Friday, February 26, 2010

Purim News Headlines

In the spirit of the season, we are pleased to bring you news headlines the J-media will not be bringing you. Besides, Rabbi Zev Brenner needs some more material for his Purim show. (Hi, Zev!)

Breitbart Announces New Website:

Agudah PR Flack Rabbi Avi Shafran Writes Inoffensive Article

Tav Hayosher Expands To Include Music Hechsherim. Will Work To Ensure Musicians On "Kosher" Albums Are Paid Living Wages. Denies Certification To Well-Known Wedding Band Office

"Jewish Star" Contest Entrant A Surprise Hit With "Hozen Oyf Der Erd"

HASC Concert Update: Surprise Guest Singer Leib Tropper Booed!

Agudath Israel Stuns Community: Organizes Rally In Support of Honest Person With No Criminal Record

Israeli Rabbanut Retroactively Annuls All Weddings Where Lipa Schmeltzer Sang At Chupah

Sholom Rubashkin Releases Chassidic Pop CD: Rabbonim Flip-Flop, Push For Longer Jail Sentence

Beis Yaakov of Manhattan Hires Sarah Palin As Tznius Advisor

Congress Includes Satmar Wedding Takanos In New Stimulus Bill

Toyota Partners With Kars 4 Kids. Will Ship New Vehicles Directly To Oorah. Attorney Generals In All 50 States Vow To Investigate.

Rabbi Ephraim Luft Apologizes To Chareidi Musicians For Lying About Jewish Music. Announces Plans To Release Chareidi Heavy Metal Album

Responding To Recent Debacles, Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah Announces Ban Against Askanim and Kannoim.

Rabbi E.B. Wachtfogel Endorses Rabbah Sarah Hurwitz, Cites "Rabah Emunasecha" As Basis

Previous years' Purim headlines can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Final Thoughts on "Yosef Greenberg Calls Halacha Unethical. Is It?"

I'm going to let the attempted dialogue with Yosef Greenberg end with this. This is his latest. Its become clear through the lack of substance in his preceding posts that he has no intention of actually engaging on the merits, or of citing verifiable sources.

In his first post, he claimed:
But I want to make it clear, that many, if not most, poskim permit copying software and music etc., even for others.
That should be easy to prove, were it true. Yet he hasn't done so in any of his posts. In that post, he didn't even address any halachik arguments with the exception of dismissing dina d'malchusa dina. His offered explanation was foolish.
(Dina dimachusa is also irrelevant. Do you ever cross the street when the light is red? Jaywalking is a crime.)
In his next post, he dismissed the notion of Chilul Hashem as irrelevant on the grounds that most people would not consider illegal downloading unethical. In both these cases, he dismissed the issue without citing any Halachik sources.

He also claimed that his opinion was:
And my money is on some very mainstream Rabbonim.
No citations. Not even the names of these mainstream rabbonim and many, if not most (according to him) poskim.

In his third post, he cited the Chazon Ish. This was his first and only attempt to cite an actual Halachik source. he wrote:
The Chazon Ish writes something about "our" common sense. One who comes in to a small town that currently has only one older teacher for children, and this newcomer, a young man, offers his services and thereby entirely takes away the livelihood of the other. Our sense would tell us that this man is a rasha. Yet, the Chazon Ish writes that according to the Torah precept of "kinas chachom tarbeh chochmah', it is wholly within his right to do so. (I think he should possibly be encouraged as well.) Therefore, writes the Chazon Ish, we should look to the Torah for proper ethics, NOT what the street decides.
Only problem is, the Chazon Ish says nothing about Dina d'malchusa, intellectual property, copyright, or any related topic. This source also does not prove what Greenberg claims it does about ethics, as I noted in my following post.

In this post, he again claimed:
The Rabbis I refer to are very well known chareidim; gedolim and other dayanim.
He also responded to the isues of "naval birshus haTorah" and "Vasisa Hayashar vehatov" by dismissing them without explanation.
Ever hear of "naval birshus hatorah?
Yes. And how does that apply here? (Answer: Not at all.)
"Vasisa hayashar vehatov?"
Yashar and tov according to you're narrow view. Halachah decides yashar and tov.
Note, he offered no explanation or distinction for why these topics shouldn't be relevant.

He then addressed Chilul Hashem again:
So you'd rather claim the opposite of halachah in order not to make a chillul Hashem? Guess what? It isn't, as shown above...
Again, no sources or citations. Three posts and no sources, citations, or answers offered. Just assertions that although illegal downloading is against the law, it's not against halacha. That's it.

In his fourth, and most recent post, he finally addresses the issue of sources, only to say:
While I did state that these were private conversations, there are some names that I can openly state because I believe stating them would not cause them anguish.

One name, which I know without doubt that he permitted copying is R' Yisroel Ya'akov Fisher, the Av beis din of the Eidah Chareidis. Another name, which I am slightly hesitant of because I am unsure of the exact wording of his heter was R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.

