Cultural 'War' for Hasidic Music Hits Brands

Touring, Sponsorships Reportedly Under Strain for Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Artists

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With piracy rampant in an over-saturated market, CD sales are tanking, leading many performers to bank on live performances and even corporate gigs to make a living. Ringtones, sponsorships and even branded content may be the only glimmers of hope at the moment.

Yes, you've heard this before, but we're not talking about the pop music industry in the U.S. This is the state of Israeli ultra-Orthodox music -- and it gets worse.

Hasidic musicians, once part of a booming industry, are now finding two of their last stable revenue streams -- live music and brand sponsorships -- threatened by conservative religious leaders, according to a piece in Haaretz today.

"The issue of performances in the ultra-Orthodox sector involves a major war," says Yishai Lapidot, a singer, composer and the founder of the Oif Simches band. "At present the singers have the upper hand, following the last huge performance in the U.S. It was a great success. Major performances are scheduled for the summer, too, such as the one by Chabad, scheduled to be held in Hayarkon Park and featuring the top performers of Hasidic songs. But there have been cases when major performances were canceled as a result of pressure by activists who are not happy with large concerts."

The rabbis who signed the letter forbidding "evenings of song" were also referring to those performances where a strict separation between men and women is enforced through partitions. Today, the rabbis even forbid performances meant for men only. Their main argument is that such shows have become venues for wild partying and that young audiences are showing signs of idolizing singers who dance around on the stage rather than the great Torah scholars.

The Hasidic music industry is large and well-developed in Israel, due in part to many of its stars penning songs that appeal to secular audiences. Artists like Shuli Rand (above, with the gorgeous "Ayeka") have had platinum albums in Israel -- 50,000 copies -- and, just as in the U.S. and elsewhere across the globe, declining sales have allowed mobile companies and other corporate sponsors from supermarkets to banks to fill some of the void.

But now musicians are finding this alternate revenue source under attack, as conservative groups like Guardians of Sanctity and Education are reportedly pressuring companies to drop sponsorships because of differing religious opinions.

"Many groups that wanted to help and nurture Hasidic music prefer not to get drawn into arguments with the activists, and give up these cooperative ventures," says [musician Yishai Lapidot]. "The activists are torpedoing marketing initiatives by cell phone companies and approve only mainstream music. Many artists are harmed by that. The activists dictate to firms precise lists of artists with whom they should cooperate." He says the rabbis' decisions even affect the types of ring tones mobile providers offer their users for download.
There's no numbers behind the assertions, so it's unclear whether they are really having a broad impact on Hasidic musicians' livelihoods. But, given the broad record industry turmoil, any crimp on touring or sponsorship income is bound to exacerbate the pain beyond even what your average American musician is feeling right now.


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