbers.

In Philadelphia, a whopping 26.7 percent of the people live below the poverty line—i.e., an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four or $11,139 for an individual—which puts us way out front of Chicago (21.6 percent), Houston (20.6 percent), Los Angeles (19.58 percent) and New York City (18.7 percent) in the race to the bottom. And that’s just the working poor. Currently, unemployment in the City of Brotherly Love hovers at 10 percent which, in a city of 1.5 million, means 150,000 Philadelphians are currently without work.

Jay-Z’s net worth, according to Forbes, is $460 million. The bulk of that fortune comes from a number of recent business moves. In 2007, Jay-Z sold his Rocawear clothing label for $204 million. The next year he signed a 10-year, $150 million concert tour deal with Live Nation, which more or less means that Live Nation gave him $150 million and for the next 10 years every cent of his concert revenues will go to pay off that advance. Presumably the Made in America concert, which is being produced by Live Nation, is part of that deal. He currently holds stakes in the Brooklyn Nets, the 40/40 Club chain, and an ad firm called Translation. As recently as 2010, he was pulling down $63 million a year in income. That is a remarkable financial CV, especially when you consider the fact that Jay-Z, aka Shawn Carter, came from nothing. He grew up in Marcy Houses, a housing project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, which, it is safe to say, doesn’t turn out a lot of mega-millionaires.

Jay-Z is the living embodiment of the American Dream, never mind that his ticket out of the projects wasn’t rapping, but the sale and distribution of crack cocaine. At the height of his drug dealing days, when he oversaw a distribution network that extended out of Brooklyn to Trenton and down to Maryland and Virginia, he was moving upwards of a kilo of cocaine a week. At the time, the going rate for a kilo of pure coke was $20,000, but if you turned it into crack, you could quadruple your revenues, according to his business associates at the time. There are many words you could use to characterize such an operation: ruthless, immoral, felonious. But I prefer the most accurate and honest name for it: raw capitalism.

While Jay-Z is widely applauded, and rightfully so, for his accomplishments as a recording artist, performer and entrepreneur, his philanthropic activities, or lack thereof, have been roundly criticized as of late. In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Harry Belafonte, long the moral compass of black America, calls out Jay-Z and his wife Beyonce for having “turned their back on social responsibility.” Earlier this year, reports surfaced that in 2010 the only out-of-pocket charitable donation Jay-Z made was a whopping $6,431 to his own scholarship fund in the form of a loan to cover operating costs that he later forgave. That year he earned $67 million, while his wife brought home an additional $87 million.

This tightfistedness is not without precedent; even back when he was slinging rock in the projects he was known as something of a miser. As his associate at the time, DeHaven Irby, recently told the New York Post:

“Jay was more efficient. I would overpay the runners so they would be happy and not steal, and he would pay exactly what they were worth,” Irby says. “I kept 15 runners and he had two people and was doing pretty much the same numbers.” When it came to selling, Jay-Z was strict: No discounts for anybody. “A lot of people thought of him as stingy,” Irby says. “If the product was $10, you couldn’t get it for $9.”

Another highly successful drug dealer is Anheuser-Busch InBev, Budweiser’s parent company, which sold roughly $35 billion worth of suds in 2011. That impressive sales volume is due in no small part to a $1.3 billion annual marketing budget, roughly $350 million of which goes towards the marketing of Budweiser products, which includes sponsoring things like the Made in America concert. Those remarkable figures are underwritten by the enormous social costs associated with alcohol. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol kills more than 2.5 million people every year—more than AIDS, tuberculosis or violence—and is the number one risk factor for death for males aged 15-69. Every year, 11,000 people die from alcohol-related car accidents in this country. That’s three 9/11s every year.

I only bring all of this up because, as I said at the top, I think Anheuser-Busch should eat the cost of putting on Made in America and make it a free concert, and Jay-Z is the one person who could convince them to do so. He could start by waiving whatever fees he’s charging to curate, promote and perform at Made in America, as well as any profit-sharing he would have participated in. I don’t pretend to know exactly how much putting on a concert like Made in America will cost, but for the sake of argument let’s say it’s $10 million, a figure I am fairly confident is well above the actual operating costs. Anheuser-Busch spends that every three days on global marketing. Making Made in America a free concert would be one small step for Anheuser-Busch but one giant karmic leap for the Jay-Z and Budweiser brands, both of which, in my estimation, could use a little halo-polishing. Yes, I heard that Ron Howard is planning to film the concert and an undisclosed portion of the proceeds are going to the United Way. Now I love Opie as much as any other Andy Griffith Show fan, but I’m not impressed by undisclosed portions and besides charity begins at home. So what do you say, Shawn? Look into your heart, man, the right answer is in there. Noblesse oblige. Or, as Spiderman’s uncle put it, with great power comes great responsibility.

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