From left: Lana Del Rey and Jon Bon Jovi.
From left: Lana Del Rey and Jon Bon Jovi.
Photo Illustration by Alicia Tatone

Israeli Promoters Battle Boycotts: 'We Don't Sweep These Issues Under the Rug'

As the country looks to grow its live-music touring sector, it faces plenty of resistance.

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — Lana Del Rey was booked to headline the Meteor Music Festival in 2018 when Roger Waters urged her to reconsider.

"I have no doubt the Israeli promoters are paying top dollar, they are well known for that," the Pink Floyd frontman wrote to the singer on Facebook. "But is the price worth … abandoning your Palestinian brothers and sisters to their fate in their hour of need?"

Del Rey wouldn't back out of the show. But 10 days later, she tweeted that while she'd hoped to perform in both Israel and Palestinian areas, the trip fell apart due to scheduling issues.

Israeli promoters insist Del Rey's cancellation was unrelated to pressure applied by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian-led campaign that promotes boycotts against Israel in various forms, including targeting musicians and actors.

Her cancellation followed a similar pressure campaign against Radiohead in 2017, when Waters, an active BDS participant, was one of about 50 prominent figures, including Desmond Tutu and filmmaker Mira Nair, to co-sign a petition urging the group to cancel its show. But Radiohead still performed in Tel Aviv that July.

This year, the struggle has continued. In July, Bon Jovi had its second show in the country in four years. A week later, Jennifer Lopez brought out 57,000 fans to Ha'Yarkon Park. But that same month, Brooklyn-based hip-hop artist Kota the Friend decided to forgo his October gig in Tel Aviv "due to the conflicting narratives," he said on Instagram. "Instead I'll be taking a trip to Israel and Palestine on my own so that I can see what's up and learn more."

Echoing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, BDS has fashioned itself as a modern-day version of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, calling out alleged violence against Palestinians in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli government. Critics call the group anti-Semitic, pointing to alleged organizational ties to terrorist groups like Hamas. Since it formed over a decade ago, BDS has used intense language, graphic imagery of suggested war crimes and social media support to persuade artists to cross Israel off their touring schedules.

Every artist slated to perform in Israel — from Paul McCartney to Shakira — has faced severe public scrutiny from people such as Waters and Brian Eno, who in addition to online appeals have also supported pro-BDS petitions, protested at pro-Israeli rallies and made speeches on college campuses. McCartney — who along with Rihanna and Alicia Keys resisted BDS' pressure and performed — said in 2008 that he decided to go even after he got death threats from Islamist militant leader Omar Bakri Mohammed. Shakira's show did not happen.

Promoters haven't offered a consistent premium just to lure big-name artists to Israel, according to four executives and managers working in Israel's concert industry. Instead, a group of upstart promoters like Tel Aviv-based Bluestone Group — a joint venture between several investors, including Maverick's Guy Oseary — has entered the market, causing local bidding to escalate to more than double the usual artist fee. For big stars, it's upwards of $5 million to $7 million per show, the executives tell Billboard, with ticket prices rising up to 30% since 2014.

Figured into the ticket prices are high security and insurance costs covered by Israeli promoters, which are estimated by Lloyd's of London at anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000 for events attended by more than 20,000 people.

In Del Rey's case, inexperienced promoters did not prepare her for the backlash, says Bluestone's Guy Beser. Del Rey was one of at least 20 artists to cancel scheduled appearances at Meteor last year, says Alia Malak of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which is part of BDS.
"Art is an expression of society and cannot be separated from politics," said Malak in a statement to Billboard. "The Israeli government proves this point by using international shows to prop up its failing image and to distract from its oppression of Palestinians."

Though the number of shows at Tel Aviv's largest venues has increased modestly during the past decade, according to Billboard Boxscore, artists' public cancellations have been damaging to Israel's efforts to promote the country as a global touring destination. The BDS issue has become so serious that the nation's Ministry of Strategic Affairs has gotten involved. In June, it launched a public service announcement against BDS "lies and hypocrisy."

Beser, who runs Bluestone with partner Shay Mor Yosef, travels extensively to make Israel's case, meeting with music executives and explaining the complicated reality of life in Israel.

"There are those who fall for [BDS'] traps," says Beser. "Our war against them is daily." Israeli promoters like Beser aren't shy about discussing boycotts when negotiating with artist managers, only announcing shows after a comprehensive plan is in place. "We make sure they know right off the bat that those reactions are bound to surface," says promoter Shuki Weiss. "We don't sweep these issues under the rug."

Live Nation, which owns Maverick and acquired a majority stake in Bluestone in 2017, has been dominating the Israeli concert scene in recent years. Maverick artists Pitbull and Ricky Martin performed in Israel prior to the deal, and Aerosmith and Britney Spears played in the summer of 2017. (Live Nation declined to comment.)

BDS can be quick to claim responsibility for cancellations it didn't cause. It took credit for the 2012 cancellation by The Cardigans and for Natalie Imbruglia's in 2017. (Both were scrapped due to low ticket sales.) BDS also claimed it had pressured Ed Sheeran to boycott Israel in November 2018, but no show had been discussed, and Stuart Camp, Sheeran's manager, tweeted that rumors to the contrary were "completely false."

For Waters, who has officially supported the BDS movement for nearly a decade, the Lana Del Rey incident was not an outlier. The English singer is known to reach out to artists and demand they not go to Israel, often lecturing them on the region's politics. In 2010, he helped persuade Elvis Costello, Devendra Banhart and Gorillaz to pull out of planned shows. (Making it an easier sell, in May of that year Israel was thrust into controversy when its navy attacked a group of civilian ships trying to break Israel's blockage of the Gaza Strip.) 

Waters traveled to Israel in June 2006 for a show labeled "a concert for peace," but the artist skipped special meetings set up to promote dialogue among Israelis, Palestinians and Muslims, Weiss said.

Waters did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.

Beyond politics, logistical and infrastructural realities are also limiting Israel's live music potential. The country lacks large-scale venues, and capacity at sport stadiums is usually insufficient for major tours. Tel Aviv's Ha'Yarkon Park, with a capacity of over 50,000, is the country's largest outdoor venue. Israel is also out of reach for customary tour legs. Only when artists have other stops in the region does a concert typically make sense financially.

Promoters see hopeful signs for 2020. Céline Dion sold out her August date and added a second show, and Lionel Richie and Nick Cave have also confirmed shows. Yet even as Israel's concert industry forges ahead, artists must brace for the backlash.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Billboard.


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