It is probable that the reason the paak of these gedolim weren't publicized was because it wasn't much of a question back then, before file-sharing became common.
Two names. Both dead. No citation of anything in writing. Greenberg even admits he is unsure of the parameters of what one of these sources actually held. That's the sort of thing one needs to clarify before making these claims. And, no published sources to back his assertion up. Seriously. This is considered compelling? What happened to the claim that "many, if not most poskim permit copying software and music." That claim is demonstrably false.

Here's one highly relevant source on this topic. Rav Moshe Feinstein in Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim IV: 40,19 addresses the issue of copying a Torah tape that was produced for profit. He rules that it is gezel (theft) and forbidden. It is worth reading the entire teshuva. It's obvious that the burden is on those who would like to permit illegal downloading to explain why it's permissible. Yet, throughout this dialogue, I've been the one offering reasons for why it should be forbidden, while Greenberg casually dismisses them without explanation.

In this last post, he once again doesn't address why dina dmalchusa dina shouldn't apply, writing:
Again, dina dimalchusa does apply! Just not here! With regard to other cases it might well apply....
And, he admits he does not know Rav Auerbach or Dayan Fisher's shita on dina d'malchusa, writing:
Right. I did so above, clearly noting select well accepted poskim. I admit that I don't know their view on taxes.
In contrast, my position and it's basis in halacha, has been clear from my very first post. I have articulated a halachik reasoning for why illegal downloading is forbidden. That rationale is dina d'malchusa dina. (Its actually that it is theft. Dina d'malchus is just one underpinning for why it is so. One can say it's theft w/o relying on "dina" also.) I didn't invent the concept. It is mainstream accepted psak that we rely on for very serious issues, as I've noted.

I have also noted that even if one were to deny that principle, there are still many other halachik arguments against illegal downloading, and I've raised some of them. Greenberg hasn't refuted a single one. Sure, he's asserted that they don't apply. He hasn't offered a compelling reason for why they don't apply. Saying something doesn't make it so.

So there you have it. That's the breakdown of the tochen -- or lack thereof -- in his previous posts and the imbalanced dynamic of this dialogue. It's obvious that Greenberg won't or can't argue to the merits. So, I'm done with this conversation.

He did point out one possible error of mine, which I'd like to note. I wrote:
He has acknowledged-- even advocated-- illegally downloading music.
and he challenges this.
Um, where exactly did acknowledge doing that? There you go again, making false accusations.
I went back and reread the posts where I'd gotten that impression, and he did not explicitly write there that he personally has downloaded music illegally. He only makes clear that he believes it to be Halachikly acceptable, that he has familiarity with pirate sites for Jewish music, and, based on a conversation in the comments section there, that he has shared the links for these pirate sites with others. From the context there, I'd understood that he was doing so himself. If that inference is false, I would like to correct the record, so if Greenberg will post that he has not personally downloaded music illegally, I'll post a correction.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Still More on "Yosef Greenberg Calls Halacha Unethical. Is It?"

Yosef Greenberg has posted a response to my post, "More on "Yosef Greenberg Calls Halacha Unethical. Is It?". Even if one grants his premise, which I don't, what he advocates is unethical, even lishataso.

In response to my thought experiment, he writes:
Sorry, but thats not a good enough reason. While I may feel bad for the producers, it still doesn't change the basics.

The Chazon Ish writes something about "our" common sense. One who comes in to a small town that currently has only one older teacher for children, and this newcomer, a young man, offers his services and thereby entirely takes away the livelihood of the other. Our sense would tell us that this man is a rasha. Yet, the Chazon Ish writes that according to the Torah precept of "kinas chachom tarbeh chochmah', it is wholly within his right to do so. (I think he should possibly be encouraged as well.) Therefore, writes the Chazon Ish, we should look to the Torah for proper ethics, NOT what the street decides.

Mentchlichkeit is to be dictated by the Torah.
This is a meaningless example, as Yosef himself acknowledges the compelling reason to permit it; a potential raising of the bar of Torah learning in the community. Improving Torah learning that otherwise could not occur, is a significant benefit. The case is not analogous to illegally downloading music, where the only "benefit" is that the downloader doesn't have to pay for something the producer intends to sell. You can achieve the same benefit by simply buying the Shwekey CD.

Yosef also conflates the idea that something is permissible with the idea that it is ethical or advisable. This is not true.

One example. The halacha is that a contract worker has to be paid his wages at the end of the day. "Lo talin peulas sachir." Yet, the halacha is that "Lo Talin" does not apply if the worker was hired through agency. Yet, I don't believe that there is a single source that maintains that it is ethical to not pay the worker in a timely manner. According to the strict halacha, one can push payment off, yet would anyone argue that the fact that halacha permits it means you should do it? Could does not equal should.

Greenberg writes:
And please stop saying that it isn't permissible to copy music. Minimally, according to Blog In DM, it is most of the poskim. There's no need to distort.

