Friday, July 29, 2005

Taking Stock (not Viacom)

Ever since I began reading blogs, I have believed that they have the power to change the Jewish community in profound ways. The CBS Rathergate brouhaha, among others, illustrates the ability of bloggers to powerfully affect public discourse. The same holds true for the Jewish community. I am convinced that blogs can change the community for the good. They can, of course, also be used for negative means and bloggers need to be careful to use their medium wisely.

A little history…

When I started Blog in Dm, there was little to no coverage of the Orthodox Jewish music world online. And, I believe that aside from the Klezmer Shack which covers mainly Klezmer, Yiddish, and Balkan music, there were no blogs dedicated to Jewish music.

What started out as an attempt to explore the possibilities of writing online evolved rather quickly from anonymous critiques of the state of the Orthodox JM community, to pseudonymous commentary on many aspects of Jewish music and the JM industry with a healthy dose of humor, music technology writing, and miscellaneous pop music culture links added to the mix.

I had assumed that few if any people would be reading. As I was experimenting and finding my “blog voice”, something interesting happened. People began to share their thoughts, and I discovered that many people, both inside and outside the industry, were reading the blog and shared my opinions, and I realized that there was a large audience interested in the topics I was writing about. Even in cases where people disagreed with me, a dialogue, long overdue in my opinion, began to take place. Then, other Jewish music blogs started popping up, and before long there were many diverse voices engaging in a give and take on issues that had not been publicly discussed previously.

As I continued writing this blog, I became convinced that this blog had the potential to have an impact on the Jewish music industry well beyond that which I could personally have. In particular, I came to believe that it could serve as a useful tool for countering the deliberate misinformation put out by some in the industry and helping to improve the general ethical state of the industry. . I believe that this blog, and others, have achieved some measure of success in addressing these issues.

A few comments…

I believe that people who lie (I use that word deliberately) to the public do not have the right to complain when said untruths are responded to in public. I also believe that when people insult the public’s intelligence in their ad copy, the public is entitled to point that fact out -- especially, when it is part of an industry-wide practice that has negative impacts on our community as a whole. And, I believe that those who misrepresent Judaism or Torah publicly should expect that their misrepresentations are going to be corrected in public. The undisputable reality is that within the halachik tradition, there is a wide range of opinions on issues like the appropriateness of using secular tunes etc. People are entitled to follow their posek, or choose to follow a more stringent path for themselves, but that doesn’t entitle them to disparage those with opposing views.

In general, I tend to focus on the “macro issues” rather than on individual misdeeds, although I will highlight some of those on occasion to illustrate a particular issue: usually only when they are already public knowledge, or those involved are the ones publicizing it.

I should point out that I believe that most who engage in these improper practices are simply emulating what they’ve seen others do. I believe that these people, if challenged to think about the appropriateness of their behavior, will in fact consider the issues and change their ways. However, there are some who deliberately and cynically use these techniques and then act all self-righteous when they are called on it. This is something that occurs in many areas in our community, not only related to music, and the community needs to strongly speak out against such behavior. People who cynically manipulate concepts such as lashon hara, beis din, hasagas g’vul, etc. ought not be allowed to benefit from their corrupt actions.

I’ve been amazed at the response this blog has gotten both in the sheer volume of readers, as well as in who is amongst that readership and I’d like to thank all those who have emailed to share their thoughts and opinions.

I still haven’t gotten over the fact that I can pen a review of a music software program and hear from the program’s creator or that I can write about an interesting CD I’ve read about and have the composer contact me the next day. Among many interesting contacts, I’ve had a well-known rabbi send me mp3’s of his compositions, a singer I wrote about asking production questions about recording with certain musicians, and I’ve “met” many interesting musicians (and some non-musicians and rabbis too) from around the world. The publisher of one of the JM advertising mags has asked permission to reprint some of my content (I decided not to give permission) and a business associate of one of the most egregious JM PR abusers has written to express agreement with criticisms of said JM performer. It’s been incredible to meet Jewish musicians from all over the world, playing many different styles of Jewish music, from Klezmer, Rock, Folk, Jazz, and more, who share my passion for Jewish music.

It should also be obvious that my readers, some of who have not wished to be identified, have sent many of the links and tips that have been posted here. I’d like to thank them all for their assistance.

