Jerusalem — There once was a time when Israel’s best-known musical exports were winners of the campy Eurovision pop song contest, such as the 1978 “Hallelujah” by Gali Atari and the group Milk and Honey.
These days it might be the driving guitar solos of Uri Kinrot of the surf rock trio Boom Pam, the electro Mediterranean party music of Balkan Beat Box or the Janis Joplin-like cry of singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan.
Both are part of a rising tide of hip, edgy young Israeli artists that seem to have bypassed Israel’s saturated music market and instead are taken their acts abroad. With the Internet exposing them to far-flung audiences and a more diverse set of musical influences, a growing number of local groups have made successful forays into clubs and festivals in Europe and North America. Boom Pam, in fact, had a top 10 hit on the European World Music charts.
But it’s still an uphill struggle for Israeli artists to break out of their homeland and get established overseas. Touring costs are much more expensive when bands have to first get on a plane to reach their gigs. With no established music brand or genre, Israeli music is still a virtual unknown to music professionals abroad. And some Israeli bands have to grapple with the risk of boycotts by pro-Palestinian activists
What would help is if an Israeli act could break through to the United States pop charts like Swedish group Abba or Iceland’s Bjork.
That’s part of the challenge facing Jeremy Hulsh, a former music development specialist at Columbia Records, who moved to Israel about 10 years ago, and later started a nonprofit, Oleh Records, to promote local bands abroad.
“I saw this immense amount of talent, and bands doing interesting amount of stuff on par with what was going on around the world,” Hulsh said. “But they had no idea how to take their music outside of Israel. … Israeli artists have no knowledge and very little access to the tools and networks that can help development professionally.”
Helping to give artists those tools and networks was the focus of the first-ever international music conference in Israel, which Hulsh helped organize late last month in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Music Conference featured four days of shows by 40 Israeli artists and even a pub crawl of Tel Aviv music clubs. It all took place under the watchful eye of foreign talent scouts looking the next breakout pop artist.
Inspired by the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, the annual music, film and interactive gathering in Austin, Texas, the Jerusalem event was co-sponsored by venture capitalist Erel Margalit and hosted on the campus of the offices of his startup fund, Jerusalem Venture Partners.
So just why does a technology investor care about exporting music acts? Explaining the synergy, Margalit said that cultivating a thriving cultural scene in Israel — especially in Jerusalem — would make the country more attractive to the creative minds behind startups geared toward media and the Internet.
“If Israel is now the R&D center of the world, it needs to now become its creative hub,” he said. “Just like we’re doing in the film industry, just like we’re doing in the technology industry: Israel became a startup nation by taking innovation, far from the market, and letting the world know about it.”
The new generation of Israeli music exports consists mainly of indie acts with a cosmopolitan mix of Western pop genres and Mediterranean motifs. And it’s increasingly common for artists to forgo their native Hebrew for English lyrics in order to widen their appeal.
While many in Israel might consider that an act of cultural betrayal, foreign music executives looking for the next big thing in pop music say that catchy instrumentals alone is not enough. It’s much easier to connect with a mass audience if artists are singing in a language they can understand, said Tom Jolly, an A&R executive with Mercury Records, U.K. who participated in the conference.
After visiting Tel Aviv during the conference, Jolly said he became convinced that there were acts to be found in Israel. “Like Barcelona or Paris, Tel Aviv is a cultural city with potential for a music scene,” he said. “There must be an artist making electronic dance music” with cross-border appeal, he said.
Israeli indie artists are looking abroad and writing songs with English lyrics because the domestic market for music is limited. Music consumption is dominated by superstar soloists like Shomo Atzi SHLOMO ARTZI? and Rita, said Uri Kalian, a Tel Aviv musician and producer.
Young artists “are forced to look abroad,” Kalian said. “There isn’t any space or room for new artists to move into. The music scene is big, but the audience is small. We produce 10 times the amount of music people want to listen here.”
Kalian believes that in order for Israeli artists to truly break into international markets, musicians need to build up professional networks by relocating abroad and immersing themselves in local music scenes. Moving also helps to raise artists’ level of musicianship, he said.
“The potential here is low,” Kalian said. “Artists are trying to make it big without leaving Israel. They have to absorb the [foreign] atmosphere, fuse with the scene, get to know the scene and drink the right beer. If you don’t do that, even in the Internet era, it’s really hard.”
Overcoming Israel’s unflattering image in the international media — especially in Europe — is another challenge. Malcolm Haynes, a music programmer for the U.K’s Glastonbury Festival, said he came to Israel to learn about the music scene and a little bit about the politics.
While Israel remains an obscure music scene, booking Israeli acts runs the risk of triggering boycotts, he said. Despite that, Haynes said he had been impressed by the musicians at the conference, and expected some might get invitations to play at Glastonberry. “I’m about building bridges.”
Despite the potential for boycott, Oleh Record’s Hulsh says that Israel’s government should invest more in helping fledgling artists reach concerts abroad as a way to boosting Israel’s image in an organic way rather than with heavy-handed propaganda.
“Each of them is an authentic cultural ambassador,” he said. “When they get on stage and tell their story, they change a narrative.”
Boaz Murad, the manager of Karolina, an Israeli singer-songwriter, said that while the conference was well executed with top-tier foreign executives, it’s hard to judge its effectiveness.
“I will only be able to say if it is successful if Karolina is booked in an international festival” by next summer, he said.
“It was well organized. All the people invited to the conference were into checking out the shows,” Murad continued. “But I’ll be smarter in a couple of months to see if something comes out of it. It’s only the beginning.”