And yes, according to these poskim I refer to, Halachah does indeed allow copying music and software without paying. Yes, enlightening.
I never said that most poskim permit copying. It's clear that most forbid it. Yosef claims he has confirmed such rulings, but refuses to identify the poskim, if they exist. The rabbi whose opinion on this is public is also known to permit cheating on taxes. His logic to permit is the same.

Yosef says:
This is not the Rabbi I am referring to. Stop using his as a punching bag. The Rabbis I refer to are very well known chareidim; gedolim and other dayanim.
I'd like to confirm this. Name them. Torah hi, v'lilmod ani tzarich. It's interesting that these alleged psakim are only being issued privately, but you feel compelled to publicize them. I actually agree with you on that though, if they exist, then they should be public, so that there can be a shakla vetarya of Torah. That's the way the halachik process used to work.

In response to my assertion that "free music" was not a compelling reason to download illegally, Yosef offers this justification:
Compelling when said law is not being enforced.
Um, the law is being enforced. There have been numerous court cases, settlements, arrests for piracy, websites taken down, etc. etc.

He offers another justification:
It is considered normatively moral to download music in the blogosphere. It is not considered moral to loot.
Nice. A completely made up fact. Sure there are some people who advocate for illegal downloading. There are people who advocate for lots of illegal things. NAMBLA for instance. Doesn't make it moral.

Then he writes:
The rabbinic establishment has little impetus to encourage copying. Why should they? In all cases above, the Rabbonim saw benefit in publicizing their views. I don't see them here. (True, I arguing a little different here, but the point remains.)
If the halacha were that dina d'malchusa doesn't apply, then rabbonim have an obligation to teach Torah accurately, regardless of the impetus to encourage copying or not. They also have an obligation to follow that policy consistently, with regard to yichus investigations for example. Yet, rabbonim routinely allow people to marry Jews on the basis of dina d'malchusa. They enforce monetary obligations based on dina d'malchusa, and so on.

Yosef admits my point about Rabbi D. Cohen's position and writes:
True. What I clearly articulated was that the lie was that you bunched all of the rabbonim under this 'disgraced' Rabbi. Thats a lie.
Actually, he's the most notable posek (not that I view him that way) I've heard of to support this. The only other allegorical claims I've heard for these positions adopt the same halachik reasoning he does. Its simple logic, as the obligations are both rooted in dina d'malchusa dina. If Yosef does know of respected poskim who make a distinction between dina d'malchusa for taxes vs. downloading, let him cite them. Again, we need to clarify amitah shel Torah, right?

Yosef also says that an implication that he runs a pirate site would reduce his credibility.
Because then I have an incentive to argue wrongly. This way I'm writing objectively. By making your assertion, you're implying that I'm nogai'a bedavar.
Actually, he's a nogea b'davar. He has acknowledged-- even advocated-- illegally downloading music.

Yosef claims that naval birshus hatorah doesn't apply. I believe that it should, even according to to those who would like to say dinad'malchusa isn't applicable here. No one needs free music. It also seems pretty clear that the issue falls under the parameters of "Vasisa hayashar vehatov" and "mai disani lach, lechavroch lo tasun." Also, chilul Hashem.

There are two comments to his post.

Yanky Friedman said...
A common psak that i am aware of, and some poskim say this or similar logic only privately - very few publicize they hold this), is that it is assur to copy a cd, but it is muttar to download from the internet. Once something is available o the internet, there is automatic yi'ush, and the item is hefker, like something that was thrown into the sea - even if it washes up later and is found, the owner gave up all hope knowing it was out to sea.
I've never heard of such a psak. If it's common, please name the poskim who hold this way. I'd love to confirm it. The logic of said "common psak" is quite silly.

Anonymous writes:
I don't see how this can be divorced from the larger issue of how people get their music these days. There's not going to be special treatment for frum artists; appeals to halacha and so forth mirror the recording industry's righteous anger, but ultimately they had little legal recourse and had to work out alternate solutions. It just so happens that what you could do 10 years ago -- record and album, press a cd, and sell it and count your money -- isn't how you can do it now.

Let me give a moshol: many years ago a little boy was bullied. He counted the days until his graduation from 8th grade. He knew he'd be going to a different mesivta, and besides, it was much more yeshivish. The significance of that? Well, bullying is obviously assur. Surely all the be-hatted bochurim simply could not bully this boy, since they would be so frum. Turned out this boy was living in a dream world. The way to address bullying is not by appealing to halacha and frumkeit. Bullying is simply a reality, and it must be managed however such management can be accomplished. Same with downloading music. If kids are socialized to avoid turning lights on and off on shabbos from the time they're small children, they're not socialized not to download music. On the contrary, if anything they're socialized that it's perfectly fine, along with the rest of the world who downloads music and videos. Only some kind of itunes like solution (make it easier and attractive and cheap) can work, and frum artists will simply have to get used to it same as other artists.
Actually, contemporary Jewish releases are available easily, attractively, and cheap, just like he asserts in his closing sentence. Kind of moots the rest of his point. The problem is that some, like Yosef Greenberg, will ignore these legal options in favor of illegal downloading.

