The variations on “Hava Nagila” and “Hatikva” – two “Jewish” songs that foreigners most often associate with Israel – are going to be stretched to their limits over the next few months, as the onslaught of international artists performing at local venues rises to a crescendo.
That quaint obsession has turned into a clichéd but almost obligatory requirement for many visiting bands and artists from the US and Europe, and is a source of pride for concert-goers. But the musicians in question often come away from their experience in Israel with considerably less anachronistic, more vibrant impressions.
“Most of the artists that come here leave as goodwill ambassadors for Israel,” says Guy Beser, the CEO of Bluestone Entertainment, one of the country’s leading concert promotion companies.
“They feel the warmth of the audience and of the people. We take them to the North, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem, and they fall in love with the country. And when they stay and perform in Tel Aviv, they immediately understand that the country is nothing like they expected. After experiencing the real reality of Israel, they leave with a different impression. And the artists talk to each other and the managers talk to each other.”
Beser – who together with his partners in Bluestone, including Madonna’s Israel-born manager, Guy Oseary, has previously brought Bon Jovi, Backstreet Boys and Enrique Iglesias to Israel – has an action-packed summer ahead, with shows by Aerosmith (May 17), Britney Spears (July 3) and Guns ‘n’ Roses (July 15). They’ve joined a thriving industry full of veterans like Shuki Weiss who have been importing entertainment to Israel for decades, including some of the world’s top entertainers like Paul McCartney, Elton John, The Rolling Stones and Madonna.
Lady Gaga performs Bad Romance in Tel Aviv
The three-year-old Bluestone Entertainment made international headlines last month when mammoth concert conglomerate Live Nation acquired a majority stake in the company, a move seen by many as a giant vote of confidence in Israel as a reliable and professional destination for the world’s biggest touring artists. It also apparently means that the constant thorn in the side of the Israel concert industry – the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – is no longer considered to be a serious threat.
“BDS is losing, and the power of music is winning,” says Beser. “For the great majority of artists, the political issues are on the back burner – they are coming to play for their fans.”
Bluestone and the other Israeli concert promoters are up front with artists, agents and managers about the likelihood of them being approached, boycotted, criticized and petitioned by BDS supporters after they announce a date in Israel. Together, with efforts by organizations like the Creative Community for Peace, an NGO founded by Los Angeles music executives that supports artists who plan to perform in Israel and face BDS campaigns, the promoters prepare the artists for the onslaught and provide encouragement and reinforcement every step of the way. According to Hillel Wachs, a promoter with 2B Vibes, the company bringing the Pixies, Paul Young and Macklemore to Israel this summer, when a politically aware and influential act like Radiohead agrees to perform here, it creates a ripple effect.
“It sends a message that BDS is not really a factor, and that it’s acceptable to come to Israel even if you don’t agree with every government policy,” he says.
“Most artists realize that the situation is not black and white. The superstars like Britney Spears are not affected by BDS and neither are the acts that appeal to the 60-plus crowd. But there are some current, younger artists who may be politically aware, and it’s a bigger issue for them to come here. But they still come,” he adds, pointing to American indie rock band All Them Witches, which consists of liberal Bernie Sanders supporters, who had no problem with performing last year in Tel Aviv and are returning this year on July 9.
“There’s a general understanding that it’s a complex issue and that music is supposed to supersede political conflict and bridge gaps to bring people together,” Wachs says.
There’s also the understanding that Israel is a viable and lucrative place to perform. The 2017 concert lineup is staggering in its volume and diversity, with old-timers like Rod Stewart and Foreigner, youth-oriented pop and hip hop from Justin Bieber and Tyler the Creator, top-flight critical darlings Nick Cave and Pond, ’90s nostalgia like Dinosaur Jr., Tears for Fears and Pet Shop Boys, the aforementioned superstars and recurring (popular in Israel) oddities like Smokie, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Abba, Dire Straits and ELO tribute bands.
Although it may seem like Israel is a hot destination, Wachs says that it’s really no different from the past few summers since Operation Cast Lead (2008-9), which resulted in numerous cancellations.
“There have been more shows announced earlier this year, but that’s just the nature of the beast, with agencies in New York and London planning the routing of tours much more in advance than they used to,” he says.
“There does seem to be something for everyone, with lots of big-name acts for both young and older audiences. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call Israel a hot concert destination. Over time, however, it’s become quite normative to include Israel in routing a tour when it works out. And because there’s more competition in Europe and because we pay a premium to get artists to come here, it’s financially worth their while.”
THE CHOICE available to Israeli music fans has also made them more selective when deciding what to fork out their money to see, says Wachs. And with prices for the big shows at venues like Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park reaching upward of NIS 400 to NIS 600 for standing and looking at the video screen tickets, promoters are working extra hard to ensure they’re bringing over artists who will fill the seats or grass.
“There’s certainly a thought process going on that didn’t exist before, when the choice of shows wasn’t so vast,” he says. “Now a younger fan has to think, Well, I’ll go to Macklemore but not Justin Bieber, or an older fan might consider if it’s an artist who may not be touring much more and it’s the last chance to see them. Concert-goers are working within a limited entertainment budget.”
One person reaping the rewards of more concert choices, but paying for it, is 54-year-old music fan and Ma’aleh Adumim resident Israel Friedman, who bought tickets to see Radiohead and Nick Cave, and recently attended American indie favorite Grandaddy’s performance last month in Tel Aviv.
“If I had unlimited funds, I would go to see a lot more shows,” says Friedman, who prefers smaller venues and current artists over the legacy acts.
“There’s quite an audience in Israel for new music, and people here are knowledgeable about what’s out there. I like to go to shows like Grandaddy at the Barby Club because they are less expensive, you are close to the band and you get a worthwhile experience for your entertainment shekel.”
Still, Friedman is going to join the tens of thousands flocking to Hayarkon Park to see Radiohead, perhaps the concert of the summer in the pecking order of rock perennials still touring. Ticket sales for it and most of the summer shows are healthy, according to the promoters, and Beser, for one, isn’t concerned about too many shows competing for the consumer’s attention and shekel.
“The Israeli fans have proved in the last three years that there is a real market and demand for live international shows,” he says. “And it’s going to get bigger; Israelis are going to start getting the megashows and the festivals. That’s my dream show to promote – bringing over one of the big festivals that Live Nation owns [such as Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Reading]. We will see more and more shows coming to Israel in the next few years.”
OF COURSE, the wild card in the deck is the unpredictable security situation in the region. But despite flare-ups and saber rattling with Hamas on the volatile southern border with Gaza, chaos emanating from Syria and Lebanon, and the specter of Palestinian terrorism never far away, both Beser and Wachs are optimistic that the summer shows will pass quietly.
“Posturing on the part of our neighbors is not new, and we’re looking forward to a fantastic summer of live music in Israel,” says Wachs.
Just in case, all the promoters take out insurance policies that protect them in the event of cancellations due to unforeseen circumstances.
“We are living in the Middle East, and you can never really plan that far in advance,” says Beser. “We hope this summer will be full of shows and good vibes, and not missile attacks, but we have insurance taken out for that specific reason with every show and artist we host.”
So with BDS barely a factor, the promoters plan, the bands rehearse and the fans buy their tickets in heady anticipation. All of them hope that Hamas and Hezbollah don’t have other plans.