'Elvis Costello never liked Israel'
Producer Marcel Avraham says he brings famous artists to perform in Israel 'out of a sense of Zionism and not just to make a buck.' He talks about winning big with Leonard Cohen and Elton John, flopping with Rod Stewart and Metallica, and chances of seeing Barbra Streisand in Holy Land soon
To be the producer of international concerts in Israel is like playing Russian roulette with an automatic sub-machine gun. Many of Marcel Avraham's concerts have failed with the Israeli audience, threatened to bury him financially and have even led him to jail.
But even after the Ricky Martin fiasco, barely 1,000 tickets and a canceled show, he hasn't given up. In the last two years, he has established himself in the local market as producer Shuki Weiss's toughest competitor. Leonard Cohen and Elton John have earned him fame and fortune, while Rod Stewart and Metallica embarrassed him at the box office.
Contrary to Weiss and other local players, Avraham, a Frenchman, is also active in the international arena. He specializes in booking dates in different cities around the world and offering combined deals.
"We make good business in Berlin, Istanbul, Sofia and Tel Aviv," he says proudly. "There's barely one artist today that my team and I can't get our hands on."
Throughout the years he's worked with all of them: Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, the Doors and many more. He has memories of all. "I sued Michael Jackson twice and still we remained friends despite everything," he notes. "He just forgot to pay me a couple of times.
"Sometimes you have to go to court to wake your friends up. But don't get the wrong idea – Michael Jackson was the greatest artist in history as far as I'm concerned. I think about him from time to time. He knew how to be a good friend, but was unlucky in taking all the worst advice."
Michael Jackson. A loyal friend (Photo: AFP)
Avraham, 71, has also gotten some bad advice in his day. This year, for example, he failed big time with Rod Stewart, who according to his plans was supposed to bring in some 50,000 people to the Ramat Gan stadium and ended up barely filling the Nokia Arena. Metallica performed to only 20,000 fans at the Ramat Gan stadium after being estimated to attract double the amount. Both cases cost Avraham a few hundred thousand dollars.
"Being an agent is definitely not like working a casino," Abraham insists. "Otherwise, I would have put my money on the lottery. Granted, our work is different and entails a high risk level, which can sting you like in the Rod Stewart and Metallica cases.
"What can I tell you, I thought a lot about Rod's case. To this day, I don't understand why it didn't work here. Israelis love that type of music, old rock ballads, a great singer in the style of Elton John and Paul Anka. I thought Israelis must love Rod Stewart. He's a showman. On stage he's excellent. For the life of me I can't understand why he didn’t sell here."
"I've learned that Israelis are very uptight when it comes to concerts, but once the artist has made it clear he's definitely coming, they pay the money. There was a level of uncertainty with all that's happened. When it was clear that Madonna was coming, the first show sold-out quite quickly and the second show took a day to sell out completely. It's staggering speed. Israel is a land of rumors. The Jewish mentality is the funniest in the world and at time also the saddest."
Talking about Metallica, Abraham notes that the Israeli taste has shifted slightly. "From what I detect, the level of enthusiasm with heavy metal has gone down, people are more into electronic music, and that means we might need to change our approach.
"The number of people who showed up at the Metallica concert really disappointed me. I lost a lot of money in that show, a whole lot, but I also earned a great deal from the band's European tour, so it all ended well. Other than that, if one is to lose money let it be only in Israel. I do the shows as a mission, a sense of Zionism and not just to make a buck."
Flotillas and cancellations
While the Turkish flotilla failed to reach Gaza in the end, it did bolster pro-Palestinian PR as well as several elements in the Israeli Left, who make a point of pressuring any artist negotiating a concert in Israel not to come. The Pixies canceled at the last minute, as did the Klaxons and Gorillaz Sound System. Elvis Costello preceded them.
The news also made it to Elton John, Metallica and Rod Stewart, who approached Avraham with questions considering whether the cancel the shows.
"My answer to them was very simple," he declares. "'Listen', I told them, 'Israel is a small country still fighting for its existence. The Arabs want to throw us to the sea. If you want to come and lend us a shoulder, by all means, we'll be delighted. If not, I won’t be angry. Everything will be alright.' It must have worked because they didn’t cancel.
"I'll tell you more than that: They left Israel as satisfied as can be. Metallica had a great time despite the fact their mixer didn’t work at the beginning. They said the Israeli audience was hungry, that it made them feel good.
"Did you see Elton John? Did you see how happy he was to be here? Believe me, he never got such a response anywhere else in the world. It was wonderful. Elton told us he's never seen a reception from an audience like the one in Israel. 'Marcel, I'm happy' he told me, 'the atmosphere here was incredible.'"
Can you explain Elvis Costello's choice?
