The announcement a few weeks ago that the prominent Jewish record label JDub was shutting down after 9 years, attracted a lot of commentary in the Jewish blogosphere. JDub was unable to sustain financial viability despite attracting a lot of communal philanthropic support and despite being at the cutting edge of hipster Judaism. This has raised the question of whether developing institutions to create a hip, cool Jewishness are a good use of communal resources.
I'll ignore those questions here, but I want to make a point from a metal perspective. It's striking that in the extreme metal underground, which is definitely a fringe taste and which has been just as effected as JDub by the revolution in the music industry, there are hundreds of labels that continue year after year. I'm struck by how many of the labels that existed when I was doing my PhD research on the metal underground in the 1990s are still around. Yet if anything, the financial viability of extreme underground metal is even weaker than a Jewish label supported by charitable foundation and critical acclaim.
One of the reasons why the metal underground survives is that it emerged organically, with no policy papers or strategic vision. Most people involved in it never expect to earn anything from it and they do what they do for love alone. Further, there is a robust scene that supports it, made up of committed scene members who live for the music and will spend vast amounts of money on it.
None of that is to say that JDub wasn't set up by people with the right motives or that it didn't attract support or that it didn't unearth and support some great music. The problem was that the Jewish music scene surrounding it was and is relatively weak. It lacked and lacks the autonomy that can sustain it. JDub was too removed from those Jewish music 'undergrounds' that do exist - klezmer, haredi music.
Ultimately, if there is to be a sustainable and vital alternative Jewish music scene, it will need to emerge slowly, through the devotion and commitment of members. JDub is a reminder that you can't create a scene from the top down.