The question that sparked this was:
“So at the risk of asking the obvious, I am not a composer, but a rabbi who uses any and all melodies in services. does my synagogue need to purchase a license as well for "coverage"?
The immediate response from another person in the discussion was, “absolutely, you have to buy a license.”
Below is my answer, which I ultimately decided to post here instead.
I'm going to play devil's advocate here, as a singer-songwriter of Jewish music who freely lets anyone use my songs in services if they want to. I choose to operate in a post-copyright universe. Here's why:
1. The music industry is a multi-headed beast that largely serves it shareholders first, recording execs later and in too many cases, the songwriters and artists last of all. ASCAP, the largest music licensing agency, does a lot on behalf of big-name mainstream artists and songwriters in order to wrest royalties out of the songs that bear their stamp.
The artist's take has to go through the record company, the shareholders and producers and everyone -- and only a small fraction of that dollar makes its way to the songwriter or recording artist. My ASCAP dues, if I paid them, would largely help to pay for the work to wresting money out of bands that play "cover" tunes and the establishments that allow that to happen. What are the cover tunes in Jewish synagogue music? How are the creators of those "cover" tunes supported? A few with visions of top-drawer success can get very irate when their music is used without permission, let alone payment. Why? What's at stake here? These are questions worth pondering in the greater scheme of things.
2. From what I have heard so far (from synagogue music directors and composers themselves), J-License simply doesn't have the manpower to enforce compliance, so it runs on a voluntary honor system. I think it's still too early to know how successful this model will be. I suspect that the smallest communities who can't even afford paid clergy will not be able to pay for the service. I think it will be very interesting to see how this all shakes out in another couple of years, even as we navigate the shrinking of traditional synagogue organizations and the shrinking of the importance of large synagogue life (which has already been happening for awhile without COVID's help).
3. We now have at least two generations of people in the world who are used to downloading content from the internet FOR FREE. Some of them can afford to pay, while others cannot.
How do we sell the idea of licensing and royalties to those who can't?
ASCAP uses spies who get paid to hang out in bars and count cover tunes, which are then billed after the fact in lawsuit-threatening communications to bands and bar owners.
In the Jewish world we use Torah and guilt.
It remains to be seen how effective the latter approach is in the longer run, especially if time is running out for some synagogue communities already in the midst of a huge paradigm shift.
4. I have self-produced four albums of original Jewish music over the last 20 years. Licensing my music online through CDBaby's multi-pronged distro program has netted me less than $1,000 of income.
That's right. Less than a thousand bucks of royalties, paid out per download or streaming, in fractions of pennies on the dollar.
Now, some of that is on me for the quality of my music and the intensity and frequency of my hustle to self-promote.
And some of it is because I’ve stubbornly insisted on creating contemporary Jewish music that isn’t influenced by Jewish camp experiences (because I never had those growing up).
It is, in effect, contemporary Jewish music for grownups, by a grownup using her Jewish learning and her musical ability to bring songs into the world that wrestle with very grownup issues. In short, my stuff’s super niche-y, not mainstream adult pop.
What I would have had to spend in time and resources to get back the few pennies that royalties would bring me just doesn't balance out. So when someone honors me by asking permission to use something I wrote, I happily send them a lead sheet and my gratitude that they noticed my music.
5. I respect other songwriters' and artists' choices about how and when they monetize their music. And I firmly believe that the decision of when and how to monetize one's creative output is, for better or worse, directly tied to the capitalist economy we operate in. If every creative person had their work supported by a government agency (remember the WPA?) so they could have food to eat and a roof over their head while they created, we'd all be a lot freer to make music that speaks from and to our souls FIRST, and not worry so much about a song's "commercial" potential. As a result, I believe contemporary, popular music would be a hell of a lot more daring than it is — or at least, than the stuff that makes it into heavy rotation on radio and online stations these days.
When I traveled to various places as an artist-in-residence, we negotiated a stipend, signed a contract, and that was that.
I deeply suspect that for quite awhile, I won't be traveling so far afield. So for now I play online. One day I hope to play around town in the places I'd hoped to play before the pandemic shut everything down. I'll negotiate for a percentage of the bar receipts, put out a tip jar, and hope for the best. Living lightly and being, well, "small potatoes" allows me to be more thoughtful -- and agile -- in my choice of where and how to monetize my music, even with the current paradigms in place.
P. S. to the Rabbi who posted the question about using "any and all" melodies -- We would all do well to remember that a lot of a cappella melodies in traditional synagogue music aren't even attributed. Composers aren't always known. The different to the ear between something sounds "composed" and something that sounds like "nusach" isn't always clear, either. The institutions of licensing have yet to answer this sub-set of questioning, especially as it pertains to the particulars of Jewish music; but I think it will be interesting when they do. If you hear something of mine and would like to use it at your shul, I’d be thrilled to send you a lead sheet. Just ask.