Interview with SHUKI WEISS
The show business swirls around an artist, but there's always someone who an artist cannot exist without. Managers and producers are people all of us heard of: it's they who shape an artist and handle him to sell to the consumers. Still, one side of it is always in the shade - the entrepreneur side, the side of those who bring an artist to your country, to your hometown and, actually, into your heart, as live experience is the best of all. It's a hard work, and sometimes it's even harder, especially when you operate without a safety net by doing this business in such a special country as Israel while caring about the safety of the people you work with and for. Cue Shuki Weiss, a man whose latest achievement is making Roger Waters change his mind on political issues. Yet it's not only politics that Shuki discussed with such fervor that his freezingly-conditioned office became rather warmed...
- What does being a promoter mean to you?
I'd rather consider myself a producer. It's a way of life for me. I've been dealing with music since I remember myself, from the age of eight. And I'm a sort of a frustrated musician, as I tried to learn to play flute, drums, bass, accordion and piano - with no luck. So I was, like, hanging all my life around music without the ability to play. Except of the three years that I spent in the army, I've been around music all my life.
- Is it hard to be both a music fan and a businessman?
Very hard 'cause I'm getting confused all the time, as I'm too big a music fan, and sometimes a judgement is very difficult. Some bands that I brought to Israel didn't draw people to see them - and they were the bands that I like very much - and my wife told me that it would have been easier for us to take a first-class flight to see these bands abroad, it would be cheaper than bringing them to Israel to play for hundred or two hundred people in a 4,000-capacity venue. Seriously, in the last ten years or even more I'm concentrating more on the things I like and I don't just bring in any band that want to come over, and this is actually luxury. I don't do circuses, I don't do kids' shows, as I don't think I'm professional in those fields, so I'd like to do the kind of music that I like.
- Is music your only business?
Other businesses that I don't handle are handled by other people, but music I do solely.
- In Israel, it's difficult to tell what act will draw good audience. So how do you decide whether financial risk is huge if you think the artist is great? I was surprised, for instance, to find here a strong Canterbury scene following...
First of all, I have a benefit of having been an owner of the largest record stores chain in Israel, "Massada", in the Seventies. I'd been selling records from the age of fourteen to twenty-seven. I had, like, four or five stores, and I was the first to import records to Israel. And after selling records for more than ten years to the Israeli public I know which band, which artist is popular, and how many homes in Israel bought some record at the time. That was one factor, and I think my uniqueness is in having that knowledge. On the other hand, my bringing artists to Israel is based on the market surveys I do here of their popularity, checking with the record companies and radio.
A big name doesn't always mean an artist is going to draw a crowd; some names that are good for magazines and for radio don't really attract people strong enough to make a major step of going out of their homes to the box office. It was like this with CULTURE CLUB, who were huge at the time, and GUNS N' ROSES, even BON JOVI when they wanted to come here. They're doing a 60,000 and 70,000-capacity stadiums in Europe, but I realized that they would draw only a ten or twelve thousand people in Israel. Some other promoters took the job, so while it was good for my assessments, it's not good that people don't do the right service and overpay an artist, because once an artist got paid over capacity, then other artists who come next will say, "That band got this money, and I should get the same". And you can't say it again and again that promoters lost money and the show didn't go very well etcetera, etcetera: that doesn't mean anything because all they see is what the other artist got.
Right, the Canterbury scene have a very good following in Israel, and the amazing thing is that younger generation are digging into the old music. At the Roger Waters' concert you could see many young people that weren't even born when he was writing these songs. I was surprised to see them - but not too much surprised. To know how big a crowd will an artist bring is very difficult because Israelis are very small-hearted, and sometimes you have a great artist coming into a flooded market, like it was this June. So I think that Sting suffered from Roger Waters, because for Sting it was the third visit to Israel and for Waters the first, and people don't have enough money to pay such a ticket price twice a month. The decision is easy, then: to go and see Roger Waters. The same with BLACK EYED PEAS and 50 Cent - BLACK EYED PEAS won and 50 Cent lost.
That's another thing. I don't mind giving up on an artist if he doesn't accept my argument that he should not come here in June and look for another period. I won't do it just because I want to be a name on the poster. My aim is to deliver 100% - that's the best professional job for me and for the artist. Well, I'd rather say, for the artist and for me. I always try to bring an artist to the maximum capacity in terms of... If I know that an artist, to my best judgement, will draw 6,000 people, I would rather bring him into a 5,000-capacity venue, sell 5,000 tickets and say, "Sorry, sold out!" than take him to a 10,000-capacity and bring only 5,000 people. It's more important to us to do three sold-outs in the clubs [than a half-empty big hall] like it was with John Cale.
