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Behind the Labels

Rokhl’s Golden City: The companies that keep Jewish music in production

by
Rokhl Kafrissen
September 14, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

We tend to think that musical tastes are emblematic of the fault lines running between generations. But technology can shape our experience of music in ways that are just as powerful as genre. Even after the CD made its dramatic arrival in my home in the mid-1980s, the spirit of the LP record still reigned. Sure, you might listen to singles on the radio. I even caught the last few years of the 45 RPM era. But it was manifestly obvious that commercial music recordings had fulfilled their divine potential in the LP. So it was and so it would always be. Or so I thought.

The LP represented a total musical idea, with a beginning, middle, and end. Songs were meant to be heard in a specific order, and accreted new meanings when played in sequence. Skipping around an album involved tedious repositioning of a record player needle. And for most people, the actual number of recordings at their disposal was fairly small relative to the vast number out in the world. Conditions of the LP age favored a certain level of attention to the music, even for casual listeners.

Now, decades into the digital music revolution, the LP concept itself is a relic. Over a billion CDs were sold in 2000. By contrast, CD sales in 2021 hovered around 47 million units—and that represented the first increase in CD sales since the turn of the millennium. Vinyl, too, has seen slightly increased sales, but those numbers are a mere blip next to the streaming behemoth. According to an article from March of this year, music streaming services generated over $10 billion in 2021. The ubiquity of streaming music, whether paid or free, has turned the music business, along with our relationship to music, upside down.

Here’s where the real generation gap shock comes in. One survey from 2019 found that 15% of listeners under 25 had never (!) listened to an album from start to finish. A 2020 Rolling Stone article noted that “for the album as a product, predictions of its demise have largely come true.” It’s not as clear whether the album as concept is equally doomed, though clearly, the prognosis ain’t great.

For many working musicians however, especially those raised on vinyl, the LP remains utterly vital. My friend Jeremiah Lockwood recently told me that making records continues to be important, “even with recording bearing a more ambiguous relationship to life as an artist.” For almost 20 years, Lockwood has been making brilliant, genre-blurring Jewish music, the kind of little use to the big labels who dominate the streaming game today. For him, a commitment to putting out records has required serious flexibility in a changing industry landscape. He’s found success working with cultural nonprofits looking to get into the record label business, such as Reboot and the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival. His upcoming Yiddish project will also be released by a Jewish culture nonprofit.

Lockwood, now regarded as a master of Piedmont style blues guitar, quite literally taught himself to play by locking himself in his room and listening to old blues records over and over. “Listening to records made me feel free, offered promises of life paths and transformations,” he told me. “I still believe in records and continue to view them as one of the defining elements in the life of a musician.”

If records do indeed still matter, what about record labels? The high quality of home recording and digital distribution means self-publishing is more viable than ever. Can the “record” live on without a label to push it out into the world? What even is the purpose of a record label in 2022? These are questions that demand both practical and transcendent answers.

Sam Eastmond is a trumpet player, composer, and music educator in London. We recently chatted about how John Zorn’s Tzadik record label, and its Radical Jewish Culture project specifically, changed his life: “Tzadik and Zorn gave me a pathway to possibilities, challenges, and questions to explore.” Eastmond’s comments reveal how, even in the streaming age, recorded music cannot easily be separated from its material manifestations: “I own every Masada disc (carefully bought and devoured in chronological order), a lot of John Zorn’s discography, and hundreds of other Tzadik CDs, their beautiful black-and-white obis standing out from my shelves like shining beacons.”

Tzadik as a concept had a profound impact on Eastmond’s Jewish identity, both as a listener and as a musician who went on to record his own album for the label. But Tzadik is also a thing that exists out in the world: a beautiful, carefully designed object that invites collection. As Eastmond said: “Part of what makes Tzadik so special is the devotion to the medium of physical product … the packaging, the card stock, the way they feel in your hands. In an age where the physical form becomes obsolete, Tzadik rewards purchasers with an artefact of beauty that also contains transcendent magic on the inside.”

