Cultural Ambassadors

A new generation of concert producers has surfaced - seeking to import popular musical acts, and export Israeli culture and goodwill.

Noya Kohavi
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Noya Kohavi

Anyone standing on the pedestrian bridge along Tel Aviv's Rokach Boulevard during the first two days of September witnessed an unusual site for the Israeli cultural scene. From this observation point, it was possible to see the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds, to the north, where one pavilion hosted performances by Faith No More, Little Dragon, MGMT, Pat Mahoney and James Murphy, as part of the Heineken Music Conference. To the south, Hayarkon Park was in sight, where Madonna held two days of back-to-back concerts as she concluded her world tour.

Over 50,000 people crossed this bridge each evening, in pairs and in groups, their eyes aglow, the excitement hastening their steps. From the bridge you could hear the closing notes of summer 2009 - which was so loaded with concerts from abroad it almost seemed as if the audience couldn't handle the abundance. Apart from the giant concerts by Paul McCartney, Depeche Mode, Madonna and Leonard Cohen, mid-level groups arrived in Israel for performances that drew crowds ranging from a few hundred to several thousand. Unlike the mega concerts, tickets to most of these shows were priced at less than 200 shekels, and there were often special deals available on purchases. Accordingly, such events appeal to a younger crowd looking to go to as many concerts as possible.

After a long period, during which the bon ton among concertgoers complained about importing artists who are past their prime, new groups of producers have surfaced. They identified the opportunity and decided to change the overall perception that's not always justified - that Israel is a way station en route to retirement. Their objective is to transform Israel, and Tel Aviv in particular, into an inseparable leg of the European concert tours given by both contemporary artists and established groups that remain relevant. Some of these producers have worked in the entertainment industry for over two decades. Others were not even teenagers during the legendary summer of performances in 1993 (Madonna, Michael Jackson, Guns n' Roses). They are more up-to-date and full of motivation, and not only when it comes to business.

We happened to be there

The current generation of producers appears to be a new breed of cultural initiators, which includes a social and cultural agenda that goes beyond straight economic feasibility.

They are willing to take risks. No one disputes the conditions that enabled this to happen: the sharp drop in album sales over the last few years forced artists to seek out another source of income.

There were those who sought commercial contracts and sponsorships, others who raised the price of tickets to their concerts, and yet others who simply decided to appear in concert more often.

Thus a demand arose for venues for these artists to perform in. Artists who jad previously made do with a Western European or American concert tour started adding performances in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and in the Middle East; we were simply there, a thirsty and unexploited market.

"When we started Monocrave, we identified an unfilled niche in the Israeli market," says Shachar Bretstein, who set up the production company that brought Jose Gonzales, Okkervil River, Hooverphonic and others to Israel.

"It sounds very commercial, but it doesn't come from that side of things. We lived in London at the time and met against a backdrop of a love of music and concerts. We wondered how it was possible that we would see in London would not get to Israel. [The idea] brewed and brewed until one day we just couldn't not do it."

Bretstein, 32, works as an analyst and project manager in the high-tech industry, and says initially he learned the ins and outs of Israeli production from abroad. His partners, Renan Solchiner and Orly Nakler, 27, have a stronger background in the business.

"We studied what Israel has and doesn't have and what could work from the models we saw in London. We decided to try and we weren't completely clueless. The passion for music and the desire to import and export culture, to be part of this market, are what motivates us. The economic part is only a means for promoting our vision and ambitions."

Bretstein explains that they are not the kind of entrepreneurs who one day do a musical production and then the next move on to importing ceramics from China. "We love music and we choose to put our money there, and not the reverse." He and his partners describe the unmediated connection with the audience via a voting system on the Monocrave Web site, which enables the audience to chose artists it would like to see perform in Israel and also to state how much they would be willing to pay for tickets.

Mutual interests

This same niche was spotted by the young producers Yonatan Elimelech and Eran Arieli, both 25, who brought to Israel such artists as Calexico and M83, under the billing Naranja. They met during their military service in the artillery corps and passed the time during guard duty shifts with music quizzes. When they returned from their post-army travels, they decided to realize their dream, with the help of the team at Tel Aviv's Barby Club. They see the artists they bring to Israel as future ambassadors of Israeli nightlife.

Their next project, they say, will be in collaboration with the Norwegian embassy, in order to improve Israel's image in Scandinavia. "There are a lot of emotions at work here," says Elimelech. "It's important for us to do something that will contribute here. We are not political types, but it is important to us that the artists who come here will leave wanting more, and not just musically speaking."

The big winners this summer, at least in terms of the audience volume, were Ilan Elkayam and Yoni Feingold, from the Alive Production Company, who produced the two biggest festivals. One sponsored by Pepsi Max treated audiences to performances by Lady Gaga, Kaiser Chiefs and Simple Plan; the other, sponsored by Heineken, put up a good fight with Madonna's shows by featuring Faith No More, Little Dragon and MGMT. They also produced a performance by the Pet Shop Boys.

"Over the last six months, something's opened up. What I fantasized is happening," says Elkayam. "There is an audience here that is searching and is curious, it wants to be part of something new. It's exciting."

And it is not happening in Israel alone, he says. In countries such as Russia, Latvia, Ukraine, Turkey and Greece there is also a noticeable increase in the number of imported concerts.

The tours that pass through there also usually come to Israel and the producers often collaborate.

Shahaf Schwartz and Srulik Einhorn, who have also been in the business for a long time (among others, they brought over Alphaville, Devendra Banhart, Githead and Regina Spektor), say there is not only international solidarity, but also local solidarity. "Today, when there are a lot of concerts, we have to work together. There is a lot of mutual understanding; that is our security. And there are also sanctions against those who don't cooperate. People think that it's easy money and get into [the business] quickly, but most of the concerts have been brought over by relatively established organizations," says Schwartz.

The increased number of producers is something positive, in their opinion, and in effect corresponds to the increase in audiences. "It's like when McDonald's arrived in Israel, Burger Ranch's sales also increased. They don't just advertise McDonald's, but hamburgers in general," Einhorn says, by way of comparison.

As for the matter of the chicken and the egg - what expanded first, the selection of concerts or the audiences - neither one is able to answer this yet.