Seymour Stein was on a roll.
“I don’t understand it. There are around the same number of people in Israel as there are in Sweden. A lot of Swedes speak English, a lot of Israelis speak English. Sweden is one of the most important music markets in the world. Israel... nothing.”
The colorful 72-year-old American Jewish music mogul who founded iconic Sire Records, brought Ofra Haza to the US, signed Madonna to her first record contract and spearheaded the US punk/new wave movement in the 1970s by discovering and nurturing artists like The Ramones and Talking Heads, had arrived in Israel the night before after an annual jaunt to check out the music scene in India.
But despite fighting off jetlag in the lounge of the upscale Norman Hotel in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Stein’s fertile mind was already focused on the business that brought him here – the Tune in Tel Aviv showcase beginning the next day. A couple dozen Israel bands and artists like Boom Pam and Tiny Fingers were going to perform for and hear pearls of wisdom from Stein and other international music industry mavens and music journalists flown in especially for the event.
The organizers of Tune in Tel Aviv, Oleh Records, a non-profit organization founded to promote Israeli artists internationally, have been working to expand the boundaries where those songwriters are heard and seen. And according to its director Jeremy Hulsh, bringing over experienced veterans like Stein and British music producer and founder of Mute Records Daniel Miller is one way to expose the wide-ranging talent found in Israel to the rest of the world.
Many Israeli artists – from Idan Raichel and Geva Alon to Assaf Avidan, Orphaned Land and Hadag Nahash – have made inroads in Europe and the US. But there hasn’t been a breakout artist along the lines of Abba, to use Stein’s Sweden analogy, who have skyrocketed to international fame.
“I mean when you look at a list of the top songwriters in America over the past hundred years, it’s very much saturated with Jewish names... and I wonder why in this country [Israel] there’s been no movement?” mused Stein, who since selling Sire to Warner Brothers now works as an executive vice president in its music department.
Stein, who has studied the musical makeup of many countries, cited the importance of government aid in promoting artists. He suggested that while it was up to him and his music industry colleagues to discover the talent, it was up to the government to enable those artists to flourish through programs and financial support in order to reach the necessary level that would boost their potential.
Stein is someone who needs no convincing that there’s a goldmine of talent in Israel – but despite numerous visits since his first in 1967, he’s never worked with any Israeli artists besides Haza, who became Israel’s first successful musical export in the 1980s with her Middle Eastern Yemenite pop mixes that became big dance hits.
But according to Stein, it wasn’t Haza’s nationality that attracted him, it was the music.
“It was the same person who initially turned me onto Madonna who turned me on to Ofra Haza – [New York club DJ] Mark Kamen,” said Stein.
“I met her and I was very much taken by her. I think she could’ve become a world star,” he added, lamenting her untimely death in 2000.
Discovering talent and sniffing out hits have been second nature to Stein ever since he talked his way in 1956 at age 14 into a part-time afterschool job in the charts department at Billboard magazine in Manhattan.
“Music captured me when I was very, very young. Even before I knew what being in the music business meant, I wanted to be in it. Naturally, my parents would have liked to have seen me be a doctor or lawyer,” he said of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“I didn’t have the talent or the patience to be a musician, I just wanted to be in the music business, and I had a knack for listening to things and being able to tell whether they would be hits, even before rock and roll. I was very fortunate. It’s given me the most fantastic life.”
By the time he was 23 in 1966, with the rock and roll revolution in full swing, Stein founded his own label, Sire, together with a songwriter/producer he met while working in the mid-60s in the legendary New York songwriting factory The Brill Building – Richard Gottehrer – a 25-year-old friend and songwriter/producer who had already hit the big time with 1960s-produced and -written hits like “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy.”
Sire made its name initially by licensing albums from EMI Records in England that other American companies had rejected, and Stein had soon built a stable of progressive rockers like the Climax Blues Band and Renaissance. His first number one hit arrived in 1971 with the power instrumental “Hocus Pocus” by Dutch rockers Focus, and soon he had taken on a pre-Buckingham/ Nicks version of Fleetwood Mac that also helped build his name in the industry.
But just when rock was becoming respectable and in danger of losing its initial edge, the mid-1970s musical explosion in New York based around the seedy Bowery club CBGB helped to propel Sire Records into the stratosphere and justified Stein’s eventual induction in 2005 into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Unlike most major label executives in that suit-and-tie era, who relied on scouts to descend to the trenches to see new artists, Stein saw himself as a person with his ear to the ground.
“The major labels were in these big buildings, they didn’t go down to the Bowery – they thought the Bowery was a rough area. We were working from the streets. We were not executives, we were shleppers,” said Stein.
What he discovered was young bands playing raw music that brought rock back to its basics – bands like The Ramones and Talking Heads. Most major labels wouldn’t have touched them with a 10-foot pole.
Stein said he was blown away by the energy and talent, and signed them on, spurring a movement – some called it punk some called it new wave – whose influence is still felt today.
“The Ramones are bigger now than they’ve ever been. You can’t walk down a street, whether it’s in Melbourne, Australia, or Hong Kong or anywhere in the United States in London or Europe and not see Ramones T-shirts. You see CBGB T-shirts everywhere too,” said Stein, adding that commercially The Ramones were more of a slow climber.
“[Their eponymous 1976 debut album] earlier this year finally turned gold. It took that long. It broke my heart that three of them were dead and the fourth one, Tommy, was dying. But I believe in heaven and I hope they’re all happy up there because they always believed they would have a gold record and many gold records, and I think the other will follow suit,” he said.
For Stein, that’s a hefty legacy, that he’s proud of – but said he still feels that he has a mission – especially in the age of digital downloads – to provide an outlet for new artists.
“I’m not that concerned about my legacy, but what I am concerned about is this: the music business gave me my life. I’m not particularly talented in any way, shape or form, other than I have good ears and I’m a fan of music. I can’t play an instrument, but I can spot talent. And it’s given me a life and I want to see that the music business is around – and I’m sure it will be forever,” he said.
“I have my soundtrack, you have yours.
We live by a musical soundtrack, and that’s it. And you know, I just think that Israel should be more involved. I mean, my God, it doesn’t take any genius to see how instrumental Jews were in music. So put your best foot forward, I mean, you know, look... I don’t think Jews should go out and try to be circus entertainers or things like that or things they’re not good at. But this is something we’re good at, why don’t we do it?” (Full disclosure – the writer is a board member of Oleh Records) Eitan Arom contributed to this report.