I do agree that the reality is that some will act unethically regardless of appeals to halacha. That's a sad indictment of some in the frum community. Anonymous's analogy to bullies is (inadvertently, I suspect) quite apt.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

From the mailbag...

Chana Jenny Weisberg writes:
Shalom! I saw your blog, and though you would enjoy this new music video I just made of a new Chassidic song by Yitzhak Meir and Aaron Razel. If you enjoy it, I hope you'll share it with your readers. Kol tuv, Chana Jenny Weisberg,
Wolf Krakowski emails a link to "Shabes, Shabes."

Mike Greenberg writes:
Shavua Tov,
My name is Mike Greenberg and administrator for a Facebook group dedicated to pursuing a Jewish Music channel on XM Radio. I was wondering if you could mention the group on your blog, and in turn I will promote your blog within the group.
Roger Ruzow writes:

Please Check it out.

4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra new release : East Atlanta Passover Stomp

Several full length tracks of the music are on the The Fourth Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra website and on Soundcloud as well as all of the tracks are for sale on iTunes.

4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra

The 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra is an original Atlanta musical entity; a ten piece jazz orchestra playing original compositions and arrangements that combine West African influenced rhythms with Eastern European Klezmer melodies. The 4th Ward A.K.O., led by trumpet player/composer Roger Ruzow, boasts a roster of veteran Atlanta, Georgia talent featuring: Colin Bragg (guitar), Chris Case (keyboard), Jeff Crompton (clarinet, alto & baritone sax), Ben Davis (tenor sax & clarinet), Chip Epsten (violin). Eric Fontaine (tenor sax), Ben Gettys (bass), Keith Leslie (drums), Bill Nittler (clarinet, baritone sax), and Blake Williams (trombone). The A.K.O. ensemble contains former and current members of such Atlanta bands as: Cadillac Jones, Gold Sparkle Band, Bazooka Ants, Samada Trio, Chilli Willie Blues Band, Twittering Machine, Standard Deviation, and Nu South Subterraneans.
Naftali writes:
I recently had a client email me his requests for the chupa. Amongst them were:

Ana Hashem from Barock Orchestra
Ani Ma'amin from Barock Orchestra

Having never heard of it, I asked the client to please send me the tracks so I could hear them and learn them. He obliged, and guess what they were?

Ana Hashem was - yes you guessed it - the Carlebach one! - Blasphemous!
Ani Maamin was the one from Abie Rottenberg.

It reminded me of different time, when I was on the phone with the chasan the night before his Wedding, and his request for Im Eshkochaich - the one from Revah L'sheva. Inside I groaned thinking, am I gonna have to learn a new song last minute now? Instinctively, I suspected something - and asked him to sing it. I sighed with relief as he hummed the first few bars of the Lev Tahor version.
Joseph Siev writes:
I’m writing to introduceJewish Ideas Daily, an exciting new website that features the very best of Jewish thought, analysis, argument, and opinion. We’re currently highlighting a precocious young composer named Jeremiah Klarman, whose most recent work, a cantata entitled Hallel, Shir v’Or, premiered in late December.
We thought you might be particularly interested in this piece, which includes not only a 2006 article about Klarman but also lyrics, commentary, and video from the December performance. Here’s the direct link: Sing to the Lord!
We hope you enjoy what you read, and that you’ll feel free to share “Sing to the Lord!” with others.
Yoel Hecht writes:
Please consider posting the latest of many youtube clips from Shaya Hecht who has been thrilling audiences at weddings and concerts. The latest clip is here.. As search on his name will show many more.

In addition to being a popular wedding singer Shaya will be performing a concert at Meisner's Pesach Program. See more at

Yoel Hecht

More on "Yosef Greenberg Calls Halacha Unethical. Is It?"

Yosef Greenberg attempts to fisk yesterday's post, "Yosef Greenberg Calls Halacha Unethical. Is It?"

It's not very compelling. Let's see what he has to say.

He challenges my post title, saying:
Um, where exactly did I do that? By stating that Halachah might allow copying music? This is purely an intellectual question (with practical ramifications). Since when is copying music unethical? Because by your standards, it isn't. Well, here's some new for you, the Torah's ethics don't necessarily coincide with your view of proper ethics. Humanity's views have changed, and keep on changing with times.
Here's a thought experiment A singer invests many hours and tens of thousands of dollars in releasing an album to the public. (Let's keep it simple and not talk about anyone else invested in the project; producer, distributor, etc.) Let's also grant the premise that halachicly, it is permissible to copy the music without payment (It isn't.) Is Greenberg really intending to argue that according to the Torah/Halacha it is "mentshlach" for everyone to copy the music, resulting in the artist losing his entire investment? That's the position he takes. He calls it halacha. I call it unethical. I think reasonable people would find his view unfair. Note: even according to Greenberg's representation of halacha, the halacha does not mandate duplicating software or music without paying. His insistence on advocating doing so is enlightening.