- Now you're taking BLONDE REDHEAD to the club.
They're the opening act for DEPECHE MODE, so they'll do two nights at the "Barby" club as well. This is a great band, by the way, that have a huge fan base in Israel, and people have been waiting for more than four years for them to come. I'm very happy that the opportunity arose, and they are coming with DEPECHE MODE, 'cause this is the band that you don't hear on the radio but you have this underneath-the-surface base that support this kind of band. The same was with MERCURY REV at the time, and BLONDE REDHEAD is a very good example of a very good band choosing the right opportunity to come over to Israel.
- What promotional tricks do you use to make lazy Israelis get up their asses and go to a show?
We don't have any tricks, really. I usually ask for the maximum cooperation from the band's side: interviews, photos, rare materials, specials, authorization to use their clips for advertising... Some of the bands give me all that I need, some bands don't, and some of the bands are such big names... I'm sure you didn't actually see what sort of promotion Roger Waters did, and I can tell you the truth: he didn't do a thing. He didn't do interviews - not even one. And with megastars like Waters, if you don't know how to work with him, you'd better not bring him in. He doesn't have to tell again and again for thirty years the facts of his life, what did he do and why PINK FLOYD spilt - it's all in the papers, in the books, on the Internet.
- At the JETHRO TULL press call, I happened to be near two reporters who, when Ian Anderson and Martin Barre arrived, started asking each other which one was Jethro Tull. Like with that FLOYD's line, "Which one is Pink?".
This is a good example of lack of professionalism in our local press. I think that the Internet has changed everything. One the one hand, the whole world became very small global village, and on the other hand, in order to be updated ind give the news in the seconds, the press has the way of writing which's shrewd, and this is dumb in a way. I'm also having personal problems with reporters who are keen to have invitations for the show just because they are reporters, but I think giving a reporter an invitation is like bribing him to write good things about the show. And I think that every paper, every Internet site, every television station should buy the ticket and then give a very accurate review. It's not that I don't want to give an invitation but that's sort of bribery, because I would pay my respect to artist and to reporter by giving him hopefully the best conditions to review the show, to have a good sight for the camera to take pictures etcetera, but having these reporters phoning us every day and saying, "I'm from this big paper and I need, like, ten invitations..." I say, "Why? Why should I?" If a reporter went to Europe and interviewed DEPECHE MODE and did such a great job, then why not, I would like to give you an invitation and to host you, but that wouldn't have anything to do with the review - he did a preview, and that okay for me. But to give an invitation to someone who is going to write about the show, to give him a can of coca cola or a beer and play around with him, I think it's a bribe.
There were seven or eight or nine years of what I call 'the dry land', when there were not too many visits... The year before the Intifada broke out, I had during one summer, in two months, RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, Alanis Morissette, Bjork, Lou Reed, RADIOHEAD, and tickets were sold out. I didn't even have a separate ad for each artist, I had one and split it in sections, and I looked at it and said to myself, "Well, even in New York and London you don't have this capacity". And I thought we were on the right track. Having all these artists gave me the force to tell RADIOHEAD, "You сannot charge 200 shekels, you should take 175, and you'd better play three times in Caesaria and one in Tel Aviv, because there's a competition". That was good for the market, it brought me less money but more of a job, which was important at the time. But then came the Intifada, and less and less artists have been coming over, but one of my good friends, Ian Anderson from JETHRO TULL, kept coming. He was here two times during the Intifada, and I appreciate that, and we have a very very good connection. But in general, it was a dry land, and that changed the face of the market. And not only that.
