What Israeli Music Scene?

Ask a friend about the Israeli music scene and they’ll typically respond with a blank stare and ask “What Israeli music scene?” Truthfully, who can blame them? While Israel has certainly made a name for itself in the Western world, it has been more for its wars and political affairs than its musical endeavors.

Still, Israel has garnered international recognition in other realms. Israel has produced six Nobel-prize winning scientists, revolutionized green technology, and has the highest concentration of high-tech companies in the world. An Israeli has already won the Nobel-prize for literature, and in four of the past five years, an Israeli film has been nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film.

Israeli music, however, is yet to reach such great heights. While musicians like Idan Raichel and Infected Mushroom have managed to achieve success abroad, most Israeli musicians fail to garner any international attention. In today’s age, when it’s as simple as clicking on a YouTube link to give any band a listen, this must be viewed as no less than a major failure. This is what leads many to ask, “What Israeli music scene?,” or to associate the Israeli music scene with outdated renditions of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. Most seem to think that contemporary Israeli music comprises of little more than cheesy pop or twangy Mizrahi blues.

But Israel has much more to offer than that.

Tune In Tel Aviv, a brand name created by Oleh! Records, sent six Israeli bands to SXSW 2012, an American music festival and conference with a reputation for being the most important annual event in the music industry. Among the bands sent this year were the funky, genre-busting band, Balkan Beat Box.

Balkan Beat Box was no stranger to performing abroad, as they were founded in New York by two Israelis, Tamir Muskat and Ori Kaplan. Both came from diverse, but very different musical backgrounds; Kaplan had been a jazz saxophonist and klezmer clarinetist while Muskat was a producer-engineer with a punk rock background. After struggling to find a style that they felt properly represented themselves, they decided to simply create a genre of their own, which is best defined as a fusion of gypsy punk, electronica, middle-eastern, and funk.

And it worked. Balkan Beat Box has since recorded four albums and performed all over the globe, including stops at the world-renowned Lollapalooza festival in 2010 and this summer’s Electric Forest Festival in Michigan. They’ve received rave reviews from some of the world’s largest music publications, including SPIN and Pitchfork, and have proven that Israeli music does deserve a place in the international music scene.

And they aren’t alone. Acollective, an indie-rock band that also performed at this year’s SXSW, has already made quite the impression abroad, attracting attention from many international publications, including Filter Magazine and NME, the world’s largest stand-alone music site.

In other words, the lack of international success stems not from dearth of quality music, but rather from the lack of an effective promotion channel. While the simplicity of clicking on a YouTube link makes it easier to give listeners the potential to listen to Israeli music, you still have to convince them to click on the link.

That said, some in the industry see this muted success and believe that music may not only be Israel’s next cultural success, but it’s greatest. Jeremy Hulsh, CEO of Oleh! Records, Israel’s leading music export office recently said that he sees “no reason why Israel can’t be a music mecca for developing artists.” Oleh! was created in 2007 with an aim of helping Israel become just that. Oleh! Offers a variety of services to Israel’s musicians, all geared to facilitating their efforts to gain international exposure. Besides sending an annual roster to SXSW, Oleh! has sent dozens of bands to tour the world, while also organizing showcases within Israel and simply helping artists get their foot in the international door.

Hulsh (left) takes Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon on a tour of Tel Aviv’s hottest bands and venues. (photo credit: Kipp Adler)

Hulsh has now teamed with Zappa Music Group to set up his newest project, the first ever Jerusalem Music Conference. Don’t be fooled by the bland title; this music conference is aiming at completely revolutionizing how Israeli music is viewed internationally. The conference, inspired by SXSW, aims to be Israel’s premiere contemporary music showcase. To achieve that goal, they are bringing in some of the biggest names in the music industry, to both advise their Israeli counterparts, while also checking out some of best music Israel has to offer.

Representatives from abroad include directors from some of the world’s largest music festivals, executives for some of the biggest agencies and labels, and some influential journalists as well. One of the more impressive names to confirm attendance is Tom Windish, who was recently named to Billboard’s “40 under 40” list of influential players in the music industry.

Windish runs The Windish Agency, a booking agency that Windish started out of his own apartment with a roster of 50 bands. Today, they have offices in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, a roster of well over 500 bands, and were bestowed Pollstar’s 2012 “Independent Booking Agency of the Year”. Windish is also known for his part in the development of indie-rock band, Foster the People, whom he helped book their first shows by calling in favors, who are now booking ten to fifteen thousand tickets in some markets.

Windish and the other panelists will lead panels by day and check out Israeli music by night. Aside from the aforementioned Acollective, the bands set to perform are some of the bigger names in Israeli music: HaDag Nahash, Karolina, and Ninet Tayeb, just to name a few.

Additionally, it was recently announced that Lollapalooza, one of the world’s biggest music festivals, will be coming to Israel in the summer of 2013. The details are sparse, as the event is still far away, but the mere announcement of such a monumental event has already created a huge buzz in the Israeli music world.

Hulsh hopes that exposing Windish and the other panelists to the Israeli music industry will help create value for the development and export of the Israeli music sector. “Israel has more musicians per capita than anywhere else in the world,” says Hulsh, “and that talent is completely untapped.” It remains to be seen whether or not his efforts will be enough to lift Israeli music to the heights of its other cultural successes worldwide. But with events like the Jerusalem Music Conference, it is clear that Israel is finally starting to recognize this untapped potential.

About the Author
Jason Chernofsky is a music and film lover who currently works at Oleh! Records, where he helps Israeli musicians make a name for themselves in Israel and abroad.