If you bill it, they will come

The days when Israel was a musical ghost town are long gone.

By
August 27, 2009 13:32
sticky and sweet tour

Madonna 88 248. (photo credit: )

You've found a babysitter, spent an hour in traffic jams, overpaid to park the car and waited a half hour in line to get into the park. But, finally, the lights go down, the crowd surges and cheers and the entertainer you and your spouse have paid more than NIS 1,000 to see walks onto the stage. The hours of preparation and frustration have melted away. But, off on the side, you may see one man, still biting his nails and pacing nervously. He's the promoter, and while your hassles have spanned the last few hours, his have been taking place for months. If you've been perusing the back pages of the Hebrew dailies on the weekend for the upcoming pop music shows coming here, you'd be excused for thinking you'd mistakenly stumbled on the listings for Los Angeles or London. Within a little more than a month, here are some of the international acts that have and will be touching down on our shores. Deep breath... Madonna, Leonard Cohen, pop sensation Lady Gaga, Brit pop heroes the Kaiser Chiefs, Latin balladeer Julio Iglesias and indie favorites Dinosaur Jr, Calexico, Faith No More, Luciano and MGMT - and the list goes on. Let's not forget the artists who have already graced our stages in recent months, including Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Macy Gray, Suzanne Vega and Steve Vai. And then there are the ongoing rumors of attempts to bring other first-liners here like Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, The Killers and Green Day. It's a far cry from earlier in the decade, when Palestinian terror in the guise of suicide attacks, bus bombings and restaurant explosions all but curtailed the influx of international talent. Back then, we were lucky to get a hard-rock nostalgia act like Uriah Heep to appear, and we were grateful for it. What has changed to suddenly transform Israel from a musical ghost town into a concertgoer's delight and a performer's paradise? Has just one year of relative quiet in the region caused everyone to forget they used to be afraid to come here? Or, perhaps it's a consequence of today's dicey economic climate: international artists have slowly become aware of the fact that promoters here are willing to pay top dollar and provide the highest caliber of technical specifications and emotional support to ensure that everybody involved in the show - from audience to artist to performer - walks away happy. The people who may have the answers are those characters behind the scenes, who, months before ticket holders swing through the turnstiles with hearts pounding and expectations peaking, are busy grinding out the minute details of logistics and crunching the numbers of financial viability. They're the promoters - or as they prefer to be called, the risk takers. And depending upon the fickle whims of you, the public, at the end of one of their shows, they could either be whistling a happy tune or shedding tears on their bank loan applications. However, despite the risks involved, after the lean times of the intifada, when they couldn't entice anybody to land at Ben-Gurion Airport, they're more than willing to reap the potential benefits of a gentler, friendlier attitude among artists and their managers and agents to perform here. UNLESS YOU'RE a music business insider, chances are you've never heard of names like Shuki Weiss, Dudu Zarzevsky and Zev Isaacs, or even lower-profile colleagues like Yuri Leshev and Carmi Wurtman. They're the handful of daring entrepreneurs who compete with each other to bring almost all of the major international concerts here. "At the end of the day, there's only five or six people who are involved with bringing artists to Israel, and they're talking to the same 60 offices abroad," says Hillel Wachs, who for the last two years has partnered with Wurtman and his company 2bVibes to bring artists like the Black Eyed Peas, Macy Gray and Joe Cocker. Wachs indicated that while promoters aren't necessarily best friends, they do maintain contact with one another for mutual benefit. "The promoters look for a niche and try not to step on each other's toes. They may say otherwise, but there's more communication there than people realize," he says. "I think everyone is being smart this summer. Just about every show is targeting a different market. Suzanne Vega is part of the same market as Leonard Cohen, and to a lesser extent, Madonna. Madonna has a little overlap with Lady Gaga, but Lady Gaga is appealing to the pop fans. And the Kaiser Chiefs are totally separate and going for the indie crowd." Another reason for at least a minimal amount of communication among the promoters is to prevent a bidding war for a particular artist, which ultimately raises the price for the consumer. "There are bidding wars between the promoters. And now that the situation is good, everyone wants to capitalize on getting the best artists. It can get a little cutthroat," says Zarzevsky, whose highest profile show has been Paul McCartney's concert in Tel Aviv last year. And anyone who's bought a ticket for that show or one of the big concerts this year like Depeche Mode, Cohen or Madonna knows that there's been a huge jump in prices, with stadium shows generally beginning at NIS 450 and soaring