Concert promoter Hillel Wachs keeps a Word document open on his laptop with a running tally of the performers making their way to Israel each year. This year, there’s a total of 75 planned so far, with at least 17 performances taking place between May and October.
That’s assuming that there’s no war or uptick in terrorist attacks. Wachs — and every other Israeli concert promoter — is keeping his fingers crossed.
“2014 was also going to be a great summer,” he said. “And then Gaza happened.”
For now, however, things are looking good. Alternative acts like South Africa’s Die Antwoord and indie band Tame Impala are coming, teenie bopper favorite Jason Derulo just left, and nineties band Simply Red, guitarist extraordinaire Carlos Santana and icons Elton John and Brian Wilson are on tap for May, June and July. The word’s still out on whether superstar Beyoncé or the beloved Bruce Springsteen will answer promoters’ prayers and prove true the constant rumors of August shows.
Those who come, said Wachs, choose to perform here for a simple reason: They’re artists, and their job is to perform.
“They want to play for fans, they want to come,” he said. “Some people don’t want to come for political reasons, but for the most part agents will tell you that politics and political opinion is not at the top of a performing artist’s list.”
It’s a bit of a challenge, though, considering the attention being paid to the very vocal Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement and the unofficial spokesman of its musical department, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame, who’s known for trying to sway the opinion of many of the performers who announce plans to play in Israel.
Yet while a few artists who’d scheduled gigs have folded under BDS pressure and canceled their concerts, most promoters don’t think it’s a serious problem.
“I think the BDS thing is used by some promoters as a promotional thing,” said George Cohen of 3A Productions. “It creates a buzz when there is no buzz.”
“There are, of course, guys that we know aren’t going to come, like Massive Attack or Elvis Costello, or our dear friend Roger Waters,” said Cohen. “But most artists, it’s just a question of how many zeroes in their check. If a show was canceled because of BDS,” he said, “you know that it’s because it wasn’t really selling.”
3A is a relatively new promotion company, with one of its bigger summer shows coming up in a few weeks when hip hop’s Wiz Khalifa will be performing at Rishon Lezion’s Live Park’s amphitheater in June.
Khalifa, a rapper known for his use of marijuana, was very interested in coming to Israel, said Cohen, primarily because of the rich local electronic dance music scene, or EDM.
— Wiz Khalifa (@wizkhalifa) April 17, 2016
“People know that Israel knows its EDM,” said Cohen. “DJs know that about Israel and these people know that about Israel, and they’re not influenced by this political shit.”
Ditto for ticket sales, he added, which “are flying high because this is hip hop and Wiz is a superstar.”
It’s also, “finally,” a concert for the young crowd, and not one of the old rock stars for the 50-plus crowd, he said.
But BDS? It isn’t a real obstacle to convincing musicians to come to Israel, agreed promoters.
It’s just “bullshit,” said Carmi Wurtman, Wachs’s partner in promotion and production company 2B Ventures.
It’s not that there isn’t any pressure from the BDS sources, said Wurtman. But when “everything’s normal here, it’s normal,” said Wurtman. “And bands come.”
BDS, added Wachs, tends to have more of an effect on bands that generally don’t feel comfortable politically in Israel. There are bands that “don’t want the headache” of an Israeli concert, and others who don’t think twice about it.
“As a promoter, we respect those who come and those who don’t,” he said. “We raise this issue early on so that the minute they announce their concert, they know to possibly expect the BDSers. BDS is a well-oiled guerrilla internet operation; when someone announces a concert in Israel, they may all of a sudden get 650 messages on Facebook and that flips them out. We try to take out the sting and the surprise.”
One of Israel’s best-known promoters, veteran Shuki Weiss, who has handled giants like the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and this summer’s Elton John concert, said at a recent anti-BDS conference sponsored by Yedioth Ahronoth last month that the government tried to get John to sign a declaration of loyalty as a condition of receiving a work visa to perform in Israel.
The Interior Ministry sharply dismissed the claim as “delusional” and threatened to sue him for defamation, but Weiss and other promoters are pushing to get the government’s assistance in offering some kind of insurance to promoters to cover their losses if concerts are canceled as a result of war or an extreme security situation.
