Torah Audio – Free or Pay

As the years go on, there is more and more Torah audio available for free on the Internet, however there are still a significant number of pay sites.

Some of these pay sites have shiurim that many would benefit from, but for which they are unlikely to pay given the wealth of free material.

1) Why are there sites that still charge, even though there seems to be few sites that sell significant amounts of material?

2) Should we or could we try to convince some of the pay sites to offer their material for free?

3) Is there a Torah hashkafah view as to whether to charge or give away, especially as the cost of production and distribution of audio continues to trend towards zero?

36 comments on “Torah Audio – Free or Pay

  1. Interesting point, Mark, about a Rabbi not being aware of his potential internet audience. Recently, a Rav who is a neighbor had a Pesach shiur posted on torahanytime.com. I was mentioning to him how much I enjoyed it, and he was totally surprised and said “I didn’t know people really listen to these things”.

    Those of us who are google savvy and capable of knowing where to dig for things online are more likely to find things – whether it’s a shiur or a pair of shoes. Some people are just not comfortable with the concept of using the web.

  2. Jeff, thanks for clarifying and for pointing out how my statement “How can we use the Internet to teach Torah to the most people possible” needs clarification.

    I wasn’t primarily thinking about the Kiruv aspect, but about teaching Torah to those who are already observant.

    We who are already frum, sorely need to take our Torah learning both broader and deeper and having more material available furthers this important goal.

    Part of the problem is that many people don’t listen to shiurim regularly. The Internet enables more Rebbeim to reach more people in locations throughout the world and people then have a better chance to listen regularly to a Rabbi or group of Rabbis with whom they connect.

    It is also a great benefit for the Rabbi when he knows his Torah is being heard by 10s or in some cases 100s of people, given that the average shiur is given to a much smaller group. In fact one of my teachers was happy that one extra person was listening to his Shiurim that I posted on our Shul website.

    I think that this also holds true for beginners as well as intermediate and advanced shiurim.

    In regard to your valid concerns of not knowing the message recipients, fortunately and unfortunately the Internet has already changed that equation and this is where more people are turning for information about Torah and everything else. If the Torah Observant community does not address the need you can be sure that it will be addressed more and more by the non Torah Observant.

    For the record, I am not a fan of the “who knows someone may become frum” school of Kiruv and I am often arguing with those who follow such a model.

    I have seen the power of the knowledge of Torah and how it changes a person at many different levels. I believe that learning Torah is good for every Jew and is where our focus must be.

    I had a Facebook experience recently where I exposed a simple Torah thought to a number of non observant people and they loved it and many where looking for more.

    Torah is every Jew’s heritage and the way to improve a person, his community and the world. Let’s try to get more of it into every Jews heart and mind.

  3. spreading the gospel: treating religion like a product to be marketed, trying to deliver a message to the greatest number of people as possible, regardless of the ultimate quality of the message and irrespective of any genuine concern for the message recipient, Bible as a mass-market, impersonal commodity because “who knows” someone “may” become frum and that justifies any and all efforts to “reach out” regardless of the damage it causes to the person’s perception of relgious people (as not really caring about people, just trying to change them) and regardless of the resulting damage to kavod haTorah itself.

  4. While there are websites such as Aish and Chabad, which are somewhat successful in reaching the unaffilated, at the end of the day the hits will still occur by those who have found the site because they googled for something, followed a link, or some other similiar means.

    For example, a Rav could have the most awesome, compelling shiur online, but if no one knows who he is, or has no specific interest in finding it, it won’t be found. Unfortunately, a lot of good URLS have been grabbed up by “messianic” sites, as many of you might have noticed. Therefore, the issue isn’t necessarily whether the shiurim cost money or not, but how successful the site is marketed via links, search engines and so forth to drive traffic to it. As I’m sure the admins know in the adventures of driving traffic to BBT. Many of us knew about this site via word of mouth, but others have come across it in many other ways.

    In a nutshell, first you need the traffic. Without it, all else is a moot point.

  5. >> Are we spreading the gospel?

    Jeff, I’m sorry but I’m still missing your question, perhaps because I don’t understand all your implications in the use of the word gospel or perhaps there is some sarcasm that I am missing.

    Could you spell it out more clearly for me.

  6. Mark, if it’s melamed al menas laasos, I don’t disagree. But freely distributed internet shiurim rarely approach that level. With no personal connection, I am very skeptical of the quality of the limud haTorah going on. So I repeat the question – are we spreading the gospel?

  7. Bob, I’ve seen more Internet-opposed Rabbis make their shiurim available over the Internet in the past year or so. Perhaps they realized that despite its dangers, more and more Torah Observant people are accessing it, and that it makes sense to give them more access to Torah.

    Jeff, teaching Torah to the Jewish people is one of our top goals – I don’t think you disagree with that.

    In regard to teaching it to non-Jews, there are a number of efforts aimed at teaching non-Jews what the Torah views as their spiritual path and obligations.

