Universal becomes first major music label to open Israel branch

The music label will also open up a new branch in Morocco.

A general view shows part of Tel Aviv amid an ease of restrictions following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Israel May 7, 2020. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A general view shows part of Tel Aviv amid an ease of restrictions following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Israel May 7, 2020.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Universal Music Group, one of the largest music corporations in the United States, has become the first major American music company to open a branch in Israel.
Called Universal Music Israel (UMI), this new branch will be based in Tel Aviv and be led by attorney Yoram Mokady, while the local distribution will still be done by Helicon Music, who have been licensing and distributing Universal Music locally since 1994, and will continue to collaborate on future projects.
While Mokady lacks any experience in the music industry, he has years of experience working in the fields of content creation and management in Israeli entertainment. He most recently worked for HOT Telecommunications as the vice president of content. In this capacity, he was responsible for managing all of HOT's content activities including original productions, video on demand (VOD), purchased series, purchased linear channels and HOT's unique own linear channels. He also served as the company's vice president of strategy and regulation from 2008-2010.
Before this, Mokady served as chairman of  Israel’s Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting, as well as executive director of the Israeli Broadcasting Regulatory Administration.
This background is exactly why he was tapped by Universal Music to lead the new Israel branch, Adam Granite, UMG executive vice president of market development, told Rolling Stone, explaining that leaders need to have business executive experience.
Granite explained that Israel is one of the most well-developed markets worldwide where Universal Music had yet to open a branch.
“If you look at it on a GDP basis, from an infrastructure standpoint, and all the things that kind of tick boxes when it comes to where we’re looking to have operations – Israel was definitely a standout,” he explained. He then further praised the thriving and innovative hi-tech sector in the country, which UMI hopes to take advantage of.
“There’s a lot of amazing innovation there in the tech space. Us also having a better finger on the pulse for broader partners in the music space there made sense.”
In addition to taking advantage of the many technological benefits Israel has to offer, UMI will focus heavily on signing and developing local talent, as well as helping develop the local music industry's ecosystem.
This comes amid a report by Billboard that many major music labels – such as Universal, Warner and Sony Music – are in the midst of an international music "arms race" of sorts, with the companies branching out internationally to sign new talent. This is exemplified by the recent signing if 19-year-old Israeli pop star Noa Kirel, who signed a multimillion-dollar record deal – which may be the largest deal ever signed by an Israeli artist – with Atlantic Records.
Currently, Universal Music Group (UMG) has operations in 60 different countries worldwide.
“As part of our global commitment to discover and support music talent around the world – and in order to accelerate our ability to support local artistry and talent in Israel – we are excited to launch Universal Music Israel," Granite said in a statement.
"I am also delighted to welcome Yoram to UMG. His extensive experience in managing entertainment content and his proven track record of successful creative, marketing and business leadership will be vital in establishing Universal Music Israel as the best home for Israeli artist and creator talent. That leadership will offer artists the best opportunity to reach new audiences around the world. We would also like to thank our long-time licensee Helicon for their partnership and support throughout the past 25 years, and especially Ronnie Braun, for his guidance and friendship over the years. Without his support and leadership, UMG would not be able to open our division in Israel today.”
“We are excited to announce the arrival of UMG, the world’s leading music company into Israel, which will provide a welcome boost for the entire Israeli artist community, while strengthening the wider music ecosystem within the country," Mokady said.
"As the first major global music company in-market, UMG will look to identify, sign and develop the best domestic artist talent, whilst working closely with partners, technology companies and local start-ups to create innovative campaigns and projects to help UMG artists to reach the widest possible audience worldwide.”
In addition to Israel, UMG will also open up a new branch in Morocco, which will be based in Casablanca and led by local business development executive Serena Safieddine. Speaking to Rolling Stone, Granite explained that this was motivated more by logistics, Universal Music's operations in the Middle East, like most music labels, is based in Dubai.
“Dubai to Morocco is a really long flight,” Granite explained. “I think it’s about nine hours, so it’s very hard to stay connected to the local artist community that far away. We’ve been looking at it for a while. Also, Morocco positions us well to take advantage of not just Arabic repertoire for the Middle East, but also artists and repertoire that can easily go into France – via talent we find in Morocco, but also Algeria and some other countries nearby. We felt, from a creative standpoint, that it’s a great place to set up and help find some domestic and regional talent.”
The executive vice president also said that they weren't just opening up branches blindly. Rather, they are keeping ears open on the ground to get a better feel of the local music scene and interests.
“You need to have people on the ground who speak the language, who are part of the culture, who local artists can identify with,” he explained. “I think it’s very hard to tell the local story in a natural way from far away.”
Gabe Friedman/JTA contributed to this report.