"The whole thing with him really irritated me. I know the guy. He knew all about Israel before he decided to have a show here, signed the contract and suddenly decided not to come. The man just hasn't liked Israel for years and that's something people need to understand. He got good money, up front, and still didn't come. The nerve on him. You know what? I don't think he's such a great artist and isn’t such a big name in the world. True, his cancellation caused some noise, but we got over it."
Elton John in Israel. 'Incredible atmosphere' (Photo: Yaron Brener)
Avraham was born in Romania. In 1968 he teamed up with a partner to form the "Mama Concert" production company, which became one of the largest in the world at the time. By 1972 he was producing the Jackson 5 show and organized the Pink Floyd spectacle.
In between he managed to get Leonard Cohen to perform to the troops in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. All this earned him a small fortune. By 1997 he was estimated to be worth $44 million, and in April of that year was arrested by German authorities on suspicion of tax evasion of millions of marks. He spent two years in jail, during which he got a visit from a loyal friend – one Michael Jackson.
For the past 13 years Avraham is represented in Israel by Attorney Haggai Stravis, 56, who played an important role in getting Leonard Cohen to agree to perform in Israel.
"We negotiated with him for three years," Stravis says. "He was very concerned about performing. Leonard always told us that a concert in Israel would be the last in his career, because he was scared of protests against him in the world over politics. Last year Marcel pressured him. We waited for an answer and suddenly without prior notice he put the Tel Aviv concert date on his website. Now he's going on a six-month tour."
What was the strangest demand you got from an artist who came to Israel?
"Richard Clayderman asked that his driver be no taller than 5.25 feet. We got him one and when I asked his manager why, he explained that if the driver were taller he would push the seat backwards making Richard uncomfortable due to his sensitive knees. There was another artist who asked to have three girls in his room by 3 am, and we said with all due respect we weren't hooker suppliers. Drugs, fortunately, I haven't been asked for yet."
Leonard Cohen in Ramat Gan stadium. Scared of protests (Photo: Yaron Brener)
"At the end of the day you have to make them feel good before the show," Avraham says. "Jackson, for example, mainly hated traffic. One time I pulled him out from a stadium in an ambulance to avoid the post-concert traffic."
Avraham's next big project is Barbra Streisand, who has never performed in Israel before. According to various industry sources, Abraham offered a whopping $4.5 million to get her to Israel and has yet to receive a clear answer.
It’s not the first time Israeli producers have chased after Streisand, the Holy Grail of the concert world. This time, Avraham hopes, we have good chances of seeing her in Israel.
"She's the most expensive artist out there, no doubt. It will be extremely hard to get her just to Tel Aviv and it has to be done as part of a European tour. I really like her. She's a funny woman, more Jewish than you and me put together, but she's also scared, plain scared, of performing here. She can’t offer a reasonable explanation, nor can I. It's the way it is.
"If indeed she'll go on a European tour next year, the chances of her coming here are better than good. Barbra Streisand is in a league of her own, no one can even come close, on all respects. Bringing her to Israel would be a very exciting project for me."
Who else can we expect?
"Are you crazy? If I name names, I'll see competing agents making bids and raising the price. Contrary to Israeli agents I have an advantage: I can offer artists shows in Europe too. It's very hard to get a high-profile artist who's willing to come to Israel alone. In any case, Israeli competitors are killing my bank account, people only hear I'm negotiating with this or the other and everything starts heating up."
Still, let’s give it a go. What about U2?
"I spoke to them quite a bit, but they have a problem now with Bono's surgery."
"I know that they love him in Israel. He's doing 12 shows next year. Sadly, I don’t think Israel will be one of them."
The Rolling Stones.
"A painful and long story. I don’t really know what's going on there. Some of the band members get sick sometimes. Mick Jagger actually wants to come, but what can you do with just him?"
"I don’t think there'll be a problem getting him, but I don’t think it’s worth it right now."
"They're popular in Israel? I need to check. I actually have a connection there. It's doable in my opinion."
Simon and Garfunkel.
"Charming. A winning show. But Art Garfunkel has a problem performing right now."
What’s your dream?
"To bring Placido Domingo, Andrea Boccelli and José Carreras for a joint concert with the Israeli Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta in the stadium. I'm trying to get a sponsor."
Going back to Michael Jackson for a moment, did you talk to him about the child molestation allegations?
"All of the stories about the little kids were bullshit. Michael Jackson was a child himself and just wanted to play with kids, as kids do. He never thought about anything to do with abuse, certainly not sexual abuse. It couldn't even have entered his mind. I knew him well, he would never have done that. You can take my word for it.
"I'm sure he's in heaven and not in hell, laughing down on us. I'll meet him there yet, but don’t want to join him just now. Let me live another 25 years."
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