Eastmond and Lockwood grew up, like me, in a world still tangibly bounded by the particular dimensions of vinyl discs. But what about those born well after the CD and digital revolutions? What will records mean to them? For one young person, at least, records have become a life’s work.

Aaron Bendich is a 28-year-old Brooklyn resident who works in digital advertising. In his spare time, he runs a specialty Jewish record label called Borscht Beat. The label is the culmination of Bendich’s longtime interest in record collecting, starting with his fascination with dollar-bin CDs in high school. With guidance and inspiration provided by his beloved grandfather, Bendich eventually moved on to collecting Jewish music LPs. And since records deserve to be heard, that collector’s impulse led to the creation of a radio show in 2020, which then led to the label, and even more records, in 2022.

Borscht Beat has released two superb new records in the last month. Fidl player Zoe Aqua’s In Vald Arayn–Into the Forest comes out of her ongoing Fulbright research in Romania and is inspired by traditional klezmer and Transylvanian sources. The music is so hot you can practically smell the smoke rising off the strings.

Borscht Beat’s other recent release is Tsvey Brider + Baymele’s Kosmopolitn. The album features some of the best modernist Yiddish poetry, in lush new chamber settings, with Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell out front, bringing all the delicious drama from his former life as an opera singer.

So what does a microniche, indie record label actually do in 2022? A lot of schlepping, for one thing. “An artist who succeeds,” Bendich told me, “ends up making a lot of post office trips, which gets really old.” That is to say, what Borscht Beat offers artists is, in large part, a partner for the logistics of making physical items and getting them out into the world. He also works hard to promote his musicians. His mission, as he sees it, is as much curatorial as logistical. If someone ends up on Borscht Beat’s Bandcamp page looking for one artist, chances are very good that they will also enjoy that artist’s label mates. Indeed, as Bendich told me, when one artist gets a publicity bump, sales for the label’s other artists benefit, too.

It may not be a John Zorn-style vision, with madly sweeping manifesto, but Bendich’s passion for old Jewish records, and his ear for the best in new Jewish music, has already built something quite valuable: a mini-empire for a fractured media age.

In contrast to today’s microniche enterprises, Jewish recordings of a much earlier era were, if not quite mainstream, still a profitable macroniche for big-name, commercial record labels like Columbia. Those labels saw a valuable market in foreign language music (of many kinds), offering 78 RPM discs to the thousands of immigrants arriving in the United States. But in the 1920s, immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was essentially cut off. Pressure to assimilate was intense. By 1930, “ethnic recording activity” slowed dramatically and, according to an article titled “David Medoff: A Case Study in Interethnic Popular Culture” by ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin: “Columbia’s Hebrew/Yiddish series was one of the casualties.”

In 1948, Moses Asch founded the Folkways record label. Where the big record labels were driven by market realities, Folkways “sought to document the entire world of sound.” Folkways blurred the line between commercial recording and ethnography, mapping out much of what we now think of as “folk” and “world” music.

Asch, the Warsaw-born son of acclaimed Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch, never shied away from including Jewish sounds within his wide-ranging sonic agenda. The Folkways catalog is still an indispensable source for any listeners looking to immerse themselves in traditional Yiddish song. Recording cantorial music was a special interest of Asch’s, even before the founding of Folkways. However, the presentation of cantorial music on the quintessential “folk” label was somewhat problematic, lending an ahistorical glow of timeless “folkiness” to music that was both artfully composed and highly produced.

While Asch and Folkways were producing important new recordings of Jewish music, others began to mine the earlier era of major label Jewish 78 RPM recordings, now sitting discarded, casualties of technological progress. Specialty Jewish labels popped up to reissue these lost gems. Collector’s Guild, for example, was founded in 1959 to reissue cantorial, Yiddish, and other Jewish interest records. In 1963, they reissued The Art of Cantor David Roitman, almost 10 years after Israel Goldfarb announced the irrelevance of golden age khazones, and David Roitman specifically, for American Jews.