In my post I wrote the following:
What is most astounding about this ignorant assertion is his implication that if halacha theoretically permits something that civil law prohibits, and there is no compelling reason not to follow the civil law, it is nevertheless permissible because dina d'malchusa is irrelevant.
Greenberg comments:
Ignorant assertion? Because you disagree with it? In other words, I just won this round.

There is a compelling reason not to follow civil law. Free music. Unless you don't find that compelling.

"because dina d'malchusa is irrelevant". In this case! Please don't stretch my words.
In his post, Greenberg wrote "because wrote dina d'malchusa dina is irrelevant." He's now backtracking slightly. The reality is that that normative halacha accepts dina d'malchusa as binding. Any assertion to the contrary is ignorant. We rely on it in many daily cases, including for such serious issues as determining halachik yichus. Yesterday, I asked a prominent Chareidi rav if there were any major poskim who hold that dina d'malchusa dina doesn't apply today. He couldn't name one. There is one rabbi in Brooklyn, NY who allows copying CD's, software etc. He also allows cheating on taxes. Draw your own conclusions. The RCA did when it stopped using him as posek when those views became a matter of public record.

Also, "free music" is a compelling reason not to follow civil law? Compelling? Really now?

Yosef takes issue with my characterization of permitting illegal downloading as an "obvious chilul Hashem". His proof, many people do it. That's just because they can do it without anyone seeing. (They think). During blackouts, many people loot. Does that make it ok? Personally, I believe that Frum Jews ought to live by a higher standard.

With regard to his assertion that "many, if not most, poskim permit copying software and music etc., even for others.", this is simply untrue. He then attempts to explain why you can't find proof of these alleged views.
Make that to openly maintain. Yes, the pressure is tough out there. And there is no industry out there to promote it. Unlike the opposing side. Few have said so on the record for the same reason.
Yes, the notoriously powerful and influential Chareidi Jewish music industry has intimidated rabbonim, making them afraid to voice their opinions. They are also afraid to ever ban CD's or concerts, set limits on band sizes allowed at weddings, criticize popular Jewish music styles as inappropriate.... oh, wait!

I wrote:
"Incidentally, these poskim also hold that one may cheat on their taxes and other similar views. Not exactly mainstream, in other words."
Yosef writes:
Lies. Don't bunch them all into one group. You probably don't know them. And my money is on some very mainstream Rabbonim.
Actually, Yosef, it's a matter of public record. Incidentally, I would point out that even according to this rabbi, violating US law is only permissible if you are certain won't be caught, because if people know about it, it would be a Chilul Hashem and forbidden. Publicly advocating violating the law, as you did in your post, constitutes a Chilul Hashem too. This rabbi was careful to express his views only on Shabbos or in personal conversations where it wouldn't be recorded/ written about. He was careful to never state this view in situations where a reporter/recorder might be present.

In my post, I challenged Yosef to post the links to the pirate sites. The reason I did so is simple. Posting links to pirated music is illegal and would be a violation of the terms of service at all reputable web hosts in this country. I'd like to see him address the legal issues in maintaining his site, were he to do so and a complaint was filed.

Finally, I asked if he ran a pirate site himself. His response:
. But there you go again, trying to infer certain things to reduce credibility.
Um, if there's nothing wrong with it, why would it reduce his credibility?

(All of this said, it's clear that some in the the music industry at large and the Charedi music industry in particular have adopted public positions that are silly and even self-defeating. I've written about this extensively in the past. No time to find the links right now. One example. It is clear that music buyers have the right to make personal copies for their own use. i.e. making a backup copy, for when the original gets scratched, making a copy use in the car, loading a cd into iTunes for use on their iPod or computer. etc. When people make public claims like this that are untrue and contradict Fair Use, they add confusion to the discussion about illegal copying.)

Bottom line, Greenberg's logic is faulty even if you grant his premise. Just because something is halachically permissible does not mean it's ethical or right. Ever hear of "naval birshus hatorah?" "Vasisa hayashar vehatov?" In this case, he is wrong because it's not even halachikly permissible. Greenberg claim that "many, if not most, poskim permit copying software and music etc., even for others" conveys the impression that a significant number of poskim, if not the majority, hold this view. This is false. It also constitutes a Chillul Hashem.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Yosef Greenberg Calls Halacha Unethical. Is It?

Yosef Greenberg says that it is in "Copying Music Is Not Wrong!"

What is most astounding about this ignorant assertion is his implication that if halacha theoretically permits something that civil law prohibits, and there is no compelling reason not to follow the civil law, it is nevertheless permissible because dina d'malchusa is irrelevant..

This post is ignorant, because many if not most recognized poskim do maintain that dina demalchusa is quite relevant in the USA today, jaywalkers notwithstanding, and many poskim would also note obvious external issues like chillul Hashem, eiva, etc. that might well apply. Only a handful of poskim maintain that one is permitted to copy software or music for others, and few well-known poskim have said so on the record.

