Tough economy crushes Jewish music label’s vision

JDub execs look back at a decade of promoting Jewish musicians, and the grim realities that forced them to close shop.

July 31, 2011 04:00
Concert in Prospect Park.

concert 311. (photo credit: Jori Klein)

NEW YORK – JDub Records president Aaron Bisman and operating officer Jacob Harris sat at their offices in Midtown Manhattan on Thursday and proudly reflected on the decade they’ve spent promoting Jewish music together.

In that time they built a successful record label from scratch and brought to the fore a whole cadre of Jewish musicians, at least one of whom went on to become an international star.

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Soon, however, all that will end.

Earlier this month, JDub announced it will soon wind down its activities. The label said it was forced to close shop due to the implosion of the music industry and the drop in donations caused by the economic downturn.

“We knew it was coming all the time,” Bisman said. “I’m not a surfer, but I imagine it was like surfing, like we were like being chased by this impending doom. Ultimately, music isn’t less relative to people’s lives. It’s just that the business was collapsing.”

Things were different back in 2001 when Bisman founded the not-for-profit record label.

Then, music companies were raking in billions, mostly from CD sales. But Bisman sought out to do something a bit different, something nobody else was doing.

“I had spent my junior year in Israel, met all sorts of DJs – it was the first year of [Israeli hip hop outfit] Hadag Nahash – so I was tied into the nascent Israeli hip hop scene,” he said.

“I came back and one of my roommates was beginning to investigate some unique Jewish sounds of his own, taking some hassidic melodies and original stuff and combining with down-tempo hip hop...

and that was the impetus. If this is what one kid can come up with in a couple of months he can’t be the only one.”

The idea was simple: Find artists combining Jewish musical traditions with contemporary sounds and provide them a platform to engage Jewish audiences.

“The original American dream was be like everybody else,” Bisman explained. “Now everyone wants to be unique as possible, so for young Jews their Jewishness is one of the things that makes them unique.”

Soon enough the young entrepreneur was looking for musicians to sign up for his new endeavor. The Joshua Venture Group, a non-profit that supports Jewish innovators, provided him with his first funding in 2003, but Bisman’s project really took off when he struck gold with his second client.

Matthew Paul Miller was a little known Hassid who sang reggae and hip hop on Jewish themes. JDub took him under its wing and within a few years the artist better known by his stage name Matisyahu achieved international fame.

Another record label might have held on to a talent like Matisyahu for dear life, but not JDub.

“It was never focused on one artist,” said Harris. “It was focused on the idea that we could create scale by building teams around these people. But without us as the catalyst to those types of relationship within the music industry, these things wouldn’t necessarily connect with the audiences.”

After his big breakthrough, Matisyahu signed with Sony and JDub kept searching for up-and-coming Jewish musicians.

Over the next several years JDub introduced a string of musicians such as the Israeli outfit Balkan Beat Box, So Called and Girls in Trouble to a wider audience. It boasts having 150,000 people take part at events held in 472 cities and releasing 35 album – three of which went gold.

At the same time, the Internet was killing the business model of the music industry.

Suddenly, consumers no longer had to pay to listen to music. They could get for free.

“It was clear in the late ’90s that with the consolidation of the record companies this was what’s going to happen, and it peaked in 2001,” Harris said.

“The No Strings Attached ’N Sync record was the last selling album at that level.”

This year’s US top-selling album by The Decemberists sold 98,000 records, Bisman said. Five years ago that number wouldn’t have put it in the top five, he added.

The onset of the US recession in 2009 made things worse by drying up donations from Jewish philanthropists. Eventually, JDub had to yield to the grim economic realities.

Perhaps surprisingly, Bisman and Harris said they always knew JDub had an expiration date.

“We never sought to build a Jewish organization to last forever just so it would last forever,” Bisman said. “We’re not shy about speaking out and there’s been a major critique of the Jewish world that we have a lot of huge institutions that are raising and spending millions of dollars every year and it’s unclear what they’re out there for. We never wanted to be them.”

“In an ideal world, all nonprofits should go out of business,” Harris added. “[You achieve your mission] and then go out of business.”

Still, both men said JDub had not completed its mission.

Bisman said that if a philanthropist willing to fork out a million dollars a year to keep JDub running were found he would happily continue to run the label.

“But to be fair, we did not announce [we’re closing] expecting someone to pay six figures every year for X years,” he said. “This was not a Hail Mary pass.”

With several years of experience running a successful business, Bisman and Harris have many offers lined up.

The rest of JDub’s staff is also doing well and moving on to companies in the music industry and the US Jewish establishment.

Do Bisman and Harris have any regrets? “I definitely feel sometimes we were expected to overdeliver,” Bisman said. “Like if you ask for $50,000 and are given $25,000 and they expect $100,000 in value – and I think certainly early on that’s what we did – that’s not sustainable, because it’s really like sweat equity. So figuring out how you prove your commitment and passion and get your staff to do the same thing... that’s something on the whole the Jewish innovation economy hasn’t figured out.”

“I don’t think we cracked it, it would have nice to have cracked it,” Bisman summed up.

“That’s our only regret,” joked Harris, “we should have cracked that.”

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