Tuning in on Israel’s Third Ear

Haozen Hashlishit has expanded its second-hand music shop into a thriving media empire.

Miki Dotan 390 (photo credit: David Brinn)
Miki Dotan 390
(photo credit: David Brinn)
The music snobs populating the popular Nick Hornby book turned into the John Cusack film High Fidelity would be proud of Tel Aviv’s Haozen Hashlishit (The Third Ear). While the mainstream mega-stores like Tower Records and Blockbuster have bitten the dust in the US, the independent record/CD/DVD landmark that caters to a more fringe taste in music and film has flourished.
The medium we apply to enjoy our entertainment may be changing at a dizzying pace, but over the last 25 years the Ozen has been the one constant in making available a wide selection of music and movies beyond the top 10 charts.
Once ensconced in the then-hip and trendy Sheinkin Street, the iconic second-hand record store deservingly built its reputation as the one-stop shop for hard-to-find import LPs and CDs from obscure British progressive rock bands, as well as local indie artists putting out their do-it-yourself music.
Today, the Ozen is still that but also a whole lot more – it’s an expanding media empire, employing more than 100 people and encompassing a sprawling building on Tel Aviv’s King George Street that once housed the Maxim Cinema.
Sure, there are still vintage LPs by Yes and Tangerine Dream, as well as thousands of used and new CDs for sale that will satiate the most particular of music nerds, but there’s also the biggest video library in the country, a thriving live music club and café called the Ozen Bar that presents the cream of up-and-coming local and sometimes international talent, and a successful video satellite store in Jerusalem.
That reality was never part of the Ozen’s founder and CEO Miki Dotan’s dreams when he opened his first pre-Ozen record store after completing his army service in 1973.
Dotan grew up in Eilat, where his love of rock derived from listening to specialty radio programs and trading albums with friends whose relatives brought them gifts from Europe.
“We had one record store in Eilat, and it also sold washing machines. So I wasn’t going to find any specialty music there,” he says. “I always knew I wanted to run a record store, and it was right after the Yom Kippur War when a friend and I opened a store in Kikar Masyrik,” says the 60-year-old Dotan, pointing to a photo behind him on the wall of his office displaying his frizzy-haired younger self in a Yes T-shirt inside the store with his partner.
“That’s just the way we were,” he laughs, looking at the photo. “The store was a little fringy, but even then all those progressive rock bands from the 1970s like Pink Floyd and King Crimson were becoming mainstream among a certain population. We sold what we liked, and our store was instrumental in disseminating this kind of music in Israel.”
Despite its success, Dotan closed the store and in 1977 moved to Holland for three years, where he became a partner and manager of imports in a record store chain called ELPEE. Upon his return to Israel, Dotan attended university, studying philosophy, economics and statistics, but music remained his true love. In 1987, at age 35, he decided to return to his destined profession and opened Haozen Hashlishit on Sheinkin St.
“David Bowie was once asked ‘Why do you still sing?’ And he answered, ‘What else am I going to do – open up an ice cream shop?’ For me, it was realizing this is what I do,” says Dotan.
Dotan apparently does it well, because the Ozen quickly became a music culture magnet in Tel Aviv, with musicians and fans alike hanging out there and using it as a hub to exchange gossip, find a new bass player and peruse the latest British imports. The store even launched its own Third Ear label and began putting out music by underground Tel Aviv bands.
“The Ozen played an integral role in providing an outlet for the alternative music community that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” says music expert Boaz Cohen, the morning DJ on 88 FM. “They were the most significant power on the indie music scene in Israel.”
But it was the selling, buying and trading of albums and CDs that proved to be the store’s bread and butter. The Ozen came around at the precise time when CDs were entering the market and vinyl was beginning its decline as the form of music most people bought – a very good time for a used record and CD store.
“Little by little, people began selling their albums to buy CDs, a decision they probably regret now,” says Dotan with a laugh. “Then, it was the style to listen to the new media, but in time it became clear that CDs weren’t the best way to listen to music. However, as a second-hand store, it worked out well for us – we had a huge supply of goods.”
It also didn’t hurt business that around the same time, “Sheinkin” became the catchphrase for all things hip, alternative and trendsetting, with quirky boutiques, cafes and shops overtaking the traditionally old world Tel Aviv neighborhood. The Ozen was smack in the middle of the new Tel Aviv “Village,” but according to Dotan, the whole idea of the Sheinkin scene was a myth.
“We opened the store on Sheinkin because the rent was cheap. Then all the hype started, it got really expensive, and we had no room to expand,” he says. “We’re happy we didn’t stay there. The hype finished, and today the street is a mess.”
The move to the new facilities in 2005 enabled Dotan to spread out and attempt some new endeavors – expanding the store’s jazz and classical sections, launching the country’s biggest video library and opening the Ozen Bar, which presents 40 live shows a month.
“As the whole nature of recorded music has changed, with downloads and iTunes taking over, we’ve had to adapt. Today, there’s more importance attached to live music,” says Dotan. “In media, you have to reinvent yourself all the time.”
That philosophy likely contributed to the Ozen’s survival in an environment that has seen much bigger and more mainstream music chains go out of business. But Dotan would like to look at it differently – that the Ozen’s strength has been in its focus on art on the fringes.
“Look, 25 years later and Tower is barely here, Blockbuster isn’t here, but the store that deals with music and film outside the mainstream is,” he says. “The fact is that fringe beat the mainstream from my viewpoint. We have 100 workers who receive their salaries every month. We’re doing something right.”
To celebrate its longevity, the Ozen is hosting The Long Weekend from March 22-24, featuring an impressive lineup of live music and film. Among the highlights are British singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock returning to the Ozen Bar after two superlative shows last year to perform his classic 1990 album Eye in its entirety on March 22. Two nights later, Hitchcock will perform with his occasional side band Venus 3, featuring former REM guitarist Peter Buck. Hitchcock and Buck are also slated to hold a master class for musicians.
Other events over the weekend include marathons of live performances by local acts, and a screening of Twenty, the Cameron Crowe documentary on Pearl Jam.
As Haozen Hashlishit enters its next phase, Dotan is confident that things will change as much as they have in the first 25 years.
“CDs are on the way out – nobody likes the format, and nobody will miss it,” he says. “But today, a lot of music still only goes out on CD because it’s comfortable for the industry.
But in time, it will evolve into something new. And we’ll evolve along with it. You can change your colors but stay with the same DNA; but staying with the same DNA doesn’t mean you sit around and do the same thing until you die. We’ll find another way to provide culture to intelligent people in an intelligent manner. If it’s not CDs, it will be something else.”
But no matter what changes are in store, it’s reasonable to think that the Ozen will always have a corner where some passionate music collector will be able to find that hard-to-find import by Yes.