Israel national library’s new music app rises to top of the charts

Feel like listening to a good old Arik Einstein song or discovering music from the next superstar? Shiri offers everything from Sasha Argov to Zohar Argov.

By Rachel Neiman, ISRAEL21c

Sing out! In the same spirit that only a few weeks ago launched a thousand images documenting Israel’s history for free use, the National Library of Israel, in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the Digital Finjan project have announced the release of Shiri, a mobile phone app for Israeli music.

Music lovers can access some 40,000 songs crossing all Israeli music genres, featuring artists from decades past through the present day.

Shiri, (“my song” in Hebrew) offers music by beloved Israeli musicians like Arik Einstein, Aviv Geffen, Berry Sakharof, Chava Alberstein, Dana International, HaDag Nahash, Hanan Ben Ari, Itzik Kala, Marina Maximilian Blumin, Netta Barzilai, Rita, Ronit Shachar, Shalom Hanoch, Shlomo Artzi, Shoshana Damari, Tea-Packs (Tippex), Yaffa Yarkoni, Yehudit Ravitz, Yonatan Razel and Zohar Argov, along with hundreds of others.

There are also old-timey tracks salvaged from the dustbins of Israeli audio history: kibbutz choirs, army entertainment troupes, musical numbers, children’s songs and more.

An immediate success

Since its February 4 release, the free and ad-free app had already been downloaded 100,000 times and ranked first on both Google Play and App Store, ahead of music app titans Spotify, Shazam and SoundCloud.

The app also boasts an artificial intelligence component that analyzes user feedback–likes, dislikes and a sliding “Surprise Me This Much” scale that lets users determine how often they want to hear unfamiliar tunes – to learn the user’s personal tastes and generate tailored playlists.

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Shiri’s smart algorithm is not driven by industry music charts but by guidance musicians and cultural leaders whose goal is to expose listeners to both new music and old favorites. The app streams a constant flow of songs the user already knows and, based on listening habits and feedback, offers others the user might enjoy.

According to youth entertainment website Frogi,  “The State of Israel is actually trying to preserve Israeli music among the younger generation and not let it sink into the sea of foreign music. You can hear the artists you already know, and sometimes even new and young artists, to expand your horizons in Israeli music.”

The app is the brainchild of musician and producer Ariel Horowitz, who heads the Digital Finjan project. He also happens to be the son of celebrated national songwriter Naomi Shemer.

Three and a half years ago, Horowitz became concerned that her legacy, along with others of that founding generation, could be forgotten. The solution would be an app for Israeli music.

As luck would have it, a historic agreement had recently been signed between Israel’s record companies and the National Library, allowing the library to use the companies’ Israeli repertoire for preservation and accessibility purposes in return for a symbolic royalty fee on copyright-protected content.

These rich catalogues of Israeli music were added to the library’s National Music Collection and Sound Archive,  the world’s largest collection of ethnographic and commercial recordings of Israeli and Jewish music (developed in partnership with the Legacy Heritage Fund), and the Bella and Harry Wexner Libraries of Sound and Song, for the rescue, preservation and digitization of audio recordings, music manuscripts, printed material and ephemera, as well as personal archives of composers and performers.

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In 2016, an idea was floated at a Knesset committee hearing on a bill for the extension of the period of copyright on recordings from 50 to 70 years. A publicly available music app would be part of a “win-win proposal” covering preservation and accessibility; promotion of Hebrew music; and disbursement of royalties. The first part was being handled by the National Music Collection, the second part would be Digital Finjan’s task. The third part was the topic under discussion.

Preserving Israeli culture

At that meeting, Horowitz said, “I’m a musician who, along with my sister, had the good fortune to be the heir of my mother, the late Naomi Shemer, so I’m also interested in how we can preserve the culture that preceded our generation, and I’ve also founded an initiative together with the best Israeli artists from across the musical spectrum… for free access to Israeli music in anyone’s pocket via an app… It is not for profit because we are very, very worried about the fate of this sector.”

In 2017, the Knesset plenum approved the bill extending the period of copyright, adopting mechanisms to ensure public access to past treasures of Israeli music while at the same time ensuring proper remuneration for performers on past repertoires.

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The matter of royalties now resolved, Horowitz’s dream became reality at the beginning of February 2019 with a launch that exceeded all expectations. Israel’s Ministry of Culture and Sport sponsored the successful promotional campaign.

The National Library stated that the app sets two global precedents. “For the first time, a country has entered the digital music market to protect and promote its local culture and unique language [and] for the first time in digital media, royalties are distributed equally to creators, record companies and performers.”

It was also emphasized that the artists will earn a higher fee on each song played on Shiri than on other music apps.

Shiri (currently only in Hebrew) is available for both Android  and iOS devices.

A few other Israeli music sites are available online, including the National Library’s own House of Hebrew Songs that provides not only music but also documentation – posters, programs, sheet music, photographs, etc.– relating to each artist.

Zemereshet  is a project focused exclusively on Hebrew songs from the early Zionist period and up until the establishment of the State of Israel, while Radio Nostalgia, a production of the wonderful Israel Nostalgia site, plays songs dating from establishment of the State on through to the 1980s. For those who like to sing along, lyrics to Israeli songs can be found on Shironet.