With Israeli Talent Lighting Up TV and the Charts, Universal Music Publishing Group Puts ‘Boots on the Ground’

The UMG company opened an office in Tel Aviv this month.

Itamar Shafrir
Courtesy UMPG

As Israeli talent has taken U.S. screens by storm — quite literally in the case of a successful series like Netflix’s “Fauda” or Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman — the time feels ripe for a similar embrace of music from the tiny country of 10 million. That’s what Universal Music Group is banking on, having opened a new office on the outskirts of Tel Aviv to house a recorded music division as well as a local arm of Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) in the last year — the former, headed by television veteran Yoram Mokady, and the latter by Itamar Shafrir, a native Israeli who moved back to his birth country after 12 years at UMPG in London.

The move gives local backing to a growing pool of songwriters, producers and artists who can feed into a global network already well-established by the world’s biggest music company. And with language being less of a barrier for English-speaking listeners, thanks in large part to hit records sung in Spanish and Korean, and the global nature of today’s charts, due to the proliferation of digital music streaming services, the idea of a pop talent whose native language is Hebrew doesn’t seem as far-fetched as years — or decades — past.

It’s not like the majors ignored the area previously, but Israel, a democratic outlier among its Arab neighbors, wasn’t an organic fit within UMG’s Dubai-based MENA (Middle East North Africa) office nor Sony Music’s locations in Turkey and the UAE. Warner Music’s Atlantic has some experience with Israeli artists, releasing Yael Naim’s “New Soul” in 2008 and helping it climb to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 (with a big assist from its use in an Apple ad for the Macbook Air). But for the most part, politics complicated the export of Israeli artists abroad and, over the years, the import of international acts to perform in Israel.

Still, the proximity in mileage has rubbed off musically, where Israeli creators have adopted a mishmash of styles encompassing Latin grooves, hip-hop tropes and the pop sensibilities of the Swedes. The end result has meant massive records like Black Eyed Peas’ “Mamacita” (produced by Israeli Johnny Goldstein, whose credits now include songs with Saweetie and Jennifer Hudson), The Kid Laroi’s “Without You” and Lil Nas X’s “Montero” (co-written and produced by Omer Fedi, a relatively recent Israel-to-L.A. transplant with an enviable track record) and, Atlantic hopes, Ra’Anana’s own Ariana Grande, 20-year-old signing Noa Kirel.

For a view from the ground, Variety spoke with UMPG’s Shafrir about the company’s plans.

To start out broadly, what is happening in Israel culturally that’s bringing out so much local talent? 

Itamar Shafrir: What I find interesting is how East meets West here, because Israel is quite a melting pot of cultures and languages. So there’s a back-to-roots trend at the moment where people are singing in Farsi or Arabic and using a modern beat underneath or modern production. Also there have been quite a few big TV productions that were made here and Israel is all of a sudden being noticed after a long time of people working hard and trying to get their name out there.

I think that will translate to music as well — like how Israeli chefs are getting Michelin stars and Israeli shows are all over Apple, Amazon and Netflix, so it only makes sense for music artists, singer-songwriters and producers to follow suit. It feels like all eyes are on us and it’s a great position to be in.

Language used to be the big barrier for Israeli acts, but isn’t really as much of an issue anymore, right?

I don’t think so. It seems like in recent years, people notice less about the language and more the way of delivering the product. Also there’s some great artists singing in English [where it] sounds like it came from the U.K. or from the U.S. with a very high level of production and quite meaningful lyrics.

Noa Kirel is clearly one of those English speakers. You can barely hear an accent in her delivery.

Absolutely. She’s an amazing talent who has definitely exploded here [where] the youth really connect to her. There’s something about her — even though she’s a big pop star, she’s quite down to earth. And you put on “Million Dollar” or any of her other songs, and you can’t tell that she came from Israel. That’s a big win for us if we manage to blur those lines. Same with Static and Ben El and Noga Erez — these artists have an international flavor to them. Not sticking to one specific genre, or maybe mixing in a bit of Reggaeton with some Hebrew rap, that’s what people are looking for.

How was publishing handled previously and what was the impetus for a Tel Aviv office? 

We had a third party licensee company called Dalia Publishing who did a great job. But Jody [Gerson, chairman of UMPG] and the rest of the team at UMPG felt like Israel is a high potential territory — that there’s a lot of heat coming out of here and they wanted some boots on the ground and to open the door both ways: introducing the people here to the incredible catalog that Universal has to offer, both from back catalog classics like Irving Berlin to the new hot names from from the charts and stuff like that, and also to develop our own little roster and see if we can find the right talent and bring them into the big family that is UMPG.

From my experience in the U.K., we were always in constant conversation and relations with countries all over the world. It makes sense to add Israel to the territories that we have because, I might be a bit biased, but I just don’t think there’s anything like Israel out there.

What are your initial plans beyond staffing? 

It’s about just getting out there and being very proactive and very creative. It’s a lot about doing writing camps with people from all over the world, and so in our office, we have a music room which is going to be used for just writing. This sort of collaborative effort is something that Jody really advocates. I feel that we need to prove ourselves because it’s still early days.

Tell us about the office space.

It was during the Coronavirus pandemic when we were looking for the space so that was a bit of a challenge. But we did find something a little quirky with a really big balcony and a music room in [Tel Aviv suburb] Ramat Gan. We designed it like a cozy, homey, inviting space.

Complete with bomb shelter? 

With any Universal entity, there’s a protocol on security and what to do in case of emergency. And everybody in the offices served in the Israeli Army so it’s already ingrained in us to know what to do in case of an emergency. And actually, by law, in most newer buildings, you need to have a shelter. I’m actually sitting in the room in my house that is the shelter. It’s also the quiet room, so we made it an office. Obviously, we had a bit of action here recently. But if you live in Israel, this is part of the business. We keep our head down and move on. And we obviously got phone calls from our managers, from Simon Baker and people from L.A. just making sure we’re OK.

Do you anticipate signing any Palestinian or Arab-Israeli talent?

It’s a good question, because on paper, from a company point of view and from my personal point of view, it shouldn’t really matter where you come from and what’s your background. If I have the opportunity to break those walls using music and culture, then yeah, why not? If there is great music done on the other side of the border, then there’s no reason for us to be ignoring it just because it’s on the other side. That’s the beauty about music. I don’t want to [sound] cliche, but it does cross all these barriers and it might make for an interesting opportunity to create something. But it’s a delicate subject.

How will the publishing and recorded music divisions coexist? 

We’re sharing the office with the record label that’s being spearheaded by Yoram Mokady, who comes from a local TV background. The idea is for us to synergize and feed off each other and try to get some interesting projects off the ground for the joint catalog, whether it’s Billie Eilish or new signings.

Your background is in synch, does Israel operate under a blanket license when it comes to big-ticket song placements that would cost a fortune in the U.S.?

If you want to license a big song and it’s going to be aired on a big streaming platform worldwide, then you’re going to have to pay bug bucks for it, even though the license is being done out of Israel. It’s a competitive market and it’s treated like any other territory. But from talking to a few clients and with people who work on shows like “Fauda” and “Tehran,” they want to have a big music company that can get them really good creative solutions to music supervision or production music or bespoke or cool catalog classic. Our job to to make sure that the music matches the level of production coming out of Israel. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be big songs, it’s about smart choices.