Couple Avoids Jail: Will Keep Record Store Open

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by Judith Schumann Weizner

Back Issues of Heterodoxy

(April/May 2000)

The Musicants

The Musikants

Today, Ernest and Sylvia Musikant are breathing easy for the first time in many months , having won an eleventh-hour reprieve of the prison sentence they were to begin serving this morning for a violation of the Racial Equity in Employment Act.

The couple, whose classical record store, We’ll Get Bach To You, has been a fixture on Manhattan’s West Side since 1968, had been ordered to report to the Federal Race and Hate Crimes Correctional Facility on Ward’s Island to begin their fourteen-year term, but last-minute negotiations with former employee Harris Holloway led Holloway to drop his complaint in exchange for certain concessions.

Holloway, also known as Akimbo Ali, had charged the Musikants with promoting cultural stereotypes by giving him menial work to do while allowing other employees to sell records.

The Musikants hired Holloway in 1998 to do general maintenance and cleaning. As far as they knew he was satisfied with their treatment of him, but during his hearing before the Racial Equity in Employment Commission (REEC), it developed that Holloway had told his therapist that he felt his self-esteem seriously compromised by having to dust the displays in the presence of customers and the sales force.

At first, this revelation surprised the Musikants, but subsequently they recalled that the young man, a high school drop-out with no apparent interest in classical music, had once requested an opportunity to test his salesmanship skills. They agreed to consider him, but said he would have to pass the same test taken by all other employees.

When he took the test he was unable to name a single classical artist. (Because all prospective salespeople had to demonstrate a knowledge of artists and recordings by scoring at least 80 percent on a written test, most of the sales staff were conservatory students or graduates.) Since Holloway seemed so intent upon improving himself, the Musikants offered him one paid afternoon off each week for the purpose of studying and told him he could re-take the test at any time.


Aminu Ali Akimbo, Nigeria

After several months, he repeated the test, scoring 23 percent. The Musikants agreed that this was a significant improvement and encouraged him to keep studying, but reminded him that all sales personnel had to know 80 percent of the material.

During this time, We’ll Get Bach To You became involved in a controversy concerning its display window. The store had been decorated for Christmas and Chanukah, and prominent displays of recordings associated with the season had been arranged. When a neighborhood resident pointed out that the display took no notice of Kwanzaa, the Musikants explained that as yet there was no classical Kwanzaa music, and that the window had been planned with the idea of increasing seasonal sales of existing inventory.

This did not satisfy the neighbor, who filed a charge of cultural abrogation against them. Wishing to put an end to the matter as quickly as possible, the Musikants added a Kwanzaa display to the window and the charge was withdrawn. But the next day they received a directive from the Federal Dogma Tolerance Enforcement Agency (FDTEA) ordering the store closed immediately pending resolution of a complaint filed by the Upper West Side Alliance for Freedom from Religion, which protested the prominent placement of Bach’s Christmas Cantata in the show window.

Eager to reopen as quickly as possible at this most lucrative time of the year, the Musikants immediately moved the Christmas Cantata inside to a place where it could not be seen from the street, replaced it with a recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, and called the FDTEA to send a compliance monitor.

When the monitor saw the display, he commended them for having carried out the agency’s orders so quickly, and issued a certificate of compliance. The grateful Musikants, having lost only two days’ sales, re-opened the store, and, to entice shoppers, offered two recordings for the price of one. For a while it seemed they might be able to recoup their losses, but two days later, the FDTEA compliance monitor returned, citing a second complaint by the Upper West Side Alliance for Freedom from Religion, which claimed that while the Musikants appeared to have complied with the FDTEA directive, they actually persisted in violating their members’ right to freedom from religion, since everyone knew that Bach had been a highly religious composer.

Desperate to keep the store open, the Musikants offered to replace the Brandenburg concertos immediately with any recording of the compliance monitor’s choice. He agreed and, after an exhaustive perusal of their inventory, advised them that Vivaldi’s Four Seasons would probably be inoffensive. The Four Seasons replaced the Concertos in the show window and a second certificate was issued on the spot.

