The Day the Music Died?

From the reactions to the closing of JDub Records, you might imagine that it was the only music company serving younger Jews. One of the exceptions was the astute, must-read commentary by Jo Ellen Green Kaiser on the Zeek page of The Forward, which acknowledges “’underground’ record labels like Erez Safar’s Shemspeed outfit.” It pointedly captions Safar’s photo “Last Man Standing.”

Shemspeed’s music may not be “underground” but its reputation certainly is. Shemspeed is one of the projects that are fiscally sponsored by the organization I work for. When I’ve mentioned Shemspeed in conversation with foundations or Federation leaders the usual reaction is, “Who?” The obituaries of JDub typically note that Matisyahu recorded for JDub when it was launched, but they don’t mention that he now works with Shemspeed and has for the past couple of years. Shemspeed is virtually invisible to institutional leaders.

It’s not just a lack of awareness. When Shemspeed approaches foundations one of the first responses is, “but we fund JDub.” Jeremy Hulsh, founder of Israel-based Oleh! Records: Israel’s Music Export, keeps running into the same problem. “Usually,” he says, “their position is, ‘well, we support JDub; how are you different?’”. The premise is that JDub is the designated expert in contemporary Jewish music and the sole source of supply. That can only have the effect of marginalizing its competitors, deservedly or not. JDub’s contracts for producing events were sometimes exclusive as well. Unlike the realm of new Jewish publications, where multiple initiatives competed, the field of Jewish music has been viewed as having only one brand.

JDub’s marketing savvy is an important reason for the brand’s prominence. They targeted unaffiliated Jews by creating experiences with low barriers to entry, responding to a felt need in the community. The company has provided consulting services to non-music organizations like Nextbook/Tablet, and has been adept at forming other partnerships that extend the company’s influence. Aaron Bisman’s leadership has been outstanding.

JDub had a budget of $1.1 million and a staff of nine before it closed up shop. Shemspeed’s core staff numbers just two people, and Oleh! has comparable manpower. Both these latter companies rely far less on philanthropic money (though the Schusterman Foundation and a few others deserve credit for their support of Israel’s Music Export). Neither spends much money promoting themselves, though both are successful at marketing their products. Shemspeed cites coverage in The New York Times and Rolling Stone among several mainstream outlets, and reports some 14,597,263 YouTube views of its artists. Oleh! has been coordinating with government, the music industry, and artists to improve exposure of Israeli musicians in North America, South America and Europe for the last five years.

Each has a very particular mission. Shemspeed’s purpose “is unifying people through culture and education, celebrating diversity and common ground.” Shemspeed artists like Y-Love personify the wider racial and ethnic variety of Jewish identity, and its Sephardic Music Festival is entering its seventh year (last year’s Festival received a photo spread in The Wall Street Journal). The goal of Israel’s Music Export is also very specific: “connecting the Diaspora to Israel in a meaningful and lasting way through contemporary music created and performed by Israelis, changing the paradigm of what being Israeli is and can be to both Diaspora young people and the older generation.” By contrast, JDub’s mission was more generally to “forge vibrant connections to Judaism through music, media and cultural events.”

We ought to ask ourselves what we can learn from the different trajectories of JDub on the one hand, and Shemspeed and Oleh! on the other. First, considering the sums directed by funders to JDub, why are decision-makers largely unaware of the other options in the same field? Due diligence would seem to require that they at least inform themselves about available alternatives. Second, did JDub “scale up” because its funders expected such growth as a sign of success? Might the company have been sustainable with a smaller payroll?

Finally, it’s striking how JDub’s main purpose is “connections,” while for Israel’s Music Export and Shemspeed that is a by-product of more focused missions. If philanthropists ultimately didn’t give enough to keep JDub going, perhaps they weren’t persuaded that creating “moments of community” is worth it. Erez Safar looks for suitable artists who appeal to music fans broadly, recognizing that more Jews gravitate towards mainstream culture (like hip-hop) than to niche products. Oleh!’s Jeremy Hulsh exposes Israeli artists as a way of changing how Israel is perceived. Neither spends much money on overhead. As it happens, both Erez and Jeremy are members of the ROI Community, which has an extraordinary batting average in its selection of gifted young Jewish leaders. Maybe they’re on to something.

Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, the fiscal sponsor for more than 20 innovative Jewish projects. He earned his MBA at Harvard Business School.