  8. 1 – How can we use the Internet to teach Torah to the most people possible

    Our goal is to spread the gospel?

  9. You also have to get past the problem that the internet itself poses. Because of its many web sites with anti-religious and indecent content, the internet has a bad name among many Orthodox people who could use it as a kiruv tool. If their own leaders forbid internet use categorically or almost categorically, your plan won’t get too far with them.

  10. I think the main problem is that the Torah Observant world has not understood and harnessed the Internet as the unbelievable communication and distribution device that it is.

    People tend to focus on the profit factor, and in many situations in the Torah Observant world there is not a lot of profit to be made.

    I think the two main questions should be:

    1 – How can we use the Internet to teach Torah to the most people possible

    2 – How can we use the Internet to help the greatest number of Jews interact, strengthen and assist each other on a regular basis

  11. Mark,

    Is the problem that all our famous entreprenural skill has not been inherited by this generation?

  12. Bob, unfortunately that’s usually not how it works.

    What happens is that the Torah stays behind the pay wall for various reasons and neither the Rabbi nor the potential students will reap the benefits of spreading and absorbing that Torah.

    If I’m involved with these issues now, my first question is usually “Are you primarily interested in spreading more Torah or realizing additional income”. I think they’re both valid concerns but it’s helpful to have some clarity at the start.

  13. Mark said, “I’ve seen a number of cases where well meaning Baal Habatim urge the Rabbi/teacher to charge for the material under the misconception that they will make a significant amount of money from this. Usually this does not happen and fewer people end up benefiting from the Rabbi/teachers words of Torah.”

    Then the Rabbis/teachers in question ought to notice directly that money is not flowing in, regardless of earlier predictions. They can then make their personal decisions. If someone has offered them free distribution via the web, then can opt for that.

  14. I usually do listen to and/or download Torah Shiurim which are free – there are so many out there, especially on 613.org for download and learntorah.com for listening (some of which are also sponsored and therefore free to download). Occasionally I come across one that is absolutely worth my while to buy and have in my personal library permanently, and then I put that in the same category as a book that I absolutely have to buy and have in my book library.

    By the way, just for the record, although my initials are PL, I’m not the PL who posted on this subject earlier.

  15. “Producers and distributors need to cover their costs. If there is no user fee, they need some other steady support. If they have made the judgment that only user fees will cover their costs reliably, who are we to say otherwise?”

    Generally people who teach Torah are paid by the Shuls, Yeshivos or Organizations who employ them. Distribution on the Internet is a potential additional source of income and the information I have indicates that very few people are making anything significant from this.

    The costs of hosting a website and providing the bandwith to download audio shiurim can usually be done for anywhere from $0 to $30 a month. The upside is that more people get to benefit from the Rabbi/teacher’s Torah.

    I’ve seen a number of cases where well meaning Baal Habatim urge the Rabbi/teacher to charge for the material under the misconception that they will make a significant amount of money from this. Usually this does not happen and fewer people end up benefiting from the Rabbi/teachers words of Torah.

  16. Abe said above, “There is an amazing amount of totally un-listenable, time-wasting “shiurim” which halachically probably doesn’t even qualify as talmud torah. I hate to say it, but it might be better to crack open an artscroll chumash.”

    In a user-fee world, the less listenable shiurim would not sell, and the sellers would have to regroup and improve their product. In an “endowed by donations” world, the same would be true, unless the endowments are not connected to quality.

  17. Producers and distributors need to cover their costs. If there is no user fee, they need some other steady support. If they have made the judgment that only user fees will cover their costs reliably, who are we to say otherwise?

  18. Zal, I don’t think you can substitute music for Torah because they fall into two very different realms. But even in the music industry and (the newspaper industry), the ease and relative low cost of production and distribution (and subsequent competition) is forcing them to rethink how and when they can charge for service or content. The Open Source Software movement is another example in which some factions are actually challenging the morality of intellectual property rights.

    Gary, I agree that giving it away for free and asking for donations is an extremely sensible approach. I personally pay Aish a $10 a month mp3 fee (as well as other donations) because I feel I benefit greatly from the material they produce. Now about that Beyond BT donation, exactly how big a number did you have in mind ;-)

    My personal view, which I have offered to people who have asked me, is that if someone is making significant money from their online media, they should continue to charge. But if they are not, they should consider removing the pay wall, spreading more Torah in the process and looking at donations or other means to raise revenues.

  19. Every site has some cost for set up and maintenance. Many sites offset those costs by the sale of advertising. However, beyondbt.com doesn’t have advertising. If you were to inform us that you need cash to cover expenses, or if you wanted to be a conduit for donations to other worthy activities, I would make a contribution. I have made contributions to other sites that make general appeals.

    I have also utilized an Israeli Yeshivah site that answers specific questions that users submit. Upon receiving the answer, I wasn’t asked to donate, but I thought to myself that it would be the right thing to do, and I truly “meant” to do so. Of course, I forgot!

    When I received a gentle e-mail reminder, I was not at all offended. I gladly sent a donation.