Incidentally, these poskim also hold that one may cheat on their taxes and other similar views. Not exactly mainstream, in other words.

Go ahead Yosef, post the links to the pirate sites you mention. (Do you run one yourself?) If you really believe what you write, have the guts to stand behind it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Recent Peeps!

"iPhone Guy"
Poor iPhone guy. The wife shlepped him to a concert. Thankfully, having the iPhone along means he can play games/text/surf the entire time. No paying attention to the music/conversation with the spouse required. Thank God for technology!

"The Insulter"
This peep stands up at a Bat Mitzvah and tells the Bat Mitzvah girl, at simchas, people usually say that your nice attributes come from your parents, but "Rabbi xxxxx [the family's shul rabbi] says that its not the case here."

"The Desert Fresser"
This elderly peep totters past with a heaping plateful of desert containing multiples of each item on offer at the desert buffet. Thankfully, he doesn't tip all the way over.

"Surprise, We Changed Venues!"
These peeps change venues for the Sheva Brachos they are hosting a few days before the event. They neglect to inform the band, though. We find out after we park and unload our gear.

"The Benevolent Rebbe"
This "name" Chassidic Rebbe comes prepared for all contingencies. Knowing he's likely to be introduced to small kids at the wedding he's flown in for, he brings along candies... wrapped in custom printed "Bli Ayin Hora" wrappers.

"The Tasteless Video Editor"
This peep edits a video montage for display at a Bar Mitzvah. In a creative touch, they add historical scenes of interest that happened while the Bar Mitzvah was growing up. Tasteful scenes. Like a presidential inauguration, clips from various movies and ball games, Saddam Hussein's hanging, and NY. Governor Eliott Spitzer's resignation upon being caught cavorting with prostitutes. Yup. Very tasteful.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

More on Exploiting Musicians

My recent post "Using The Poor Economy To Exploit Musicians," has attracted a lot of interest. In addition to the positive comments on the bandstand at this weekend's gigs, I've received a number of emails (both on and off the record) and a number of bloggers/facebookers/twitterers have posted links.

I'd like to address some of the emails and comments I've seen or heard.

Rachel emails:
I just wanted to let you know that your concerns extend far beyond the musical community. I have had so many requests from people to do work for less than the cost of the materials. When I explain to them (politely) why this is not going to work, I get told that I should be happy to be making money without "working". Um, excuse me? Just because I work from a home studio does not mean that I do not have expenses or further that I am not working! I put in regular workweeks just like anyone else.

What you are coming up against is more than people not appreciating that you need to pay your staff (or I need to pay for materials and overhead). It is people betraying the fact that they think your skills are not worth paying for. My general policy has been that if people view my labour as worthless, they are not people that it is worth taking on as clients. And this is aside from customers who agree to a price and then do not pay up when the times comes. I now hesitate to do seminars for "Torah" institutions if I will not be paid on the spot as I have been known to wait months until contracts are even looked at and emails returned never mind paid in full.

Good luck in figuring out a way to respectfully deal with clients and customers who do not want to pay. I know that I can, for the most part, keep things in check and *most of the time* will get my money- but I go in to pretty much every transaction with my heart in my throat.
Rachel makes two points that I think are worth highlighting here. The first is that sadly all too often "Torah institutions" do not live by Torah rules. This has been an ongoing Chilul Hashem that I have yet to see the leadership address in a meaningful way. There ought to be an institutional culture within these institutions that emphasizes this. Yet, I could compile a list of Torah institutions that have either screwed me outright, taken advantage of me (or tried to) in the name of Torah and/or Tzedaka. None of this is recent, BTW. Years ago, I learned that when I deal with these types of orgs. I have to be exceedingly careful.

The other point is that people don't seem to value labor in the sense that they don't seem to appreciate the amount of work it takes to create something, be it art, music, jewlry, whatever. When a jewelry artisan presents her work for sale, that jewelry represents many hours of labor that went into creating the piece, not including the additional hours/days/years of planning and preparing, and all the ancillary expenses.

Similarly, when any good band shows up to play an event, there are many hours of prep that have gone into making the job successful. I'm not even talking about the years of practicing etc. The events' needs might have included learning and transcribing new music, a logistics run-through at the venue, a meeting with the caterer, multiple meetings with the family, etc.

Devo K emailed:
Your post reminds me of the following scene from Fiddler on the Roof:

(Tevye) "And Nahum, the beggar..."

(Beggar) "Alms for the poor, alms for the poor..."

(Lazar) "Here, Reb Nahum, is one kopek."

(Beggar) "One kopek? Last week you geve me two kopeks."

(Lazar) "I had a bad week."

(Beggar) "So, if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?"
Devo does not appear to have understood the post. Get me rewrite!

(Tevye) "And Nahum, the beggar..."

(Beggar) "Alms for the poor, alms for the poor..."

(Lazar) "Here, Reb Nahum, is one kopek."

