May 4, 2006
For Musicians, It’s Good to Be Labeled
When Chasidic reggae-rapper Matisyahu sold 350,000 units of his new album, "Youth," in the first weeks after its release, he redrew the rule book for marketing Jewish music.
Or, more accurately, Aaron Bisman and Jacob Harris, his now former managers and heads of JDub Records, the singer's erstwhile label, redrew the rule book.
That had been their intention all along, and Matisyahu's sudden departure from the JDub fold will have no apparent impact on their plans. Bisman and Harris simply will shift their energies to Balkan Beat Box, SoCalled, the newly signed Golem and other artists in their growing stable of Jewish hip-hop and rock musicians.
"This has all been the result of many years of plotting and planning," Bisman confided last month in the label's surprisingly quiet and tidy office in Greenwich Village.
Truth be told, it can't have been that many years of plotting and planning -- Bisman and Harris are only 26.
Their youth is actually one of the advantages they bring to the crowded independent-record label horse race, a race in which they are one of several new players with a distinctly Jewish slant to their choice of artists. Along with other Jewish-oriented labels like the L.A-based Jewish Music Group and the artist owned and driven Modular Moods, JDub is combining an uncanny ear for new sounds with an understanding of new media that makes these small companies big players.
Bisman and Harris grew up together in Scottsdale and Phoenix, Ariz., and music was always at the center of their career choices. After they moved to the East Coast, a third friend, Benjamin Hesse, cut a record, and they began trying to sell it.
"It was quality music, great songs," Harris says. "It sounded good and we got to thinking..."
"...Who would put this out?" Bisman says, finishing the sentence for his long-time partner. "Wouldn't it be cool to hear this at the Mercury Lounge?"
Around the same time, they befriended a young singer who was becoming involved with the Lubavitchers -- Matisyahu.
"We really believe in high-quality Jewish music, so we began to think actively about what our definition of Jewish music was," Bisman says. "We looked at what John Zorn was doing with Tzadik, his label. He would give an artist $5,000 and allow them to do what they wanted. Jewish Alternative Music was just closing its doors; their art was awesome, but the marketing was awful."
With those two benchmarks available at the outset, Bisman and Harris began thinking through what JDub could be.
"We wanted to position our label so that it would have a chance of reaching a real audience," Bisman says. "So we came up with a few simple guidelines. We wanted bands that would play comfortably in secular spaces, not just the JCCs and synagogues. We wanted artwork -- record jackets, posters and so on -- that would be appealing. And we wanted to stay away from klezmer at the outset, because that niche was pretty much sewed up and would limit us to an older audience."
In short, JDub would try to make music that would appeal first to the founders' cohort, the audience that they knew best and which, frankly, is the most active music-buying public.
More than that, though, JDub wouldn't just release the records and kick the acts out on the road to fend for themselves.
"I had made some connections, I had been out on the road, frankly a little too much, and I know how to manage an act," Harris says. "We wanted to be able to do everything for the bands we sign."
"It's not just about putting out a record," Bisman says. "We want to make sure our artists are long-term successes and don't burn out."
The marketing plan Harris outlines was simple: "We speak to our peer group and other kids. We realized that if we do more events we would brand ourselves even before we had records to sell. Then you have an audience waiting."
That strategy tied in nicely with their desire to use Jewish music as a way of bringing the community together, so nicely that the label is now a nonprofit Jewish organization, funded in part by UJA-Federation in New York, with a similar relationship in the offing in Los Angeles.
"We have a mailing list of 5,000-6,000," Harris says, "They're young, cool and have quality, and these are people that Jewish organizations need to, want to reach."
Both Erez Handler, who owns and runs Modular Moods, and David McLees, one of the two heads of the Jewish Music Group, express a little good-natured envy of JDub's nonprofit hookup.
"They don't have some of the financial pressures we have," McLees said in a phone call from Los Angeles. "We have to turn a profit faster than they do. But I think they do fine work. They're very focused."
Handler, who records on his own label as DJ Handler, notes that Modular Moods isn't really "a Jewish label, but a lot of our music that gets attention is Jewish music."
He points out that only two of the label's 10 artists are overtly Jewish. But Modular Moods was the force behind last fall's Sephardic Music Festival in New York City.
"I like doing Jewish music or non-Jewish music, as long as it's good music,"
Handler, who is an observant Jew, says. "You get to collaborate with more people when you don't allow yourself to be pigeonholed."
Like Harris and Bisman, Handler is 26 and says that the target audience for Modular's releases "has always been myself and my friends from college. College-radio style, people who are searching for new music, not just one style but music fans with diverse tastes."
Modular Moods' artist list includes Juez, a high-energy jazz-funk band with a klezmer tang; African American Jewish rapper Y-Love, and alt-rockers Bellflur.
Jewish Music Group's artists include satirical rapper Chutzpah, the Moshav Band, Connie Francis and Don Rickles.
Connie Francis and Don Rickles?
"Richard Foos and I worked together on Rhino Records for 18 years before we began JMG," McLees explains. "We're from the mainstream and we've got one foot in the mainstream and one in the niche market. That's what sets us apart from JDub or Modular Moods."
That and the fact that he and Foos are in the their mid-40s.
"We want to take the Jewish out of marketing Jewish music so that our artists have a chance of crossing over, but we also want to distribute the other way, to reaffirm their Jewish identity," McLees says. "We have everything from Don Rickles to David Broza and Debbie Friedman, from the Moshav Band to Jackie Mason. We're tying to hit all the different strata that Jewish music includes, everything from an Orthodox religious group to cultural Jews."
As a result, unlike JDub and Modular, JMG has made a particular effort to place their records in Judaica stores throughout the country.
Harris characterizes Modular's vibe as "more DIY than ours," and JMG's as more mainstream, but all three labels express admiration for one another and single out artists in their competitors' stables that they like.
Handler is quick to sing the praises of Balkan Beat Box.
"I think they are the artists that could have a lasting career," he predicts.
With Balkan Beat Box, the band is actually composed of musicians from different backgrounds playing a mix of a lot of cultures, and I think that is something very strong, as opposed to throwing this one style over this other style."
"JDub does great stuff," McLees says. "I think their first priority is to find something Jewish and break it into the mainstream. We should all be grateful for what they did with Matisyahu."
Does that mean that Balkan Beat Box could be looking at platinum somewhere down the road?
It is impossible to answer that question. After all, that was the one thing that Bisman and Harris hadn't planned on before.
Balkan Beat Box will be appearing at the Israeli Independence Day Festival at Woodley Park on May 7 at 3 p.m.
JDub Records is on the Web at www.jdubrecords.org; Modular Moods is at www.modularmoods.com ; Jewish Music Group is at www.jewishmusicgroup.com. For more information on the Israeli Festival, visit www.israelfestival.com.
George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week; his new book, "Essential Torah," will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.