In the last seven years, Europe changed to euro and prices went up for 30-40%. Then, Phil Collins came over for a big show - with the same price he's getting paid in Italy, in France, in Greece, and tickets are from 80 to 200 euros. All of a sudden, you have to put up tickets for 500 shekels, but people remember they paid 200 for David Bowie - what a gap! So it's very hard now, I've been crucified for those prices. And my only excuse is, if you don't pay this price then big names won't come. You don't get reduction when it comes to Israel, it costs more, because if DEPECHE MODE play Germany and the following night in Zurich, they're travelling by truck, whereas to come to Israel, they're losing a day of packing to the freighter, taking two special planes - one for cargo and one for the passengers, they're losing a day of flight, one day of rigging it up, one day of the show, one day of packing and leaving. So one show in Israel is four days, when they could do two, if not three shows, day after day. They could do Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, one day after the other, taking two sets - rigging one and playing it while rigging the other one. But I'm very happy that DEPECHE MODE decided to come. It was Phil Collins, DEPECHE MODE and Roger Waters that I actually knew last autumn that they would come this summer, and it was a sign of sanity in this region: if in November, you announce DEPECHE MODE coming next August and start selling tickets, this is the sign of normality. I hope that the situation will continue to be calm, and the other names will be presented for the next month or the next year - the big names don't decide for the next month: they decide on year in advance. Having had a great Phil Collins show and a tremendous show of Roger Waters and, hopefully, a very good one with DEPECHE MODE, I think that will open the doors for other artists to come.
- And who's bigger than Waters? McCartney and THE STONES?
We don't need bigger, we need the same quality. Look at these pictures from the Roger Waters' show. (Taking out some great photos.) This is amazing! You'd never tell it's in Israel! Which I like.
- Would you consider bringing in some artist that will bring you good money but whose music you don't personally like?
There's no artist that brings the promoter big money anymore - not even abroad. This is false rumor. Show business became something like stock exchange, big companies asking for 90% of the income. You can't get an artist for 100 dollars and sell him for a million anymore. Artists like Bruce Springsteen take 92% of the gross. This is the way of doing it. What is good for an European or American promoter is that he's got eight, nine or ten shows like this a month, and we have it maybe once or twice a year. I don't have targets of big names that I want to bring over, I've got a list of quality artists that I want to bring, and it doesn't have to be a big concert. It can be a 3,000-capacity with a good name. If KING CRIMSON come to Israel and I do two shows in Caesaria, I'll enjoy it the same as I enjoyed Roger Waters playing one concert for 55,000. There are artists who were here that I'd like to bring over, and this is what excites me.
- What about, say, Britney Spears who you might not like but who can draw many teenagers?
That's a big mistake: Britney Spears won't draw too big a crowd. This is exactly like it was with CULTURE CLUB - big name, big fan base and no ticket sales. Anyway, if it's someone I don't like, I won't bring him over. There are other promoters out there.
- What surprises me at your shows is a level of caring about the public - like having the security guys handing out the water bottles for the people not to get dehydrated and the ads reminding them to not forget to drink. Do you really care?
I love my crowd, because if you don't treat them right they won't come again. You should take care of them. The whole thing about the show business is to come in safely and go back home safely. If someone hurts himself on the way to or from the concert, what's the use of the concert? Concert is for being happy together and listening to good music, drinking, laughing, dancing and then going home safely - this is what it's all about! It's not a question of you selling tickets. I'm known for many years that I do everything to secure my public, to give them as much help to get in, to enjoy themselves while they're there and to enjoy the best concert. I don't do tricks with coming with a short production, I always insist in my contract that what I've seen in Dusseldorf with DEPECHE MODE is exactly what I want to have in Israel. I can reduce the freight and save a lot of money if I come up with a shrinked production. Half of the job is taking care of artist and half of the job - or even more - is taking care of public.
- So where the line goes between the hard businessman and this caring person?
It's a combination, and sometimes when it comes to the public safety it's more important than the business end of things.
- Do you remember your first concert?
(Laughs.) Yeah, yeah, I remember. It was in the early Seventies. I had a record store and I supported local young musicians. They'd come to the store and buy records, so I recruited sixteen young Israeli rock 'n' roll bands, went to the biggest Israeli venue at the time, Wohl Theater, in the center of Tel Aviv - it was 1,100 capacity - and lied to the owner, saying this was going to be an evening of Israeli songs. I didn't tell him it were rock 'n' roll bands, so he didn't know who was going to play - philharmonic or symphony orchestra or whoever. I sold all the tickets in my store... The crowd went in, when the first band came on, they started to scream, and the guy who owned the venue called the police. He wanted to stop the concert. They arrested me - but the concert went on. More so, we used - for the first time - the smoke machine, and he thought the whole building was on fire, so he called the fire brigade, and that was chaos! Buy there were some good bands there! (Laughs.) None of them exists now but they were good bands. Later on, I did some shows and then I opened the "Dan" club, which was the first standing-audience rock 'n' roll club that presented sixty-something bands in two years - all the big names in Israel and artists from abroad, among them Ian Dury, SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES, Peter Green, URIAH HEEP and TEN YEARS AFTER.
