Backstage man

Shuki Weiss, Israel’s top concert promoter, talks about his passion for music from a young age and the challenges and failures he endured on the road to success.

Shuki Weiss 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Shuki Weiss 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
It always comes down to that final few seconds when the lights go down, the crowd erupts in cheers and the performers make their way to the stage. All the months’ worth of preparation lists – the licenses, contracts, special food and fitness requirements, technical specifications and travel arrangements – have been checked off for the last time, and all that remains is for the opening note of music to ring out through the immense sound system and the spotlight to illuminate the focus of the audience’s attention.
“For me, that’s the moment. I still get goose bumps every time, whether it’s 50,000 people at Hayarkon Park or a few hundred in a club,” says Shuki Weiss with a bemused smile on his face, recalling the progression he’s experienced hundreds – if not thousands – of times.
It might be Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers or Depeche Mode who transcend the moment and bring the crowd to higher ground, but it’s the 59-year-old Weiss who, for more than 35 years, has enabled it to happen.
The Netanya-raised son of Holocaust survivors sits back in his bustling downtown Tel Aviv basement office filled with framed and autographed posters from dozens of memorable shows, by everyone from Radiohead, REM and Dire Straits to John Cale, Nick Cave and Roger Waters. Aside from a nasty cigarette habit, he doesn’t exude any of the A-type personality associated with high-powered business deals and lowrent entertainment industry snakes.
Wearing a black T-shirt that accentuates his muscular torso, Weiss is the strongman of the Israeli music scene, scrapping his way to the top as the “dean of Israeli concert promoters” through years of hardnosed work and in-the-trenches risks. He’s made enemies along the way, but has also earned the respect of the local music industry.
The result has been good – for him, with a thriving business and frequent trips abroad, and for Israeli music lovers, who get to reap the benefits of his lifelong music obsession.
While other promoters have produced many of the colossal musical spectacles of the last few years – from Leonard Cohen to Paul McCartney to Elton John – he’s remained the one constant on the Israeli concert scene through good times and bad, boycotts, wars and cancellations that have resulted in substantial financial losses and extra gray hairs.
Still, he says he remains addicted to producing shows not only because of the financial reward that accompanies the financial risk, but also because of those goosebump moments and because of the fanlike love of music he acquired as a child.
“I wasn’t a particularly good student, and I had two left hands when it came to playing music, but I was very studious at listening to the music coming out of international radio stations like Radio Monte Carlo and the BBC,” he says, adding that when his parents split up and his father moved to New York, he would spend summers with him.
“Every morning I would be at [record store chain] Sam Goody’s when it opened and stay until they threw me out,” he recalls.
By the age of 14, he was working in a Tel Aviv record store after school, managing its import section.
Following his army service, he opened a chain of his own record stores called Massada, which became the go-to place in the 1970s for imported rock albums from the US and Europe and emerged as a hangout for young local musicians.
That connection to the local scene encouraged his first foray into live music in 1977, when he recruited a dozen young bands and rented out the 1,300-capacity Wohl Theater in Tel Aviv.
“I wasn’t scared about losing money, but I did take a big risk because I didn’t tell the whole truth to the theater management – I said it was for a cultural event with public singing. So when the first band started playing and the crowd began to stomp on the floor, the manager went nuts and wanted to close down the show.”
Weiss was able to persuade him to let the music go on, and the sold-out show proved to be an artistic – if not financial – success.
“I really had no idea how to calculate expenses then,” he says. “I told the bands, if there’s money left over at the end of the night, you’ll get some. If not, you won’t.”