I’d also like to thank all of the bloggers who have linked to my posts or blogrolled me, and those websites that have added this blog to their resources list. It has also been gratifying to see bloggers that I have directly inspired, as well as their “blog-children” (can I show you pictures of my “blog-grandchildren?”) adding to the positive side of the J-blogosphere.

Mistakes, I’ve made a few…

Early on, I “fisked” a number of articles and interviews. For those unfamiliar with the term, Samizdata defines it as:
verb. To deconstruct an article on a point by point basis in a highly critical manner. Derived from the name of journalist Robert Fisk, a frequent target of such critical articles in the blogosphere.
I’ve come to realize that his approach, although in common use among the blogs I was reading at the time, frequently comes across as bitter or nasty to people who are not personally familiar with the writer, or who haven’t read much else that they have written. In some cases, it appears that my message was obscured by the style or form I used to deliver it. Context is everything, and in this case, especially for those readers who hadn’t previously read other blogs, they lacked the background information necessary to understand that approach.

With regard to the “JM PR Watch” feature I occasionally run which simply quotes over-the-line hyperbole from Jewish music PR.… I believe that the outrageous PR really needs to stop, and, as I mentioned above, I believe that highlighting specific examples of it is a fair way of drawing attention to the problem. After all, the artists/producers put this material out in public for people to see, so the public is certainly entitled to say that it’s untrue or inappropriate. There’s a huge difference between public and private speech. “JM PR Watch” generally consists of selected excerpts of the actual PR text; with few if any comments. It speaks for itself.

In one case though, I probably should have approached things differently. A while back, when one singer updated his website, he included his old PR “articles” (paid ads, actually) on the site as news. A portion of one of those essays was forwarded to me, as is often the case, for inclusion in JM PR Watch. This was perhaps the most outrageous piece of JM PR I’ve seen (it involved the glorifying of deceptive behavior) and so I posted it. In retrospect, though, given that I know this artist well (the piece included a story about two JM personalities), and the story is so out of character for him, I probably should have emailed him first to see if he’d remove it from his site prior to posting. I’m reasonably certain that he simply hasn’t thought about the lesson being given over by that story, in which he was mostly a passive participant. I do still think that it is inappropriate and that he should remove it from his website.

Another JM PR Watch piece also created a buzz. I linked to an artist’s website that claimed that his debut CD had hit the stores for Lag Ba’omer and was selling well. The only problem was that it was weeks before Lag Ba’omer. My comment was “eizehu ashir, haroeh es hanolad.” This relatively innocuous posting resulted in the artist being sent several emails (that I know of, there were probably more) calling him a liar. (One of these was even tiled “Email to a Liar.”) One blogger posted an email exchange he’d had with said artist, and I later linked to it, although in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have because it wasn’t clear to me that the artist knew that his emails would be made public. The comments section of another blog then took off on this performer, with commentators posting many personally unflattering comments about this singer.

In short, what was most likely a time of anticipation and excitement at the start of a new career by this performer was marred by an influx of negative comments and publicity. Although the criticism was legitimate, the overload or cumulative effect of the many emails and comments seemed excessive to me, especially given the fact that he’d not done anything more egregious than others in the industry.

This leads to my next point. Today, there are many blogs that focus at least partly on Jewish music and have joined the discussion. For the most part, this is a good thing. However, in some cases, the “noise” that has erupted over specific issues -- whether through these blogs, or through the comments section on other blogs -- has resulted in a clouding of what my position on that issue is. I have found that some people tend to “blur” the many different things they’ve read on the JM blogs into one “meta-view” and ascribe the same position to all of us. The reality is that the JM bloggers each have their own opinions, and it is simply unfair to hold one blogger responsible for a view or position expressed on another blog. Sure, there are often commonalities, but even when we agree, there are frequently differences of nuance within our respective positions.

On criticism…

I welcome criticism and my general policy has been to publish critical emails. To the best of my recollection, there have been two exceptions. In both of those cases – they were sent months apart but addressed the same point -- the writers appeared to confuse what I’d written with what had appeared on other blogs. (Incidentally, that’s not why I didn’t publish them. The reason I didn’t post them is because they raised personal issues about a certain JM performer that I felt shouldn’t be published.)

To sum up, this has been an interesting two years, and I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation. Prose it!

Apologies for the atrocious pun! I couldn’t resist.