July 20, 2011


Music Dies for JDub Records: Legacy of Groundbreaking Jewish Label Lives On (Jacob Berkman, July 20, 2011, Forward)

The closure of the record label that had been considered one of the great successes of the Jewish startup culture sent shockwaves through the Jewish communal world, as what many saw as the most stable and visible Jewish organization dedicated to reaching young Jews -- outside the behemoth Taglit-Birthright Israel -- fell swiftly. Its demise has reintroduced difficult questions about the state of Jewish culture and outreach, into which Jewish philanthropists are investing hundreds of millions of dollars.

The label, which drastically changed society's conception of Jewish music, entered the communal lexicon with the 2004 release of Matisyahu's first album, "Shake Off the Dust, Arise." With his long beard and longer sidelocks, Matisyahu started off as something of a novelty act. But as audiences started paying less attention to his appearance and more attention to his music, Matisyahu achieved what few before him had been able to: He put committed Jews into the mainstream spotlight of pop culture.

And despite a nasty divorce from Matisyahu in 2006, JDub continued, until its last gasp, to receive critical acclaim for the wide variety of niche bands it produced and discovered. In addition to Sephardic revival from DeLeon, JDub brought the American public Israeli hip-hop (Sagol 59 and Axum), punk klezmer (Golem), Bible-inspired feminist folk (Girls in Trouble) and the post-cantorial rock of The Sway Machinery. The 36 albums that JDub produced changed the course of Jewish music.

Jewish acts had a label where they could be comfortable in their own Jewish skin: "When we started out, I didn't have to explain to JDub what it meant that we were Sephardic indie rock," DeLeon's frontman, Daniel Saks, said after his bittersweet performance.

Success put JDub at the forefront of a transformation in Jewish identity building that focused less on traditional methods of Jewish education and more on using the social and cultural cues of Gen Y to help draw disaffected Jews into the community. Beyond music, JDub co-founded the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists. That fellowship, which supports early career artists who are creating new work that "explores Jewish ideas and experience," will be part of its legacy.

The Jewish world now spends an estimated $200 million annually on 600 organizations less than 10 years old, according to Jewish Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-based not-for-profit that researches Jewish startups. Supporting these startups is a cottage industry of new incubator organizations, such as the Joshua Venture Group and Bikkurim, both of which helped seed JDub.

Some view JDub's demise as a signal that Jewish philanthropy may not be able to sustain these organizations past the startup phase. Those who run these organizations have become increasingly concerned with their inability to secure significant long-term funding, as donors, they say, are most interested in organizations when they are young, sexy and cheap, but often lose interest after they establish themselves and grow, and as operational costs increase.

That is a problem that JDub faced continually as its budget reached roughly $1.1 million in recent years, especially as donors became reluctant to fund its $340,000 general operating budget, Bisman said. With no one prepared to underwrite basic salaries and running costs, ambitious programs were difficult to sustain.

Posted by at July 20, 2011 7:11 AM

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