- Who was the first?
The first were ONE THE JUGGLER, a new band from England who don't exist anymore. They came for the opening night. With them we had a female band called GIRLSCHOOL who did very well, and then HANOI ROCKS, MARK & THE MAMBAS with Mark Almond. U2 were supposed to come over to the club on their way to Japan from Greece. Then the club became too small for me, so I sold it and started to do big outdoors shows by likes of John McLaughlin and Eric Clapton.
- What was the most memorable show?
This is something that I always ask myself. Apparently, it doesn't have anything to do with big sites, some concerts I will remember forever, like Ian Dury & THE BLOCKHEADS at "Dan" - that was one of the best concerts ever seen in Israel. Another fantastic concert at "Dan" was by Peter Murphy with BAUHAUS, it was amazing. Eric Clapton was a dream [come true]. RADIOHEAD were always fascinating. And I think that, since I am chosing my acts and chosing what to do, the second they go on stage I always get the shivers. I don't the see concerts, I don't have time, I'm always busy with something else, but I always like to see the first ten seconds. I stop whatever I'm doing and see: the artist's on-stage, everything is working, and the moment he is stepping on the stage, I have this excitement and say to myself, "I'm in the right business!"
- Is this a downside of your business that you don't get to see the show?
Well, I always see the concerts I'm promoting - but not in my production. I'm going to see it abroad. I travel a lot. I was at the PINK FLOYD's Live 8 concert and enjoyed it very much. But again, it's not only the music, I always like to see the organization and I always learn more, but I can't remember when I saw the concert... Oh yeah, RADIOHEAD! When they performed three of four times in Caesaria, the first and the second ones I was busy, but for the third show I took a seat beside my wife and we enjoyed the concert. But usually, when you have one concert in Jerusalem, one concert in Tel Aviv, one concert in Caesaria, or only one concert like Roger Waters' - I'm happy that I saw him on Lisbon, for here I didn't even see one minute.
- Does it always take you to go somewhere and eye the show yourself?
I usually do so but I'm aware that sometimes you go and see a concert and the artist is not at his best, and that doesn't say anything of his capability of doing a hell of a concert the following night. The best example would be Bob Dylan who came to Israel three or four times. The second time, when he played at the Ha-Yarkon park, wasn't the best time of his life, and the concert was... well, he's one of my idols, so I would say it wasn't that good. And the newspapers crucified him, saying it wasn't Bob Dylan anymore. But the guy's a closest thing to God! And it took me, like, five years to persuade him to come again. He accepted my idea of playing Mann Auditorium to 2,500 people, then a festival in Haifa and then another one, somewhere in Rishon Le-Zion. All those three concerts were amazing - not good but amazing! So if I don't catch the artist on a very good night, that can't be the base for my judgement as to bring him over or not. It's one of the factors but not the only one.
I go and see the production, see what I can accomodate in Israel, and sometimes I see things that I can do better. Israel's got some great sites. Clapton said that Caesaria Amphitheater (the real Roman amphitheater - DME) and Lake of Galilee where he performed were the most meaningful shows of his life. And to hear it from someone like Eric Clapton is a big thing! Here we have the Massada mountain, the Dead Sea, the King Solomon's mines, Caesaria Amphitheater, the Sultan's Pool - all these places - so we have a lot to offer to artist. I know that most of the artists going out of Israel are completely in our hands, they want to come again, they always feel it like a second home, they say that the Israeli crowd is one of the hottest fans they've ever seen and met. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad (laughs). The crowd is open to the new music and to old music as well. They don't always understand the words but they have the rhythm, they have the enthusiasm, they're having the good time. And that's something we almost lost because of the political situation. But give the Israelis a year of quiet in the surroundings, in the country, and all they'd love to do is party. This is exactly what we're always looking for! From this point, we're more Westerners than the whole surrounding neighborhood.