“The state does not place any importance on artists’ visits because it’s not an existential requirement,” said Weiss at the conference. “I heard lots of replies [from government officials] along the lines of ‘Let ‘em not come then; who needs them anyway?’”
Wachs’s partner Wurtman pointed out that pop singer Jason Derulo, their most recent performing artist, had a great time traveling in Israel. He garnered lots of comments — not all positive — when he tweeted to his 3.68 million followers about his experience.
— Jason Derulo (@jasonderulo) April 15, 2016
But the financial burden on promoters can be tremendous when a show gets canceled. In the summer of 2014 when Israel was fighting in Gaza, two of Wurtman’s shows were canceled, CeeLo Green and the band America.
“America was close to being sold out and then all hell broke loose,” he said.
Green was still willing to come, said Wurtman, but was forced to cancel because large gatherings were banned due to the danger of rocket attacks.
“Bigger promoters can handle losses, and we take loans,” said Wurtman, who also produces festivals in order to ensure a steady income. “I call it double jeopardy, what we have in Israel. In the rest of the world, they sell tickets to break even. But here you have to weigh that, and whether the artists will cancel or not.”
Fly in, fly out
For the bands, it’s often the logistical and technical issues involving a concert in Israel that tend to make them think twice about coming here.
The first issue is location, as the Middle East doesn’t offer the mobility that Europe does. It’s not likely that bands will ever be able to cross borders in a tour bus, to perform in Tel Aviv one night and in Beirut, Amman or Damascus over the weekend. Or in Gaza City, for that matter.
“An agent has to figure out how much it pays to move each artist,” said Avi Yossef from the Zappa Group, which promotes concerts and also runs its own ticket agency and clubs. “There’s two travel days for Israel, and setup days, so that’s four days. It’s much easier in Europe where you just need one day in each country, and then you hop on the tour bus to get to the next place. You can’t just go from Israel to another place; we’re the unusual market for shows.”
That said, Israel isn’t as unusual a destination as it used to be, 3A’s Cohen pointed out.
Sure, it’s a “bit more extreme here than anywhere else,” he said. “You have to convince them to come here, and money isn’t the only issue. But Tel Aviv is becoming more of a regular stop on tours.”
There’s also something of a domino effect in progress, said Yossef.
“Israel is part of the market now,” he said. “It’s a trend that Israel is ‘normal.’ There are times I’ll pick up the phone or send an email and I get a response in 24 hours. That’s new.”
Israel isn’t the only country dealing with a life-threatening security situation, noted Yossef.
The terrorist attack at the Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris’s Bataclan that killed 89 in November and the one in Belgium’s Brussels Airport that killed 16 in March have created a significant change in the European tour plans of American artists, he pointed out.
“France and Belgium are markets that are now dead because of what happened,” Yossef said. “If Beyoncé would have had four shows in France, maybe now she’ll do just one out of sympathy.”
Israel’s security situation may not seem so terrible when seen in light of the unexpected attacks that took place in those cities, said Yossef.
But bottom line, artists’ agents have no agenda other than their commissions on the shows, said Yossef.
The artist, he said, “wants 30 to 40 shows in the US, 10 in Canada, and can go to Hong Kong or Thailand for the final handful of shows. If there’s anything left, they may go to Dubai, or Israel or South Africa. That’s how uninteresting we are to them.”
Much of the decision about whether artists will make their way to Israel depends on the number of zeroes on their paycheck, agreed promoters.
“We’re an exotic destination for a European tour,” said Cohen. But what’s more attractive is that Israeli promoters pay more than what a performing artist could get in a similar market like Greece, Turkey or Lebanon.
“There’s no need for an artist to come to Israel,” said Wachs. “It’s got to be really worth their while to come here instead of traveling by bus in Europe.”
Israeli promoters end up paying a premium for that loss of travel time, and for the headache created by coming all the way over to the Middle East.
The current price tag for performing artists ranges from as low as $2,000 a night for an unknown indie band playing at Tel Aviv’s Barby Club to $15,000 or $17,000 for a better-known act at the same location.
Fees for performances in the larger, outdoor venues can range from $50,000 to $450,000 for an artist performing in Rishon’s Live Park to $4 million for the superstar shows in Tel Aviv’s much larger Yarkon Park, which holds about 60,000 people. And that’s not including the price of renting the venue, the technical setup or insurance.
