For a Song: Israel's Indie Music Scene Is Big but Not Its Bucks

Artists draw thousands of listeners, appear at major festivals and enjoy media exposure, but they still struggle to get by.

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The Israeli indie band REO.
The Israeli indie band REO.Credit: Jennifer Abessira

The InDnegev Festival, now in its 10th year, attracts thousands of music lovers to a remote corner of the desert. Jerusalem had its own festival last month and the Foreign Ministry is co-sponsoring an event at the end of November to showcase Israeli artists to international recording companies. The music of indie band Jane Bordeaux was the most-played on Army Radio last year, a place of honor usually reserved for A-list stars like David Broza and Shalom Hanoch.

All this might lead one to think that the Israeli indie scene has become a thriving industry that pays handsomely. But while the genre has really taken off in the last decade and drawn thousands of devotees, plus many thousands more whose tastes are more mainstream but who still like to sample indie music occasionally, especially at the big festivals, most indie artists are not living the high life. They’re still scrounging for every shekel to put out a first album and working a bunch of side jobs to support themselves.

Still, the growth of the genre has increased the range of income-generating possibilities. And while in the past, an international music career seemed like a near-unattainable dream even for the biggest names in Israeli music, only achieved by a very small few, today that dream has come true for dozens of bands and artists — even while they remain relatively unknown in Israel.

Radio’s most popular band is indie

Indie music, that is music that was originally made without the support of a major studio or company, emerged as a genre in the second half of the 20th century. Its roots are in America and Britain of the 1950s and ‘60s, a period when the big record companies had total control of the market and the fortunes of their musicians. The record companies’ iron grip spawned a counter-reaction from many artists who objected to the companies’ crude interference in artistic content and their milking of much of the profits.

These artists began producing their own music. They recorded the music themselves, pressed the albums, arranged concerts and took care of the whole range of services normally handled by a record company for its artists. In time, record labels arose to provide services like album distribution, concert bookings and public relations. But these indie labels did not wield nearly as much control over their artists.

Although the term originally referred to the change in the way musicians did business, it has come to describe alternative music in all its forms — rock, hip-hop, ethnic music — and has largely become a synonym for any nonmainstream musical genre. But the definition is fluid and sometimes confusing. In Israel, the confusion is greater than elsewhere: The big local record companies, like CBS and Hed Arzi, have either merged or disappeared. And the latest technological developments now make it possible for nearly all artists to create and distribute their own music. So almost every active musician these days can be called indie.

“There’s no real indie in Israel because here you don’t have big companies keeping artists out, leading those artists to form their own record companies or produce their own records,” says Yuval Haring, vocalist and guitarist for Vaadat Charigim and owner of a PR firm in the field. “What you have here are a lot of small bands operating on the margins that the industry categorizes as indie.”

He says that Israeli musicians generally don’t set out to create music for a particular genre: “An unknown musician starts to make indie music and when it does well it’s labeled as some other genre.”

And as if all that weren’t confusing enough, Israeli artists who produce their own pop or “Mediterranean” music doesn’t get the indie label — in Israel that’s reserved mainly for rock, hip-hop, electronic music and various kinds of ethnic music.

Today’s burgeoning indie music market owes much to the technology that has completely changed the way that musicians create music and earn money from it. In the internet age, you don’t need a record company to make and distribute music. The artists who still use the big record companies are generally older and better-off financially. Most musical artists now operate more in a do-it-yourself fashion, perhaps retaining outside help for bookings or PR.

“There are small labels with just one or two people behind them that provide a range of services like PR, album pressings or managing the artist’s Facebook page,” says Yifat Leder of the Tavit PR firm, which works with indie artists. “And there are artists who do it all alone, including a lot of work at self-promotion. They have to learn how to draw up contracts, handle bookings and do PR. Good music alone is not enough. This model is very common among the young generation of artists.”

Musician Asif Tzahar, owner of Tel Aviv’s Levontin 7 club, says that technology has completely destroyed the economic model the industry long relied upon. “Indie or not, music is the only industry in the world that supplies a product for free, which is why being a musician today is financial suicide. In the 1990s, suddenly everyone could record at home and bring down costs. And then came the internet, which wiped out CDs and made it so that the artist gets nothing in return for his work.”

