Kickstarting Jewish Culture?
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Kickstarting Jewish Culture?

Growing numbers of artists hustling projects on new fundraising site, bypassing traditional philanthropy.

Eden Pearlstein, 31, is a Jewish musician, a rapper of Kabbalah-influenced rhymes. Which is to say, he’s in debt.

So to make a video for a song from his most recent album, he raised $3,700 at an online showcase for independent creative projects: Kickstarter.com.

“I would call what I do analogous to artisanal food,” said Pearlstein, a baal teshuvah who lives in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and goes by the stage name Eprhyme. “I’m not trying to be the McDonald’s of music.”

From Eprhyme to Israeli pop star David Broza, it’s a global gold rush to Kickstarter, the preeminent fundraising site for artists of all stripes, not just Jewish ones. It has generated more than $80 million for more than 11,000 projects since its launch about two years ago, spokesman Justin Kazmark said.

“Everyone’s talking about Kickstarter and everyone seems to be doing it,” said Annette Ezekiel-Kogan, founder of the Eastern European folk-punk band Golem, which made CDs under the Jewish nonprofit JDub, the forward-thinking record label that announced its financial failure last month.

Kickstarter can help an act start out, fund a specific project and, especially, broaden its audience, say Jewish musicians and the philanthropists, foundations and record labels that back them. Broza raised $65,000 to cut a new album.

But its sudden prominence also sharpens the question raised by JDub’s closure: how much do American Jews value their musicians?

Historically, other priorities have taken precedence, said Ari Kelman, a professor of contemporary Jewish culture at University of California-Davis who has written a cultural history of Yiddish radio.

JDub closed after almost nine years of operation during which it released 35 albums, helped launch the career of crossover chasidic reggae star Matisyahu and developed a hybrid record label business model with multiple sources of revenue, including nonprofit support and income from merchandise sales, music and consulting services.

“Millions of dollars are spent counting Jews, but we don’t know how much money is spent supporting culture,” Kelman said. “It’s incredibly revealing of the Jewish community’s own sense of what has been important.”

Talk about Jewish funding for culture seems to be getting louder, Kelman said, citing a 2010 panel discussion at the Association for Jewish Studies conference. Fordham University professor Ayala Fader is planning a book on the subject. Stephen Hazan Arnoff, executive director of the 14th Street Y, and Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, published in JTA a call for a “Jewish cultural policy” after JDub shut down.

Of course, that conversation is part of a larger national debate about support for arts and culture, especially when the effects of recession linger and unemployment persists above 9 percent. Recently, Republicans cited the soft economy when they repeated their call to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts altogether.

Against this backdrop of scarce resources, most Jewish musicians find themselves stranded between foundations, which favor emerging artists, and record labels competing with free downloads.

Many musicians can make a living by teaching and performing, but recording — even on the cheap — tips them into debt, said Michael Winograd, a klezmer clarinetist who raised about $11,000 to make a CD.

“There’s all this money for startups but there isn’t money for sustaining,” said Elise Bernhardt, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, which has an annual grants budget of about $1 million.

Sustainability is where Kickstarter could come in most crucially, said Felicia Herman, executive director of Natan, a longtime supporter of JDub that funds mostly startups.

How Kickstarter works: creators whose projects are approved by the site craft a description in video and text, and list a range of rewards in response for backing, all designed to elicit contributions. The Jewish world has other websites that similarly facilitate direct contact between funders and recipients, such as IsraelGives.org, a portal for 26,000 Israeli charities.

“It’s about individuals deciding to self-empower and skip the charitable middleman,” said Yonaton Ben-Dor, an IsraelGives founder.

On Kickstarter, if the project secures its target amount by its deadline, the site takes a cut and the rest goes to the creator, who does the work and disseminates the promised rewards to the mini-Medicis who patronized it.

For $1,500 to help produce and promote a new concert album, for example, the Klezmatics will send violinist and vocalist Lisa Gutkin to “sizzle liver” in your kitchen. Winograd and Pearlstein will give backers copies of the CD they supported, among other goodies.

Devising rewards packages that were enticing but not so expensive to produce and ship that they ate up his funding was a challenge, said Pearlstein, who called Kickstarter “mercantile at its core.”

“Kickstarter is at the intersection of commerce and patronage,” the site’s Kazmark said.

In this way, Herman said, a Kickstarter project can generate not just dollars but fans with a personal connection to the artists. “It’s a rule of philanthropy that the best people to go to for support are people who have supported you already,” she said.

Musicians sound the same note.

“It’s a way to get the word out, and raise awareness, whether you raise the amount you’re trying to raise or not,” said Erez Safar, a founder of Shemspeed, a Jewish record label that represents several musicians who have used Kickstarter.

But for some artists, Kickstarter is a non-starter.

“Personally, I find it really distasteful,” said Ezekiel-Kogan, of Golem. “It’s basically asking my friends and relatives for money for a project. I’d rather take out a loan, if push comes to shove.”

And it often does, said Pearlstein. He also dislikes what he calls the “independent cultural hustle.”

Without Kickstarter, he would have made his video, anyway.

“I would have financed it the way anybody with a credit card finances something,” Pearlstein said. “The way the United States government finances something.”

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