all the way to the thousands for VIP seating. However, that hasn't dissuaded local audiences from buying tickets. Cohen's September 24 show at Ramat Gan Stadium sold 47,000 tickets in only 16 hours, and Madonna added a second date on September 2 to her 45,000-plus sold out September 1 show at Hayarkon Park. Even veteran Iglesias added a second show on September 9 at Tel Aviv's Nokia Center after his September 8 show sold out. "From what I hear, every show this summer is selling nicely," says Yuri Leshev, who has been promoting shows since 2000 in conjunction with the Hadran Ticket Agency in Tel Aviv. "This is really amazing if you think about it. It can only mean that people are not spending their money on something else, like restaurants or other leisure activity. It can't be that people are just buying more tickets without something else getting sacrificed." Music fan Miri Louzon, 45, of Rishon Lezion, spent NIS 450 for a Madonna ticket, and attempted to get tickets for Cohen, but was shut out. For her, it's an opportunity too rare to pass up, even if she doesn't have the money. "To see someone like Madonna or Leonard Cohen or Paul McCartney is really only a once-or-twice-a-year event. I got tickets for Madonna because we just happened to have the money then. If they went on sale now, I wouldn't have been able to buy them. I tried to get a Leonard Cohen ticket but wasn't able to, which is good because I need money for food and clothing," says Louzon. "Of course if a ticket opened up, I'd grab it. I've heard from so many people that seeing him is a spiritual experience, and of course, you want to have as many spiritual experiences as you can." Despite enthusiastic music lovers like Louzon, there's no guarantee for a promoter that a show is going to be successful or make money. "You never know," says Zarzevsky, nursing a cold drink at a local Tel Aviv coffee shop. The slim, youthful-looking promoter's soft-spoken manner belies the fact that he was involved in the high stakes multimillion-dollar gamble of bringing former Beatle McCartney here last September. "We sold 50,000 tickets to McCartney, but we could have sold 62,000," he says ruefully. "That was the difference between making money and breaking even." The men (and there aren't any large-scale female promoters out there yet) at the center of the storm are generally not going to talk about their financial balances. But according to one veteran promoter, Zarzevsky likely got his money back, "but there wasn't any fat around it. Paul McCartney walked away with a lot of money, but the people here made very little." To lessen the potential financial risk in bringing over huge stadium attractions like McCartney, many promoters turn to corporate sponsors. For the Leonard Cohen show for example, a deal was struck between French-Israeli promoter Marcel Avraham and Israel Discount Bank. "One of the main issues here is risk management," says Wachs. "Music has found itself in a place previously only occupied by sports - whereby if a company attaches its name to an event, it can improve its image, attract new clients and build loyalty among existing clients. By getting a corporate sponsor to come on board, you're managing your risk and limiting your potential losses up front. "Bank Discount is paying a lot of money to get exposure and a positive association among its target audience - the older, more affluent class who are investing money and opening accounts. That's opposed to a show that would appeal to a younger audience that it wouldn't sponsor." Corporate sponsorship can make or break the financial viability of a show. However, one promoter explains that once a third party like a sponsor is brought in and the promoter is subject to their call, they minimize their risks but it's on a completely noncommercial basis. "Ticket prices are determined by the sponsor, who may want to give them away to clients. But if you can cut a good deal with the sponsor, there's still room for all sides to profit," he says. According to the promoter, the whole nature of bidding for an artist has changed, due to the wild card of sponsorship. "Twenty years ago, you bid on an act according to what you thought would be the income versus the expenses and the fee. The fee was determined by how you saw the potential income. If you know the expenses are NIS 10, and you think you can bring in NIS 100, so you have NIS 90 left - then you determine how much you are going to offer the artist," he says. "Nowadays you try to get the sponsorship money and then you make an offer based on how much you'll get from the sponsorship and from ticket sales as well. Therefore, sometimes the artist is given more than is economically viable, if it had been left only on the basis of ticket sales. But if the sponsor suddenly disappears, you wind up falling into a big hole, which is basically what happened with McCartney and the concert's original sponsor Orange." The promoter was talking about last year's McCartney show, which was almost canceled when original sponsor Orange backed out. At the last minute, businessman Yakir Sha'ashua stepped in to provide the capital Zarzevsky needed to enable the concert to take place. EVEN WITH a corporate sponsor, however, many times the costs are still insurmountable for a huge stadium show on the level of McCartney or Madonna. Yuri Leshev says that while a sponsor may give NIS 1 