Off the airwaves
A royalty dispute between local radio stations and the Mizrahi music federation is choking the genre, as artists lose out on public exposure.
Over the last few years, Mizrahi (Middle Eastern or Mediterranean) music's primary campaign has been against not the mainstream Israeli stations, Channel Two and Army Radio, but against those considered the strongholds of Mizrahi music - the regional radio stations.
Since they went on the air in 1993, the regional radio stations - primarily Radio Lelo Hafsaka, Radio Tzafon and Radio Lev Hamedina - have become home to a huge audience of Mizrahi music fans whose tastes have been ignored by the leading mainstream stations.
Up until two years ago, Radio Lelo Hafsaka, and especially Didi Harari's show "Didi Locali," set the tone. The majority of Mizrahi hits were born and took shape on the program.
Two years ago, as a result of an ongoing royalty dispute, the regional radio stations began a boycott of the Federation of Israeli and Mediterranean Music (FIMM), which represents a large share of the independent producers and musicians in Israel and most of those involved in Mizrahi music. The federation includes more than 120 production companies that represent artists including Margalit Tzanani, Sarit Haddad, Eyal Golan, Lior Narkis, Shlomi Shabbat, Avihu Medina and Harel Moyal. Albums registered with the federation are not played on local stations, including Radio Lelo Hafsaka. As a result, most albums by Mizrahi artists are not played on the radio.
Apart from a few regional radio stations and the Israeli music channel, there is no official public platform for Mizrahi music. Industry officials say big hits are a rarity, and disc sales, which are already declining because of illegal downloading and disc burning, are also being affected.
Artist without a stage
The roots of the dispute date to the early 1990s. When the regional radio stations first took to the air, their managers approached FIMM and ACUM, the Israeli composers and musicians association, and asked to pay reduced royalty payments. According to FIMM, the regional radio stations did not pay anything before 1998. That year FIMM asked to receive royalties, and the parties agreed it would receive NIS 15,000 per year.
"For a few years, we agreed to let Radio Lelo Hafsaka and other regional radio stations pay no royalties based on the assumption that it would take them time to establish themselves and start generating income," says FIMM director general Nir Bouskila. But then the grace period ended, FIMM asked for the standard sum, and things got complicated.
Yohai Hai, FIMM's attorney, says that in 2004 the organization approached the Second Television and Radio Authority to ascertain the regional radio stations' income. After discovering it totaled more than NIS 100 million annually, FIMM asked for 2 percent. Hai says that since the beginning of 2005, the radio stations have been boycotting FIMM's repertoire, primarily new singles.
According to Meir Reuveni, whose company owns the rights to hundreds of songs, Radio Lelo Hafsaka pressured artists represented by FIMM to sign detailed agreements allowing their songs to be played. "They used the divide and conquer method," says Reuveni, a member of FIMM's board. Some artists pressured producers into violating agreements with FIMM, he says.
The ongoing boycott hurts Mizrahi artists, who don't receive adequate airtime in any case, says Reuveni.
His brother Asher Reuveni, who oversees performances for the company, says the limited radio airtime also affects market share. Radio is an important promotional tool for any artist, veteran or newcomer. Without radio time, it is harder to schedule performances and earn revenue, says Asher Reuveni, who was Zohar Argov's manager, and is one of the founders of the Azit association to promote Israeli and Mediterranean music (whose activities were frozen several years ago).
Yossi Ben David, a well-known producer and songwriter in the Mizrahi music business, agrees that new artists have little chances of succeeding today because they have no platforms. "The stalls at the Central Bus Station prefer to sell pirate copies that include both Ivri Lieder and Yoav Yitzhak," he says.
Ben David signed an agreement with Radio Lelo Hafsaka allowing it to air his works without paying royalties. He produced one of the most successful projects in the genre in recent years, and he says he signed the agreement because he had no choice.
"As a member of the federation, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was important to me that the songs be played often, mainly on Didi Harari's show, so I gave them special permission. Sure, it creates a problem for FIMM, but in the present situation, where in any case airtime and sales are declining, did I have a choice?"
Ben David says FIMM's board of directors decided to cancel his membership in response - even though dozens of other members who signed similar agreements were not forced to leave. FIMM responded, "After considering the matter, the federation decided not to insist on its rights vis-a-vis Ben David and thereby honored the rights he granted the radio station. Since the legal result was the cancellation of the rights he granted FIMM, his membership in the organization ended."