  20. I think your premise is flawed. Change “Torah” for “music”. Do you also feel that since the distribution cost of music over the internet is zero that all music should be free? What is wrong with a lecturer being compensated just like a musician (ideally) is?

    I manage RabbiIrons.org which does charge for lectures. These are extensively researched and come with source material. We would indeed like to make these lectures available to a wider audience without sacrificing the site as a VERY small source of revenue for the Jewish Heritage Foundation (not for me, I do it pro bono!) As such, we are trying to come up with alternatives for accomplishing this, such as seeking sponsors for free lectures.

  21. They are free to the people listening to the Torah.

    The people who are teaching the Torah are usually giving the class in some paid capacity but they are not paid for each additional download of the shiur.

  22. The free sites are not truly free, because they have wealthy donors who make large donations to keep them free.

  23. internet users are notorious for not believing in paying for anything. while i have no intention to pay for divrei tora, we can’t expect someone to give his Time away for free…..

  24. Lately, more and more of the very well known speakers on the shiurim circuit have websites to sell their shiurim (Ravs Tatz, Orlofsky and Rietti come to mind quickly). So therefore, a site such as torahanytime.com now has a lot of their shiurim for play only, where previously you could download them.

    Awhile back I approached torahmedia.com about offering something similar to an ITunes card, because I wanted to give something like that as a gift. I’ll have to find the emails, but they were interested. Personally, I find paying a flat rate preferable then paying for individual shiurim. And I still haven’t figured out Ohr Somayach’s point system.

    For many speakers, their speaking fees are a main part of their parnosa, as are the CD’s and tapes they’ve often sold following an engagement.

    Bottom line, it’s a very ticklish issue since it’s multi-faceted.

  25. I think the better question is “why shouldn’t we pay for material on the internet?” The cost of production and distribution might “trend towards zero” but there is still a cost.

  26. PL, good point about making a cheshbon for others, but there are many people who do donate their time and energy for communal causes.

    I was personally involved with an organization where they were not selling that many downloads. I suggested giving the shiurim away for free and building up the audience. They followed the advice and they were able to solicit donations from those who had downloaded.

    As far as the analogy of giving away other services, the Gemora and poskim (I’ll try to find the exact sources) do make a distinction between charging for spreading Torah as opposed to other services.

  27. There is an amazing amount of totally un-listenable, time-wasting “shiurim” which halachically probably doesn’t even qualify as talmud torah. I hate to say it, but it might be better to crack open an artscroll chumash.

  28. The benefit of spreading Torah may outweigh the potential income, could be, but who are we do be so “holy” on the cheshbon of others? I’m sure many needy clients could use a pro bono lawyer; shouldn’t the benefit of providing necessary services to the needy outweigh the potential income?

    If a speaker or organization receives income from a speech, how does “maybe they should give it for free” get to be a conversation?

    An alternative suggestion: all who are able (and that includes almost anyone on this blog or similar ones) can tutor others without financial compensation on the Torah subjects the potential tutor is most comfortable/knowledgeable. Another idea: all can make financial contributions for the purpose of publishing and disseminating books on Torah for those unable to afford them. Lastly, for the sake of topic maintenance, we can suggest that all of us sponsor the purchase of downloads from sites that charge, in order to provide those that are unable to pay with the desired Torah information. How about we shoulder the financial burden, instead of making suggestions for others to disregard their parnassah or fundraising because we think other people should give it up for a “good cause”, key word being “other”.

  29. I think Rabbi’s Wein, Frand (and Reisman) are not the best examples since they built up their audiences way before the Internet and I’m pretty sure their sales are also decreasing.

    I think the question is when the benefit of spreading Torah outweighs the potential income.

    I love the approach that YU and the OU are taking on distributing free material and the amazing amount of material that they are releasing on a regular basis.

  30. Regarding the coffee shop – you actually see this phenomenon with Shul membership – people pay even though they can Daven in any Shul for free. I believe the reason people are driven to pay for free services in these cases is because they are benefiting from the services in full view of people they know or feel indebted to. If Rabbi Wein would physically hand you the mp3s you can bet that at some point you’ll start paying the optional fees. mp3s downloaded online are received in privacy and no one has to know how ungrateful you are.

  31. What Moe said.

    Though they may be better off if they did an “optional” pay system, or a “pay what you wish” one. I think people who are really gaining will be willing to give money if they are not being forced. (Think of that coffee shop in Seattle that tried that with coffee; it’s even more true, I’d hope, for religious services.)

  32. 1. The speakers themselves have been earning profits from their recordings for years – either to cover the cost of production and advertising, or to actually make a profit (which the big names like Rabbi Wein and Rabbi Frand do).

    2. You’re welcome to convince them, but you would need to come up with some argument showing how they won’t be losing money.

    3. I would say it’s similar to the issue of charging to be a school Rebbi or Tutor. Ideally they shouldn’t charge, but how many Rebbeim can afford to teach for free?

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