This doesn’t mean American Jews, in fact, wanted to hear golden age khazones in their synagogues. Khas v’sholem. Rather, with the evolution of technology and commercial innovation, listeners never even had to step foot in a synagogue to get the transcendent worship experience they craved. Amerike ganif.

But the postwar period wasn’t all folkies and nostalgic reissues. Some labels were still recording new Jewish music with aspirations, at least, to commercial viability. In 1947, Allan B. Jacobs opened up a shoestring operation called Tikva Records. Many of the details of the business, and its eccentric founder, are still fuzzy. But for over 20 years, Tikva recorded a dizzying roster of artists, from the fabulous to the kitschy, from Israeli rock to klezmer royalty to Yiddish theater classics, with many digressions.

Tikva’s art direction was often just as interesting as the music. The cover for clarinetist Sam Musiker’s Jewish Wedding Dances features an elegantly attired bride and groom standing arm in arm. It’s an almost normal illustration for a wedding theme, except the faces of the bride and groom have been cut away, giving the impression of paper dolls. If you want to get psychological about it, the cover suggests a certain subconscious ambivalence when it comes to putting one’s Jewishness so nakedly on display. I’ll let you hear what my wedding sounds like, but you’re gonna have to imagine the rest …

In 2011, the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation (a project connected to Reboot) issued a deluxe “best of” collection for Tikva called Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: The Tikva Records Story, 1950-1973. That set went along with a number of other historical reissues and repackages, like their 2006 compilation Jewface, which mined 78s and wax cylinders for examples of long forgotten Jewish dialect comedy.

Just as earlier generations mined 78s for LP reissues once formats changed, today we are seeing similar cycles of cultural loss and reclamation. Borscht Beat’s Aaron Bendich cites Tikva, Collector’s Guild, and other similar record labels as direct inspiration for his work today. And though the music business will never be what it was 25 years ago, that isn’t an altogether terrible thing.

A look at the history of records and labels suggests that the artefacts of earlier musical eras cannot, and will not, be displaced so easily, not even by the billion-dollar streaming monster. Indeed, predicting what new experiments might arise from the curiosity of future collectors is a hopeful impossibility.

LISTEN: Find all of Borscht Beat’s releases at their Bandcamp page

ALSO: On Sept. 18, Queer Yiddish Camp and Rad Yiddish present Queer Yiddishist Shmueskrayz, “an informal conversation circle for 2SIAQTBLG+ & Questioning Yiddishists and Yiddish learners, with three self-selecting breakout rooms by Yiddish level.” Make sure you check their Facebook page for all relevant details … Also on Sept. 18, if you’re in London, you can catch the Jewish Music Institute Youth Big Band at the Vortex Jazz Club. They’ll be celebrating the release of their second album, Bet: We Are Here. More information here … The Yiddish Book Center will present a panel discussion called “The Voice of a Woman: Diana Blumenfeld and Miriam Kressyn on Postwar Yiddish Radio,” with Caraid O’Brien, Anna Rozenfeld, and moderator Alyssa Quint. Sept. 22, register here … There’s still time to order some of Gefilteria’s gorgeous, artisanal gefilte fish for your yontev meals … Now up on YouTube: the concert honoring what would have been Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman’s 100th birthday, along with the program booklet with texts and translations, here … This fall, YIVO will offer a new, advanced class focused on using Yiddish reference works. The 10-session class will be taught by Dovid Braun in Yiddish. More information here … Two upcoming events will honor the memory of our beloved friend and teacher Jewlia Eisenberg. On Oct. 2 the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum will open an immersive art exhibit based on Jewlia’s work, Fierce as Death: Queering the Song of Songs. The Oct. 2 opening will feature live music from many of Jewlia’s artistic collaborators. On Oct. 18, Boston University will present a lecture and musical performance by Jeremiah Lockwood, including work Jeremiah and Jewlia created together, based on the poetry of Celia Dropkin. Tickets and information here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

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