million in sponsorship, it's often a drop in the bucket. "The Madonna show is probably costing between NIS 15 million and NIS 20m. overall to produce. A sponsor may give NIS 1m. in sponsorship, not in money, but to pay expenses and advertising. It cuts down on the outlay, but not by a lot - you still need to sell a lot of tickets," he says. "The first show I did was Uriah Heep in 2000. It was a disaster," laughs Leshev. The jovial Russian-born promoter is sitting in an office at the Hadran Ticket Agency in Tel Aviv, where he spends most of his days scouring touring lists and making bids on acts. Recent shows have included hard rock guitarist Steve Vai, classic rockers Jethro Tull, the soft pop Air Supply and '70s piano man Gilbert O'Sullivan. "I was so inexperienced. I made every mistake possible. Show-wise, it was fine, but financially it was really a mess. I didn't know how to negotiate and haggle, not necessarily with the band, but with all the suppliers, like lights, sound, security. It was okay though, because when I did my next show, I had all the lessons learned. It was an expensive lesson though," he says. "The money came out of my pocket. That's the really terrible part of the job. If you don't have a sufficient capital - and I don't know of any promoter who sits on a capital of a couple million dollars like a protective shield - if you lose money, you lose. You have to borrow, go to the bank and ask them to extend your credit, to ask your suppliers to reschedule your debts. "I know of cases where promoters have essentially had to run away and leave the country. There was a guy in the '80s who did a rock festival in Ramat Gan Stadium. He was in the pub business and didn't really have a clue how to promote a show. So he booked bands like Marillion and UFO, good bands but not big enough to fill a stadium. In the end he had to flee his debts and leave the country. From what I hear, he's now in Poland under a different name." Leshev calculates that a promoter who produces a dozen shows a year needs to profit from 60 percent to 70% of them to cover the losses of the others. If he has a good relationship with the suppliers, he can try to renegotiate the deal if a show does very poorly. "You can go to your suppliers and say, look I lost on this one so can I get a discount? It doesn't always work - a supplier is doing his job. It's like a stockbroker. He gets his commission whether you make or lose money. "Losing money is depressing. Even though it's business, it's business connected to art, so you tend to have more sensitive people involved. So it can be upsetting. You end up thinking 'I lost my lucky touch…' then you go ahead with another show." According to Leshev, a promoter should never trust his own tastes when deciding whom to bid for. "Having an inner feeling is very important when choosing an artist. But utmost is never to book something based on what you like personally. It could end up fine, but the rule is not to trust your own sympathies," says Leshev, whose personal predilection runs toward Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. "My most successful acts, for the most part, have been the artists I don't listen to. Look at Air Supply - they're like a punch line to cruel jokes. But the show did very well. They were extremely nice and friendly people and totally professional. It was a pleasure." ONCE YOU have the "inner feeling" about an artist who's on tour and decide to place an offer, that's only the beginning of the ride. Many artists book their tours a year or two in advance with no option for adding dates. And despite the world economic crisis, the concert business is evidently one industry that hasn't been significantly affected yet. According to Leonard Cohen's manager, Robert Kory, who's overseen Cohen's world tour, the concert industry is healthy indeed. "The concert business is surprisingly strong. People might not be eating out or flying or taking vacations as much, but they're still buying concert tickets," he says on the phone from his office in Los Angeles. Promoter Zarzevsky, who in addition to bringing McCartney, has produced shows by Laurun Hill, as well as the annual Eilat Jazz Festival and the Tamar Festival, agrees that artists certainly aren't hurting for bookings. "I'm looking at touring sites constantly, exploring opportunities to bring artists to Israel, and I don't see any economic downturns. I see artists fully booked - sometimes through 2011," says Zarzevsky, who adds that there's no connection between the increase in shows here and a hurting global economy. "People are coming here because they are getting very good money." With Israel gradually being added to the radar screens of agents who are routing tours through Europe, along with the growing perception that it has developed into a market which can pay top dollar, and is currently a "safe" place to visit, the result is that an increasing pool of talent is eager and willing to play here. According to Kory, there's even a word of mouth circuit in the industry based on artists' touring experiences, that can influence another artist's willingness to perform in Israel. "There's definitely communication among managers and artists' agents. When an artist plays somewhere and has a successful show and enthusiastic audience, other people hear about it," says Kory. According to Zev Isaacs, an Australian immigrant