Thursday, January 06, 2005

Reader Comments on the HASC Concert

Steven Weiss sends in the following two emails:
I read your blog from time to time and appreciate your outlook on the JM scene.

I want to preface this by saying that I work together with Yosi Piamenta, who as you know has chosen to bring his music to both Jewish and non-Jewish music fans, through the club scene in NYC and elsewhere.

If you check Matisyahu's website, and his concert listings on a site like Jambase, you will notice that Matisyahu's club gigs are not being pushed to the Charedi community. Matisyahu does many "Jewish" shows that are in environments that would be deemed appropriate by the parents of the kids in question. I think it's wonderful that a guy like Matisyahu can successfully present his music to a HASC audience one night, an an audience half-filled with Jewish hippies the next. Why can't there be a separation between the two worlds?

As far as being a role model goes. Considering the path Matisyahu's life has taken him I can think of no better role model for the Jewish youth of today's troubled world. His commitment to his faith is a testament to him as an individual.

Anyway just rambling off a couple of thoughts concerning your post...............
Now that I look at my earlier e-mail, I can see where my comment "you will notice that Matisyahu's club gigs are not being pushed to the Charedi community" doesn't hold much water because his gigs are obviously listed on Mat's website, which anyone can access. What I was trying to say was that Matisyahu seems to be trying to keep a clear seperation between the two different musical arenas in which he operates.
I happen to agree with some of what Steven writes. As I noted in the post he references, I think that Matisyahu has made a Kiddush Hashem in SOME of his public appearances. I think that he can be a positive role model for some. I also don't neccessarily have a problem with Jewish artists performing in clubs -- I do think that a positive presence by Jewish artists in such venues has a positive impact, although I don't feel that it's for everybody. (The personal challenges those artists may face as a result of booking these kinds of performances and the issues raised are a different discussion for perhaps another time.) I also think that there CAN be a seperation between the two worlds.

To illustrate: Years ago, I saw Piamenta perform at the old Knitting Factory on Houston Street many years ago with Bentzi Gafni, Shlomo Deshet, et al. I personally don't take issue with those kinds of performances. There are many Jewish performers I respect who play in clubs, but there are clubs... and there are clubs.

My primary criticism of Piamenta's (and others) bar and nightclub performances is because they started marketing those shows to the youth in the frum Brooklyn community. I remember seeing posters in the kosher pizza shops advertising things like "Simchas Beis Hashoeva at Wetlands." Piamenta wasn't the only group selling himself this way. Inasense, now Soulfarm, also began marketing themselves that way at about the same time. This type of gig promotion coincided with another shift; both of those bands, who had primarily been playing venues like the Knitting Factory, The Lone Star Roadhouse, and The Bitter End, where people sat and listened to the music --dancing was prohibited in those places-- began to perform in clubs like Wetlands and much later B.B. Kings, where there is a huge dance area directly in front of the band, and few seats. The vibe in some of those places is quite different from the "listening venues." For instance, the crowds tend to be wilder and rowdier and there is much more obvious drug use. Wetlands, which is now closed, always reeked of weed, for instance... especially in the downstairs lounge area.

I recognize that these bands may not have started out going for the frum teen demographic at their shows, but they can not have missed that that's who they were attracting. Here's Soulfarm's Noah Solomon :
It already happened - they've already scared off everybody. Some of my friends just told me "Dude I can't hang any more. I like your music but I can't deal with the crowd." We've just come to realization - that's what it is in New York right now. Out of the city it's not like that. But they're really keeping us going, these kids, coming to concerts, supporting us, buying CDs and all. And they will grow up and, soon enough we'll have a sophisticated audience that have been with us for quite a few years.
These bands were not and are not unaware of who is coming to their shows.

My opinion on the Jewish bar band scene was very much firmed up by the goings on at one Inasense concert I attended at Wetlands. I'd seen the band perform a number of times in the early days -- when I was often the only kipa-wearer in the room - and since I hadn't seen or worked with the members in a few years, I thought it would be nice to catch the show and catch up with them. What I saw was quite disturbing. I'd estimate the crowd at that show at approximately three hundred, with about eighty-five percent of that consisting of frum teenagers (mainly underage) and a nice percentage of those being from Brooklyn. (You can spot a frum Brooklyn teen in a nightclub from a mile away.) Many of them were dancing in front of the band, and there was a lot of drinking, drugging, and er, not being shomer negia, going on. Many of these kids were there because the show was quite succesfully marketed towards them, and NOT because they were out experimenting or exploring NYC nightlife. In my opinion, the vast majority of these kids would never have entered a venue like Wetlands at that stage in their life, absent the marketing for these gigs by bands like Piamenta and Soulfarm. The Moshav band later joined the scene too, and more recently, I've been critical of Blue Fringe playing some shows on that circuit as well for the same reason.

With regard to Matisyahu... he may be attempting to maintain a distinction between his "kosher" performances and his club gigs, but the reality is that given his PR success, that distinction is impossible to sustain at this point. If he's promoted to the frum community as kosher through being featured at the HASC event and the prominent retailing of his album, then when he plays a club in the city, the frum kids will be there even if there are no posters announcing the gig hanging on Avenue J.

I recognize that he's already drawing a large number of these teens to his shows in NYC. HASC's featuring him will only increase that number and lend it an air of community sanction. When adults decide to go hear music in a bar, that's a personal decision. When naive kids are lured into an enviroment they're not prepared for, the artists and promoters share the responsibility, and when I refer to promoters in this context, it's not only the promoters of the bar show, but rather all who are selling this artist.

As such, HASC has a moral responsibility to its audience, and to those in the black hat/yeshivish/chassidish communities who support it, to not promote anyone who will attract their kids to what they view as unsavory locations or lifestyles. I believe it is an implicit social contract.

This is independent of any judgements on Matisyahu (or any of these performers) music. As an aside, I suspect that a large part of the HASC audience will not "get" Matisyahu's music. Incidentally, for similar reasons, many tzedaka organizations have either ceased or severly curtailed the "Young Leadership" activities conducted under their auspices. As a reader wrote: "Ultimately the responsibility lies with the artists themselves as well as the parents, and the community." I assume that HASC sees itself as part of the community.

One final point. The fact that Matisyahu appears to be a surprise guest prevents those concert goers who are concerned about this issue from making an informed judgement on whether or not to attend.