Three days later, however, the Musikants received another summons from the FDTEA ordering them to a hearing before an agency adjudicator to determine whether, at the time they consented to the replacement of the Concertos with the Four Seasons , they had been aware that Vivaldi was a priest. Since the summons was not accompanied by an order to close, they hastily removed the Four Seasons from the display and replaced it with The Rite of Spring.

The Musikants managed to break even for December despite the two-day closing. At the hearing they told the adjudicator that they had asked the agency’s own compliance monitor to choose the replacement for the Brandenburgs to prevent them from inadvertently contravening the agency’s wishes, and insisted that they had not known Vivaldi was a priest. However, their college transcripts revealed that both had received nearly perfect scores in music history, and when an inventory audit revealed that the fact of the composer’s priesthood was disclosed in the liner notes of one recording of a Vivaldi concerto, they were threatened with additional charges of obstructing the mission of a federal agency if they could not prove their ignorance.

The Musikants explained that on the day Vivaldi was discussed in music history they had become engaged and had cut class to celebrate. They also insisted that they would never read the liner notes of any recording sold in the store, as that would involve opening the wrapper. The FDTEA adjudicator promised a ruling within the month, and the Musikants went back to work. But before the decision came down they found themselves facing yet another threat.

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

The inventory audit carried out during the hearing had uncovered the fact that while the store’s inventory did include recordings by minority artists, 99.96 percent of the composers represented were of European background. Bound by the Uniform Federal Standards in Diversity Act, the FDTEA had shared its findings with the Federal Diversity Management Board (FDMB), which now demanded an exact accounting of the racial background of the artists represented in the store’s inventory. Because the order included a determination of the racial make-up of the various orchestras and chamber music groups whose recordings they sold, the Musikants had to hire a reference consultant and a mathematician.

When the audit proved that the racial character of the inventory was not representative of the country as a whole, the Musikants requested a hearing before an FDMB examiner. They reminded the examiner that We’ll Get Bach To You was a classical music store, specializing in music by classical composers, mostly dead white European males, although there were works by females as well, but that so far there was not much classical music by minority composers. They explained that they made it a point to showcase recordings by minority performers, and that whenever there were compositions by minority composers they promoted them as well.

The examiner said that while he understood the state of classical music in the United States, he had to enforce the standards mandated by the Uniform Federal Standards in Diversity Act, and gave them the choice of endowing a three million dollar fund for the training of classical composers from the inner city, or expanding their inventory to include music by minority composers and artists, whether or not it could be deemed “classical”. He reminded them that failure to comply would subject them to immediate forfeiture of the business and charges of cultural chauvinism.

Switched On Sebastian

Switched On Sebastian

Unable to endow a fund, the Musikants have agreed to set up a rap music section with Harris Holloway as its manager, in exchange for dismissal of all charges of cultural stereotyping against them. Lawyers for REEC have consented to allow Hollway to drop his complaint, even though making him manager of the rap section could open the door for a second charge of furthering a cultural stereotype if he later requests a position in the classical music section and does not get it. The Musikants also agree to continue Holloway’s paid afternoon off to further his classical studies.

While the FDTEA’s ruling on the obstruction charge is expected later this month, experts believe that it may be put on hold pending the results of the Musikants’s next three annual FDMB reviews.

In an interview today on New York’s Channel 99, Mr. Musikant, co-founder of New Yorkers for Sufficient Government, was asked whether his recent travails had undermined his confidence in the system.

“On the contrary,” he said. “I think this is a perfect example of what happens when good ideas mesh—we’ll have a job in management for Harris, which he wants, and my wife and I will not go to jail, which we want. We’ve been advised that we’ll have to change the name of the store to reflect its new diversity, so we’ve been fooling around with a few possibilities. What do you think of We’ll Get Rap Bach To You?”