Going SoLow

Haifa’s SoLow Music Festival kicks off its first year featuring a diverse array of local and international indie acts.

ISRAELI ELECTRONIC dance group Buttering Trio (photo credit: MICHAEL TOPYOL)
ISRAELI ELECTRONIC dance group Buttering Trio
(photo credit: MICHAEL TOPYOL)
Music festivals are sacred spaces for both artists and fans. Indie bands playing their hearts out on stage get to connect to their fans in a natural setting, with a diverse line-up that complements and contrasts. Festivals are also a surefire way to draw people to a particular city. Ben Riftin, artistic manager of the SoLow festival, understands this. Riftin has a love for festivals and indie music that is raw and true.
The SoLow festival will take place in Haifa from November 29-30 and will feature local acts such as Boom Pam and Buttering Trio, alongside British post-punk favorites WIRE. Riftin sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss the indie music scene, leaving Tel Aviv for Haifa, and the need for an international music festival in Israel.
How did you get involved with the SoLow festival? I lived in Tel Aviv for five years and was working as an agent and booking bands for shows in Israel and abroad. I helped produce and finance a few albums. I was a music promoter and was connected to all the festivals and clubs across Israel. After a few years of this, I had a crisis with both the indie music scene and living in Tel Aviv.
What was the nature of the crisis? My lifestyle was very intense; it was a full schedule of endless things I needed to do. The indie market, in a good way, is an unprofessional market. I got into it from personal enthusiasm and love and respect for the artists. I wanted to help promote things that I think are brilliant and important. After a few years, I understood that young bands don’t always need a manager or a promoter. Once they get a bit bigger, then they require that. Also, Tel Aviv is a very tense city. I wanted a break from the never-ending social life. I wanted to move to another city where I didn’t know anyone, so Haifa was really the only option. I only knew a few musicians here. The city is beautiful and it’s extremely cheap.
How long have you been living in Haifa now? It’s been almost six years. When I first came, I couldn’t find a place to DJ here in Haifa. By DJ, I mean show up with my laptop and play songs. It’s what they call being a DJ in every small bar now. There was no place to do it, whereas in Tel Aviv in every bar there is someone playing music. So I decided to open up a place to bring the bands I like from Tel Aviv so me and my friends can have a decent dive bar to go to play and hear music.
I never wanted to open a place in Tel Aviv, I was afraid of it. But in Haifa, it was very needed. So I rented the space and called it Syrup. It was open for three years and was kind of a big deal; it became the place to go in Haifa if you had a small band and wanted to play. More people started DJing, we had a lot of parties and sold records. During that time, the main thing I actually wanted to do was a festival.
What stopped you? I really tried. I went to city hall and said I was a promoter from Tel Aviv and wanted to start a festival in Haifa, but no one would talk to me. No one knew me or understood what I wanted. There wasn’t really an active underground scene. So when I opened Syrup, I thought it could be the venue to have a festival once a year, but it closed in 2015.
I really like festivals. The first one I went to was the Primavera in Barcelona. It’s amazing. It happens every year in May. I went in 2009 for the first time and it was a really special experience for me. It’s an urban festival, so you don’t sleep there. It’s three days long, with amazing artists, a great audience, and it sounds and looks really good.
Ever since then, I’ve wanted to do a version of that in Israel. Because there isn’t a real indie, international festival in Israel. At least not in the past 10-20 years. Thousands of Israelis are flying every year to go to festivals. IndieNegev sold 8,500 tickets this year. So we can feel that the Israeli scene is ready to start to develop an international festival like Coachella or Lollapalooza. This year, since it’s the first year for SoLow, the only really big band is WIRE, and we have a few small acts from Europe. That’s what I could do with this year’s budget. Next year, we’ll have more. The goal is to have a local band and then an international band and to alternate one after the other.
How does that fit in with the philosophy of SoLow? It connects Haifa and Israeli bands to the international scene in a natural way. There are a lot of showcases, but I don’t really like them because they’re forced. If you have a really good festival, you can see that Israeli artists are on the same level.
One of the problematic things about being an Israeli band that wants to succeed is that you can’t just drive around and tour. If you’re an American band, you can tour the states endlessly with just a van. European bands can play 20 different countries pretty easily. But Israeli bands have to fly and book months in advance. Young bands really struggle with this. My ideal festival would be a place without borders; where you could see bands from the states, from Europe, and feel connected. Also, of course, the main thing is to give the crowd the experience of a true festival with high quality artists from all genres and many countries. Experiencing music on a big stage under the open sky is much better than a crowded club.
So the SoLow festival is outside? There are two main stages: one outside and one in a hanger. Because it’s at the end of November we had to be aware of the weather. Hopefully next year, it will be in August. It’s important to say that the municipality of Haifa produced this festival. They are the ones who made this possible and it’s thanks to them that the tickets are very cheap. I want to give them credit because it’s unusual for a municipality to pay for 37 acts that they don’t know. This is the pilot year for SoLow.
This is a trial year to see what could be possible in the future? Exactly, for people who like the post-punk genre, it’s a big deal that we got WIRE. The fact that they’re coming to Israel, only coming to Haifa and then going back to England is not a casual thing. 99% of foreign acts play Tel Aviv and go back. People who like WIRE need to come to Haifa to see them. That’s the power of bringing these special, foreign acts. It’s a really good investment to do these kind of events.
For more info and tickets visit www.solow-haifa.com.