who produced some of the country's biggest shows in the 1990s - like U2, Madonna, Elton John and Peter Gabriel - and today owns and runs the Hangar 11 club in the Tel Aviv Port, the country has seen a 180-degree turnaround in the last year. But it still needs to be seen in perspective. "We've had a bad stretch for a long time, especially around 2002-2005, when there was very little international exchange of culture," says the wiry Isaacs in his office on the floor above the cavernous Hangar. "From our subjective point of view in Israel, we see increase from zero to 20 acts, and you think, 'What a wonderful situation.' From an overseas perspective, that may be a positive change, but in reality Israel is still such a low priority on the international scene that it hasn't caused any sort of wave. People aren't clamoring to come here. "We still have to drag the artist to come here usually - we're not on the regular agenda when planning tours. A couple of things make it more viable for them to come here now. Certainly the political change is a little bit better. But the two main reasons why major acts come here is either they're paid very well, much more than they would be elsewhere. Or alternatively, they specifically want to play in Israel. With Madonna, she determined that she wanted to play here, and not her handlers." According to 2bVibes's Hillel Wachs, one reason why artists are generally paid more money here than in other countries is due to the exorbitant costs of bringing in equipment and crew, all of which must be done by plane or ship. "When someone comes here, they lose performance days. They can't play the day before or the day after somewhere else. It's not like taking a train from Italy to France and moving the equipment by truck," he says. "That's why the artist gets paid more here, sometimes double. It's looked upon as a one-off deal." Once the logistic issues are squared away, there remains the less tangible, but just as prominent, issue of personal security. Cohen's manager Kory admits that it was a natural reaction for an artist to be wary about his security if he agrees to come to Israel, and says that the perception of the situation here ebbs and flows along with the news. "There are periods when things seem to be more stable and there's less security concern. It does seem to be a bit more dangerous place than most - it's the nature of the function of the ongoing conflict," says Kory. For some promoters, the security card can mean the potential loss of a lot of money - the Red Hot Chili Peppers got intifada fever in 2001, and Depeche Mode bailed in 2006 ahead of the Second Lebanon War. In fact, they chose to open their world tour here in May to make amends for that cancellation. "The bigger the name, the higher risk of cancellation," says Hadran's Leshev. "Depeche Mode cancelled their next show after Ramat Gan, in Istanbul, due to illness. "You're bound to lose a lot of money, even if all the fees that were going to the band are returned. If you're lucky, the venue may not charge you 100% of the rent," he says. "But at the end of the day, you still lose $100,000 just paying for the insurance." Even in today's relative quiet, thanks to the volatile reputation that Israel is saddled with, artists and their management need constant reassurance that they're not going to get shot at leaving their hotel. Isaacs describes his experience with the New York musical sci-fi theater group Blue Man Group who performed a string of shows at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds in June. The group was originally scheduled to appear in March, but Isaacs postponed the shows due to Operation Cast Lead. "I would get daily phone calls from them in January saying the rockets have fallen 17 kilometers from Tel Aviv, and asking what my security precautions were? They used to actually sit on Google Maps and draw the radius of the gunfire from the Palestinian side to see how close it was from the venue," says Isaacs. "Then about two weeks before they landed here in June, the matter was raised again. They wanted to know how many armed security personnel were going to be on each bus from the airport, how many will be on each floor of the hotel, what security arrangements are there at the venue? "Of course, as soon as they got here, and witnessed the reality of Tel Aviv, everybody went off to restaurants and bars, and they didn't ask for security from that moment on." Yuri Leshev recalls that it took more than a year of discussion, phone calls and e-mail with Steve Vai to convince the guitarist to come to stage his Alien Guitar Workshop. "He told me point blank that he was scared. When I asked him why, he said, 'Because when look at CNN, and see what's happening in the area, you think, why do I need to risk myself?' Even when he got back home, he heard from a lot of people, mostly his Jewish friends by the way, who asked him, 'Why did you risk your safety by going there?'" says Leshev. Leshev admits that promoters take a big responsibility when ensuring an artist's safety, especially when they themselves aren't quite sure it's safe. He recalls a 2003 performance by Uriah Heep in Haifa - the same band he lost a bundle on in 2000 - which took place only two weeks after the October Maxim restaurant terror attack outside the city which killed 21 people. "They sent me an e-mail questioning the wisdom of coming, for