And while some concerts sell out — Wachs said 2B Ventures sold 90% of the tickets for the recent Jason Derulo concert and sold out Janice Ian last summer — that’s rare.
“There’s a lot of risk here and a lot of luck and lot of doing your homework,” said Wachs, a former Philadelphian who managed bands in high school but left the business behind when he first moved to Israel. “The bass player’s father can get sick and the show gets canceled. And you think certain shows are going to succeed and they don’t.”
It’s something of a crap shoot, agreed Yossef. Some shows are more in demand, some less so, and much of it is a matter of marketing and reading the market with regard to the hottest artists.
With more promoters now in Israel, and many with deeper pockets, the landscape has become more crowded.
“It’s very much tied to paying a lot of money,” said Wachs. “People can afford to bring people in and that means there’s no barriers in this business. And then prices go up for the next artists.”
International artists who do perform in Israel can’t come too regularly, though, because they won’t sell enough tickets. Wachs pointed to the last Lady Gaga show in September 2014, for which 21,000 tickets were sold in a 35,000-seat venue.
“They took a huge beating, and I think it’s because she was here too much,” he said. “Elton John comes here every seven or eight years and sells out because he’s an icon.”
The cost isn’t limited to the artist’s price, either; there’s also the entourage, putting them up in hotels and creating shows with massive stages and technical costs.
“Israel is more relevant now, but it’s also more of a pain in the ass,” said Wurtman. “It’s a fly-in, fly-out show, and we pay a premium fee for the extra nights and the hotel rooms.”
Yet big ticket shows, and even smaller concerts featuring an international artist, can be a tremendous element in showing off Israel to musicians with star power and global influence.
And once they’re here, said Wachs, they usually like Israel.
“The promoters are very professional here for the most part,” he said. “And people treat the artists like family, and they like it. Fewer people bother them on the street, no one asks for their autograph, they don’t get bothered.”
The concert lifestyle
Artist availability and ticket prices began changing in the late 1980s and 1990s as the standard of living rose in Israel and local audiences were exposed to more foreign music both at home and abroad, said Wachs.
It was a far cry from one of his first shows in Israel, a 1980s Shlomo Artzi concert when the singer dragged in his own amplifier at Tel Aviv’s Tzavta club.
“He was one of Israel’s biggest stars, and there he was, schlepping his own equipment,” marveled Wachs. “There wasn’t much of an industry in those days.”
But for music lovers, there’s no greater business, said Wurtman, who owned clubs and bars in Jerusalem before managing Hadag Nachash, the Jerusalem-based hip hop band led by vocalist Shaanan Streett.
“I’m the luckiest person in the world because I get to work in my hobby,” said Wurtman, “That’s why I do it. I truly love music and feel it’s a bonus to go around Israel and give that to people.”
Wurtman also produces festivals like Jerusalem’s Sacred Music Festival in September, the annual Sunbeat Festival in June and the Eilat Chamber Music Festival, as well as student festivals in Jerusalem and Beersheba.
He’s also one of the only promoters in his hometown of Jerusalem, and despite his love-hate relationship with the capital, he tries hard to bring headliners to Israel’s largest but poorest city.
“It’s difficult to do things here,” said Wurtman, who brought rapper Matisyahu to Jerusalem’s outdoor Sultan’s Pool ampitheater during the height of the stabbing attacks last October. He lost money on that concert.
But he keeps on working in Jerusalem. This week, he’s producing Geek PicNic, an outdoor technology extravaganza for 45,000 people at the city’s Sacher Park. Tickets have been selling well, but after last week’s terror attack on the number 12 bus, he got “that heavy feeling” of dread.
For now, though, all is quiet on the Jerusalem front. As for this summer, no one knows what will happen until it’s over.
Promoters have to have a lot of passion for this work, said Wachs.
Still, “there’s no greater feeling as a promoter when you’re backstage at a show, the lights go down and the crowd explodes,” he said. “You’ve enriched their life on some level. We have many moments of stress here in Israel, and having that moment to sit back and enjoy a show — that’s a great feeling of satisfaction. It’s fun.”