Some music-streaming sites, such as Tidal, Spotify and Rdio, charge listeners a flat monthly fee of a few dozen shekels. Many Israeli musicians can be found on these sites. Each usually receives just a tenth of a cent for each play of their songs.

“The costs of the servers and the labor involved is minimal. Artists should band together against these servers and not join them,” says Tzahar. “The problem is that it’s scary to join a protest against them. I think people should have to pay per minute of music, just as people used to pay to buy CDs.”

A more lucrative avenue is the album-sale site Leon Feldman of the Hakatzeh radio program, who has been following the Israeli indie scene for years, says the site has become the most popular way for indie music fans to buy their favorite bands’ music. “Some albums that became hits on the site have brought in a nice income,” he says.

Feldman cites the album “Inballance” — recorded by the late Inbal Permutter and Ram Orion in the 1990s in the latter’s London apartment. It was never released until Orion decided to distribute it via Bandcamp, for just 28 shekels ($7), with all proceeds benefiting the Israeli Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Orion isn’t revealing figures, but all indications are that it’s been a big hit,” Feldman says.

Another new tool of the internet era is the Headstart crowdfunding platform, which is used by many artists. Jane Bordeaux raised tens of thousands of shekels with Headstart to complete its first album, long before its big breakthrough. Feldman also cites the nostalgic return to vinyl as another revenue prospect, though it is very limited, given that small bands will have just a few hundred records made at most.

“The way I see it, a successful situation for an indie artist putting out a first album is for the album to ultimately cover its costs — through concerts, downloads and plays,” says Leder. “The more established artists can make good money from concerts, but they, too, often work another job.”

Concerts are where the money is

Everyone we spoke with agreed that, with a very few exceptions, albums, even successful ones, cannot be relied upon as a source of income. “Concerts are the way to make money now,” says Haring. “Artists who know how to manage themselves, or who hook up with management, booking and PR companies that know their stuff, can see some good money. Ticket sales have become the true measure of an artist’s success.” Additional profits can be made from the sale of merchandise, especially as an artist starts to gain a larger audience.

Not counting festivals, there are two main types of venues where indie artists generally get to perform: at live-music clubs like Barby, Ozen Bar and Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv, or the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem, or in bars or cafes, like Rothschild 12 in Tel Aviv, that sometimes offer live music, usually without a cover charge.

Very few Israeli indie artists can support themselves from their music. “Even Ram Orion, once of the best known indie musicians, also teaches music and deejays and plays with other artists,” says Feldman. “There are also people whose day job is in a totally different field, like high-tech.”

Government gets involved

In recent years, public institutions and government ministries have also been getting involved. Many of the major events, like the InDNegev Festival and others, are now at least partially subsidized. And the Foreign Ministry is sponsoring an event to showcase Israeli artists internationally.

The mixed Jewish and Arab group System Ali, active for more than a decade, shows that it’s also possible to remain a small indie band and make a living. Band member Neta Weiner says the group earns most of its income through its musical activity, but also from a range of social activities through its System Ali House organization.

“The band started when we all working with schools and youth programs in Jaffa, Bat Yam and south Tel Aviv. ... The band grew out of this work, and we also formed an organization to promote our sociopolitical agenda. As a band we still hold workshops and give concerts in schools and universities, as well as halfway houses and prisons.”

Ironically, currently the main supporter of this politically subversive band is the Mifal Hapayis national lottery, which hired System Ali House for its “culture laboratories” project in the periphery.

InDNegev Music Festival, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

For many musicians, the ultimate prize is international success. Some Israeli artists that have done well abroad, like Asaf Avidan and Balkan Beat Box, also sell well in Israel.

Many Israeli artists, still largely unknown at home, regularly perform abroad. These include Kutiman, Boom Pam, Tiny Fingers, Betzefer and The Angelcy, to name just a few.

“More artists are already looking abroad when they’re just starting their careers, which is of course why many of them choose to sing in English,” says Feldman. “It’s a lot easier than it used to be — plane tickets are cheaper and the internet makes it easier to book shows.”

One such artist is Adi Ulmansky, 28, who began performing abroad right away with her first band, Lorena B. “I joined the band at 19 and we started performing at all kinds of places abroad. Those were totally independent productions. We didn’t know anyone in the industry, we arranged shows through our friends who lived abroad — we wanted our music to reach as many people as possible.”