security reasons. It took a long, very detailed letter, with all the security precautions clearly detailed. I felt really bad - you're telling people that it's okay to come, it's going to be fine, and in reality things aren't fine," he says. "Things are happening on a daily basis, buses exploding, coffee shops being attacked - we were all at risk. But life went on. Entertainment doesn't have to disappear - otherwise we'll be badly gripped by fear, become a paralyzed society. And I'm forever grateful to Uriah Heep that they eventually agreed to return and perform at that time. It was a nice gesture from them at a time when nobody else was willing to come and play here." Even taking away the security wild card, some promoters encounter artists who don't want to perform here just because it's Israel. "Many artists still have a problem coming to Israel. They think it's not politically 'in' to come here," says Isaacs, without elaborating. Wachs adds that in two years of negotiating with artists, he's only encountered one artist - Sinead O'Connor - who insisted she wouldn't perform in Israel for political reasons. According to Zarzevsky, despite repeated attempts to book a show, Bruce Springsteen has shown no interest in performing here, but he isn't sure whether it was due to political or simply security reasons. He also recalls that the Paul McCartney concert only crystallized due to the politically-charged cancellation by the original artist for that date - George Michael. "We had worked on a George Michael concert for months. We had all the details worked out and were just about ready to send him a deposit, and sign the agreement. He was getting a very good price and everything was set," says Zarzevsky. "The agent didn't check one little thing, though - whether Michael would play here. And his response was unequivocally, 'No way. I'm not going to Tel Aviv.' The broker was very apologetic and they promised they would find us an even better artist to come - and that turned out to be Paul McCartney." ONCE AN artist has been assured that it's safe, that it's financially viable despite the extra costs and that he's not politically averse to performing here, it all comes down to the visit. And here too, the country is gaining a reputation for putting out all the red carpets. "We host them - I'm talking about me and all of my colleagues - with the best conditions and treatment," says Zarzevsky. "For McCartney, it was unbelievable - open bars, three chefs. Every day a special car would drive the chefs to the shouk to buy raw ingredients." Wachs suggested that it was the opposite treatment which endears the artists to the country. "I think that artists like having the Israel informal experience. Abroad, and at home, they're usually treated with reverence and separated from the public. Here, they're treated with respect, but treated like people," he says. "I looked at the MySpace comments of Macy Gray's band after their show here. There were things like, 'This was the best show of my life.' 'What a country, the people are so nice.' We tend to not treat them like superstars, and more importantly, we treat the band members the same as the star. "Often, band members are used to running from town to town and being treated like meat. There's a musical director who hires them, and there's not a lot of interaction between them and the star. Here, they're all treated like kings. We always try to take them around, a trip to the Dead Sea or Jerusalem. "Here, they can let their guard down; Israelis tend to give them their distance instead of clamoring for autographs. When you talk to them like a human being, they respect that and it's really what they want." Things have evidently changed from the days, only 16 years ago, that Elton John, due to shoddy treatment at the airport and paparazzi on his trail, fled the country hours after his arrival. "Yes, I think we're a little bit more sophisticated in our approach today," says Isaacs, who bore the brunt of the John fiasco. Leshev offers all of his artists personal tours of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and other attractions which they would not normally get to see from a Tel Aviv hotel window. "I like Israel myself very much, and I like when people appreciate the place where I've made my home. I've had many great discussions with people like Steve Vai and Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson about history while we were touring Jerusalem," he says. "And in many cases, they go back home and tell their friends - 'Look we just played Israel, it's such a fantastic place and you have to go there.'" Ultimately, despite the hassles, frayed nerves and last-minute nightmares, most of the shows presented here go off without a hitch. And when those lights go down, and roaring crowd stands, the promoter breathes a sigh of relief. According to Zarzevsky, despite the financial turmoil and endless demands, he would have still promoted the McCartney show. Because, in the end, like those in the audience, he is a fan. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The night before the show, Paul got up and did a sound check at the venue. I was standing on the side watching him, and I began to cry. After all that went into getting it ready, seeing him up there singing a Beatles song was just overwhelming."


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