Many FIMM members have harsh criticism for the local radio station managers and Harari. Harari, whose program discovered artists such as Idan Yaniv, Eyal Golan, Sarit Haddad and Ethnix, hopes the dispute will be resolved soon. Otherwise, the status of Mizrahi music will continue to deteriorate, he says.
"I made every effort to arrange a meeting between the two sides, but everyone is digging in their heels. Today I have no way of bypassing the struggle, so I just don't play their songs. Unfortunately, in the two years that this fight has been going on, the Mizrahi artists were very much affected. There has been despair and frustration among the artists, and I, too, eat my heart out when I hear Mizrahi songs that could have become huge hits but I can't play them."
According to Harari, this could lead to a decline in the level of Mizrahi music produced in Israel today - something many believe is already happening.
The void created by the displacement of Mizrahi music has been quickly filled by popular new Israeli artists, mainly graduates of the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music and veterans of "A Star is Born," says Harari.
Bouskila agrees. He says FIMM is trying to get around the radio stations in various ways, like using digital media such as cellular ringtones and services.
Ido Mor, the director general of Radio Lelo Hafsaka, responds that FIMM's request for 2 percent of its turnover is exaggerated and illogical.
"We informed them that we couldn't pay more than we did in the past. Because we were turned down and we didn't want to violate copyrights, we had to stop playing artists represented by the organization. Since then, many producers who cancelled their organization membership have contacted us, as have others who object to the organization's aggressive management of negotiations," says Mor. The station plans to reconsider its position in 2007.
Radio Lev Hamedina manager David Ben-Bassat says, "The word 'boycott' is infuriating and incorrect. I love Mizrahi music and respect the artists. They are the ones who approached me in despair and who are asking me to play their songs."
He says the station used jingles to publicize its position after thousands of listeners called to find out why certain artists weren't being played, and the station had to explain it couldn't play them due to legal concerns.
Good to go underground
"This fight is a good reflection of the patronizing approach that is common today, where artists legally entitled to royalties are not being paid," says musician Margalit Tzanani. "As always, people don't want to pay and this creates a problem - for ACUM too - in collecting money from the radio stations. However, the bottom line is that this is a financial disagreement that will eventually end, and Mizrahi music will continue to thrive.
"Regional radio will not survive without Mizrahi music," she says. "The audiences will slowly start demanding Mizrahi artists, and the stations will start losing listeners. We may need them, but they need us even more."
The silencing of Mizrahi music will contribute to the long-term growth of the genre, says Tzanani. "There's nothing like ghettos to reignite the flame," she says. "In the end we will have exactly what happened in the 1970s and 1980s, when the stations didn't want to play Mizrahi songs and the ghettos that emerged created wonderful music. It's good to go underground for a while after a period of growth. Just as there was some fatigue in the Mizrahi genre several years ago, now people are fed up with the trends created by graduates of the Rimon music school. There is great Mizrahi music being created, and the more it is choked, the greater the chances of it bursting forth with a bigger bang in the future."
Dudu Cohen was the Mizrahi music critic for the Maariv supplement Promo for the last two years. He resigned in a dramatic column bemoaning the situation of the Mizrahi music industry, and he disagrees with Tzanani's predictions. He feels it is mistaken to say good Mizrahi music is being produced under the public radar.
"Many assume that somewhere deep inside [Tel Aviv's] central bus station or in Ashdod's clubs, fine Mizrahi music is hiding. That is not the case. I tried endlessly to find interesting hardcore artists who have yet to be discovered, and it turns out that they simply don't exist. As of now, there are three Mizrahi songs on Army Radio's play list and six on Reshet Gimmel, but I think the last ones to blame for this are the music editors, who have to deal with the large quantity of worthless discs they receive.
"As for success and the audience's demands, there's no knowing what will happen in the future," adds Cohen. "In terms of music quality, the big money in this industry appeals to quite a few entrepreneurs and interested parties with no artistic pretensions. At this rate, it won't be long before songs with lyrics like 'Balbeli oto, al ta'asi lo heshbon,' - mix him up, don't take him seriously - become mega hits. Oops, actually, that's already happened."