(Lazar) "On second thought, Reb Nahum, I'm going to give that kopek to Yankel the Thief. He always tells me he can get people to do any work I might need. And even though he doesn't pay them the money he's promised them (and I know you still haven't been paid for some work you did for me last year that he sub-contracted you on, and in fact, that default has contributed to why you are now begging) I'm still going to give him the money."

(Beggar) Bangs head against wall.

Another reader who asked me not to publish his email, wrote about how he bought a new Torah from a sofer who offered it at a very low price due to his distress at the current financial climate and his desperate need for cash. I do not think the situations are analogous. Firstly, he was offered the Torah at that price. When it was offered, he recognized the situation for what it was and accepted. He didn't offer $100-$250 less, even though no sofer in dire financial straits would walk away from the deal over that amount. And that’s my point. Musicians are being very flexible, and that’s on top of the traditional institutional discount many of us always offer. There comes a point at which the negotiation tactics and pay offered is just insulting.

Another reader emails:
I do not believe it is an open secret that XXXX is a half year or more behind in paying many musicians. If they are aware of it at [institutions redacted] then there is a simple solution which is for the musician or a representative to demand of the Rabbinical leadership (yeah, I know, an oxymoron) that they employ a Shibuda D'Rabi Noson and have the organizations pay the musicians directly, starting with the longest owed.
The hitch with this approach is that it ensures that the musicians playing the gig get screwed in favor of paying other musicians. It just shuffles the cards. It doesn't solve the problem.

Then there were some comments about unions like:

The other comments I had to say was UNION RATES in many situations are higher then the market rate sad to say and this leads to a unrealisitic cycle those who think UNION RATES are market rates. Union's certainlly don't behave in a mentch type way for the most part.
I was with the post in terms of just lowballing for the sake of lowballing but when someone just wants to get paid to support his family (when due to the recession many people have less funds) and thinks union wages are standard then I think that person is being a little bit unrealistic on his side.
If union wages are indeed "fair", then why does the union need to set the pay scale at all? Let the market dictate what it can support. If a job doesn't pay enough, don't take it....
Firstly, nowhere in that piece or the linked post did I state my own perspective on the musician's union. The commentor's assumptions on that score are off base. Secondly, the musicians union is quite weak, and in my opinion irrelevant to most frum Jewish musicians (outside of those working on Broadway.) In fact, I believe that scale is too low, relative to the market demand, and this is reflected in "real" street prices. Just one example, try hiring a one-man-band at scale to play your wedding. None of the popular "heimish" one-man-bands play those gigs for scale. It's too low. They all charge significantly more. And these are not union musicians either.

Another point, that needs to be stressed, is that "scale" is a misleading term, as it's being used in this context. When a union band pays "scale" to the musician for a gig, they also are supposed to make an additional payment (per gig) into that musicians health and pension plan with the union. When musicians complain about being offered less than scale, it means less than the base pay they receive AND they are also not having the money paid towards their health insurance/pension either.

My personal beliefs on the musicians union are a topic for another post sometime, perhaps. I think it's fair at this point to say that when musicians want to be paid scale, in the context of this particular conversation, they are not asking to be paid above reasonable market rates.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lost: Mechitza Edition

Wedding videographer Stoimen Vassilev captures what happens when percussionist Gilad Dobrecky gets lost in the mechitza at a frum wedding at Marina Del Ray.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Using The Poor Economy To Exploit Musicians

Just got off the phone with a youth director for one of the wealthiest shuls in the Tri-state area. He was looking for a musician to play an event Purim evening (Sat. night). His budget? About as low as any self-respecting musician would consider going out for on a non-popular night, let alone Purim eve. (I'm not available in any event.) In other words, not reasonable.

It's very interesting to me to see how people are attempting to use the state of the economy to take advantage of musicians who might be feeling desperate. Obviously, one episode does not represent a pattern. However, I've been hearing about/seeing this happen more and more frequently.

Another example. Also Purim related. I have a steady Purim gig for Megillah night. There really isn't much time for me to accept an earlier gig. (I can possibly make a late night one.) A number of years ago, an organization hired me to play an event earlier that evening, which was held in the same room as my later gig. In other words, two gigs back to back in the same room. Naturally, I charged them a VERY fair price to play their party. Last year, they called and asked me to do it again. Except this time the two gigs were in different venues a few blocks apart. So, a lot more work with setup, breakdown, and transporting the gear from one venue to another. Since the economy was already bad, I decided not to raise my rate significantly despite the extra work. To my surprise, the person from the org demanded that I play the job for less then in the past. The amount they offered me was simply embarrassing. When they made the offer, I pointed that out to them. The response? You may be right, but the chairman knows that you can't take another gig, so it's this or nothing. For the record, after negotiating back and forth, I wound up taking the gig for $25 less then the previous times, but I regret having done so and will not be doing that again. The $25 is simply not material to their budget, but goes a long way towards increasing the respect said chairman will show towards whoever does play the gig.