As for the artists, Roger Waters performed in Dubai, and David Bowie came here on the way from Turkey to Dubai - a lot of the artists, actually, come here from the Arab countries, and the crowd is completely different. They just look. That's money talks. The artists get paid more than we do but they remember the Israeli crowd. This is what Waters said. He said the concert in Israel was the highlight of his tour, meeting the fans, and it changed his views completely. He came here with very anti-Israel stance, he was against the wall that separates people and against occupation but, being here, meeting people here, hearing the other side, not only Palestinians, but seeing that the fence is being built in order to protect lives and it will be taken off at a certain point when peace comes, and he saw the village that's the true example of coexistence. And he's a thinking person. So this is more tham the music business, it's also for the benefit of the State of Israel. We have to have artists coming over, being ambassadors of Israel, and with the fact that every artist who comes out from Israel wants to come back, the country should think twice about it and support this business. This business will die if it won't get support, a decent support, because it's just me being the idiot paying money and not being able to insure the act when an artist all of a sudden sees a terrorist attack and cancels the visit - and I completely agree with them. Like with RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS. I've been left alone and I had to work for another two or three years to recover my losses from their cancellation. And any other person who's very much normal, as my wife says all the time, wouldn't do this kind of things, because it doesn't make so much money. Receiving 10% of the gross and losing it means losing millions and millions shekels, and no work could recover it. What's the use, then, of it all if, having lost on RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS you have to sell your house and your store? In Europe and America you have a non-appearance insurance policy: if an artist cancels for whatever reason your expenses are covered, whereas here it's your own pocket. It's difficult, and I think that if the State of Israel won't consider cultural activities at the scale they need to be attended to, then we'll be a third-world country.
- How do you handle the difficult situations, like with Roger Waters who was supposed to play in Tel Aviv and then decided to play to other place?
With Waters it was very, very complicated. I've been corresponding with Roger Waters for nineteen years, he was supposed to come over a few times, and we were talking about King Solomon's mines and Neve Shalom years ago - ten years ago, nine years ago, eight years ago, even last year - but in November he decided that he wouldn't be touring in 2006 but in 2007, and for 2007 we discussed Neve Shalom. Then, in January he changed his plans - he would perform in Paris, at Grand Prix, at the huge show dedicated to the Grand Prix's 100th anniversary, and when he's putting a band together, it's not for one show. So they asked as to who was willing to accept Roger Waters for the ten shows around the Grand Prix. I was one of those willing but I told him that, with the shortness of time, we'd have to do it in Ha-Yarkon park. He agreed, so we started selling tickets, and then the artistic side got in. He said, "We were talking about that interesting place, and I've got a message to deliver. Would you accept my request?" And since he is paying the most... He's taking the most of the money but he is paying the most as well, as he's bringing his lights and special effects.
- Doesn't he have sponsors to cover these expenses as other have?
He didn't want to! I had sponsors lined up for these event but he wanted to be politics-free and sponsors-free, so he contributed a lot of his own money to it. Roger Waters didn't make money in Israel (laughs) but that was his own free choice.
- What are you listening to at home?
I don't have time to listen to music at home, I used to listen all the time here (waves around his office) but last year my amplifier died. I had a very old Marshall with lamps but it died, and I don't even have time to fix it. But I always listen to the music in my car. I have a huge selection of music that I like. it very much depends on my mood. I love dub and reggae - I have a house in Jamaica and I like to go there at least once a year - I listen to the old stuff: Marley, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Augustus Pablo, this kind of things. Then, sometimes I love RADIOHEAD, I love PINK FLOYD, that's crazy but I love KING CRIMSON - I know them personally but didn't have the right opportunity to bring them over. And sometimes after a long night - when I walked out of the Roger Waters show it was 5.30 in the morning and I was driving back home for the first time in a week - I listen to Mozart. But I love rock 'n' roll. My essence is rock 'n' roll. I'm a rock 'n' roll, never-die-young kid. Still, I like experimental music, I like people who have the guts to do experimental music because there is too much lookalike artists - everyone is doing what the other people do. After 32 years in the business I want to listen to new sounds. I like artists that give everything they have on-stage. This is what I admire in artists because this is what they live for.
- What do the artists admire in you?
A lot of artists know me, their managers, their agents, their producers. They know that they'll have 100%-production delivered in the most professional manner. And the thing that they know about me is my honesty. I never lie to an artist. If I tell him that it's okay to come over, he's going to come over. David Bowie was sort of afraid to come: he was in Greece and there was a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, and he was supposed to get on the plane the day after and go to Tel Aviv. I had a serious phone call from him: "Tell me exactly what the situation is!" And I told him that I would never invite an international guest to a place I won't take my family to, and my kids were going to be at that show. "You are more than safe to come over", I said. It doesn't work all the time, but I'm trying.
- About guts... Would you have the guts to go up on stage now?
No way, no way... Never!
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