So why am I writing about this?

It's simple, really. It's because I don't believe the state of the economy warrants people treating others -- musicians or non-- in condescending or exploitative ways, and I've been hearing lots of anecdotal stories of this happening. Simply, there is no mitzvah to take advantage of someone just because you can. And when said actions are done in the name of protecting tzedakah, it makes it all the worse.

To be clear. There is nothing wrong with an organization deciding to eliminate music from an event at which they usually would have live music, due to budget considerations. There is something wrong with exploiting others financial need by offering a less than living wage to them for their work, just because they can. Obviously, for someone who is struggling to put food on the table, and many musicians are, some money is better than no income. But offering to pay rates that will ensure a worker (any worker, not just musicians) won't be able to support themselves or their families, is wrong.

There are situations where there might not be a reasonable budget for an event, but the organizers still might wish for there to be live music. And, in some cases, there might be a musician for whom that specific gig makes sense, whether it be from a promotional aspect, or because he/she supports that organization's work, etc. In those cases, I think the organization needs to be honest and transparent about what their budget is when they approach the musician. And, it cannot be that everyone else, caterer, printer, production team, etc. are all getting paid full price.

I'm an economist by training. I well understand supply and demand. That said, there's also mentshlekhkeit.

There is another factor that I should mention here.

A while back, I posted an email from a reader complaining about an office asking him to work for less then union scale, which is relevant here. In addition to my comments there, I think there's another point that needs to be raised. That issue is directly affected by organizations not being honest with musicians about their budgets, and their willingness to place marginal savings above human dignity.

There is a huge problem in my community, wherein one local band office is seriously delinquent in payment to many musicians. In my estimation, there is simply no way it is possible for this bandleader to pay all of his outstanding debts, and he is running a Ponzi scheme at this point, wherein a lot of musicians are going to wind up cheated at the end. (In fact, last night I came across one non-Jewish musicians facebook profile, where under activities, he lists "Trying to get paid for a gig I did last Aug. for XXXX [name redacted] If he has any friends left, please tell him I would like to get paid!' How's that for a Kiddush Hashem?)

Yet, this musician regularly books organizational work (and non-org work too) at below fair market rates. The only way he is able to do that is by not paying some of his musicians for playing those (and/or other) jobs. I have gone up against this office bidding for gigs a number of times. Whenever the client's concern has been musical, I've booked the job. 100% of the time. (I'm aware that that ratio won't necessarily last, but it is relevant, I believe, to what were talking about.) However, whenever the buyer is solely concerned about price, I lose the gig, for the simple reason that I can't lower my rates as much as him, because I always pay all of my musicians for playing the gig, and because I will never substitute sub-par or unprofessional musicians. So when organizations eschew hiring other local musicians, and there are a number of us in town, based solely on price, without pausing to ask how those low rates are possible they contribute to an abusive business practice that results in many musicians losing work they are fully qualified and available to do, because they can't compete with a thief.

If organizations would decide on their budget for a given event, and approach musicians/bands with that amount on the table it would eliminate the need for musicians to compete in this way. A band/musician could simply decide if the offered amount was worth their while or not. However, when organizations play the game of having bands compete against each other, and they include dishonest offices in the mix, it makes it impossible for honest people to compete. So, while they may achieve their goal of saving still more money for their organization, it comes at the expense of exploiting musicians, and preventing the honest musicians from getting a fair hearing.

The reality is that all I've written above holds true for individual music consumers as well. I believe though, that community institutions have an extra obligation to do the right thing, and pursue policies based on yashrus. Unfortunately, it seems as though many of the people in charge at our institutions aren't concerned about these topics at all. That's a shame!

NB: I've chosen not to name the band/musician I'm referring to here, but it's an open secret in the local community and in the music community-at-large. I know of several people at local organizations who are aware of this and still turn to him, allowing him to undercut the honest musicians in the community.

The sum of all of this? I think people need to be aware that saving a relatively inconsequential amount should not trump mentshlekhkeit. (Neither should saving a large amount, for that matter.) Pursuing policies that are exploitative, even if you're one step removed from said exploitation, is wrong!

In these difficult economic times, most musicians/bands are willing to be very accommodating of financial circumstances. There is simply no reason why our community institutions shouldn't work with local musicians in a mutually beneficial way that both preserves the dignity of musicians and is careful with tzedaka expenditures.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

2/9/10 Link Dump

Over at Frum Satire... "Lipa Schmeltzer Concert Causes Haiti Earthquake."

What Is Jewish Music?

Michael Makovi posts "A New Hearing for Kol Ishah."

Jewlicious posts " Nachman Ravers."

Here's a bit more about Singer Shimon Craimer’s song for Haiti.

When Robyn Shippel sings, "Shabbat Rocks!"

Finally, here's a helpful panflute flowchart.

Rudy Tepel song sheet

Here's a neat bit o' JM history. It's a lyrics sheet for popular Jewish songs the Rudy Tepel Orchestra was playing at the time.