If there’s one thing you learn as an expat living in the Middle East, it’s that music festivals are not quite the same as those you used to spend all year saving up for as a teenager; not only building up funds but also working out an exact line of attack in order to secure a ticket within the six second window of them going on sale and promptly selling out.
Whether it’s the availability of luxury hotels by the bucket load, the fact that most concert venues are just a short drive for many, or simply the fact that people here are a little more… discerning, music fans in this region will seldom be found pitching up a flimsy tent and braving mud and portable toilets for a long weekend of festival mayhem. Instead, music festivals in the Middle East are often spread over days or weeks in open-air venues so picturesque that they wouldn’t look out of place on a postcard.
And there couldn’t be a more fitting example of this than Lebanon’s Byblos International Festival, which takes over the historic city of Byblos — believed by many to be the first Phoenician city — from July 13th to August 18th this year. Nagi Baz, founder and managing director of Buzz Productions, which has been responsible for producing the festival since 2003, explains: “It’s a completely different concept – in the UK you have one weekend, you have a lot of bands every day and a package ticket to go and see them, which means that basically all your artists have to please the same crowd. This is something you can do in a country where numbers allow for this — like in England where there is several dozens of millions of people — but in a country like Lebanon where we are maybe four or five million, and all of those don’t care about Western music, you’re targeting a small figure.”
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Baz continues: “In order for the figures to add up and end up with 35,000 tickets that we need every year to break even, you need to address a lot of different musical genres and target a lot of different niches so that, in the end, you have a healthy figure in terms of tickets sold. If we did a concert that was solely rock, metal, classical, or jazz it would be commercial suicide. The reason we spread it over 35 days — although it would obviously be less expensive to do it in a week or two weeks – is to maximise our chances of getting the acts on the bill.”
And looking at the line-up for this year’s Byblos Festival, it certainly does seem to offer something for everyone. Kicking off with John Legend on the opening night, the concert series moved onto Irish rockers The Script before acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela showed Byblos the full range of their virtuosic skills. Soul supremo Gregory Porter then took the baton in late July, handing it over to iconic French singer Mireille Mathieu to round off the month.
Heading forward into August, the festival will see Lebanese soprano Hiba Tawaji appearing at the outdoor arena, followed by another soprano, Sacré Profane, before British alternative rock band Alt-J close proceedings with the final concert on August 18th.
With such a varied offering it’s no surprise that the Byblos Festival has become the biggest festival in Lebanon, which is no mean feat when you look at its main competitors. In an effort to boost tourism, promote Lebanese culture, and spread music and art from the Middle East to the rest of the world, a variety of ancient sites around the country have become annual venues for festivals over the years. Alongside Byblos — which began well over 50 years ago, yet underwent a complete overhaul when Buzz Productions took over in 2003 — music and art fans can also get their fix at the Beittedine Festival, which has been taking place below the Emir Bechir Chehab Palace in the Shouf Mountains since 1985, or Baalbeck Festival, which offers another unique venue amid majestic Roman ruins and also holds the honour of being the longest-running Lebanese festival thanks to its 1956 debut.
But staging large-scale events in such fragile yet beautiful sites is understandably one of the biggest challenges of the entire process. While Lebanon offers breath-taking vistas and glimpses into days gone by at a whole host of stunning sites across the country, the protection of the country’s history and cultural heritage is paramount. Baz explains: “Byblos is far older than Baalbeck and Beiteddine — it’s the most fragile touristic structure we have here and this is obviously a constraint when you’re doing a festival. There a lot of things that other festivals can do, like extend their area to start with, but we can’t because we are bound by this unique site we operate in. Because of the site’s protected status, you have to get permission from 10 different people before you can even lift a hammer!”
But the rules and protective measures surrounding the site’s usage pay off in the end. After a two-and-a-half month build-up in total, the finished outdoor arena is a sight to behold. Bathed in the warmth of the evening sun, with the stage built on land and the grandstands actually built in the sea, this is certainly no ordinary festival site. While the seaside (quite literally) location is undoubtedly one of the most successful and talked-about aspects of the Byblos Festival, it is understandably an almighty challenge in itself.
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Baz reveals: “All of us know how difficult this project is so we put a lot of care, attention and work into it. It would be 10 times easier for us to just turn the angles a little bit and not rely on the sea — to do it all on solid ground — but the whole feeling and the landscape part of it would suffer.” He continues: “We have ambient lighting throughout the site but we don’t overdo it because the beauty of the site speaks for itself — you don’t need to overdo it in terms of lighting focus — the magic is there.”
And, according to Baz, there is also no need to ‘overdo it’ when it comes to the sound system, either. He explains: “We are lucky that the venue is pretty compact. For a 7,000 seater, the last line of spectators is 52m away from the stage. Which is pretty compact so you actually don’t need a huge system, 12 cabinets on each side from a good line array brand will perfectly do the job.”
“We manage our lights with one company which is Wide Angle, led by Sultan Thomas,” he continues. “This year, Sultan is doing not only the lighting but the sound as well. We have always had a fantastic relationship with Andy Jackson and Robert Eatock from Delta Sound — we worked with Robert as sound engineer for six or seven years and I must say that he was very loyal to the festival and did a fantastic job. But this year we’re trying a local alternative, with the sound division of Wide Angle.”
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And perhaps a local alternative may work out well for the Beirut-based Buzz Productions. After all, while the links between Lebanon and the UAE are strong in many aspects of both leisure and business, the two vary greatly when it comes to the structure of their seasonal events calendar. While the UAE has practically shut down for summer in terms of live music events, this is the period when Lebanon really comes to life — as the three festivals of Byblos, Beiteddine and Baalbeck, which all run between July and September — join a jam-packed calendar of summer activities and celebrations.
When asked how he thinks the two countries relate to each other from an event organiser’s point of view, Baz explains: “Unfortunately they’re not complementary in the sense that the high season in one place is the low season in the other, so you cannot create any sort of partnership with the UAE in terms of booking acts together. It’s happened a few times, but in general the big season in the UAE has already gone and my big season is about to start. Staging a show in the UAE is 30-40 per cent more expensive than it is in Lebanon, but I would say that ticket prices and ticket sales compensate largely for the extra costs in production.”
So with co-ordinated performances difficult to bring together logistically across the region, will audiences in this part of the world ever have a chance to see mainstream artists heading out on their ‘Middle East Tour’? Baz believes we’re still a long way off.
“There is the UAE and there is Lebanon and then there’s the desert!” he exclaims. “I’ve done more than 15 shows in the UAE and also worked extensively in Cairo, Tunisia — I even brought Gorillaz and Bryan Adams to perform in Syria before current events started. All these markets were popping up and we had great expectations. I spent years opening up these markets and doing shows there but Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco — they all seem to have gone backwards. You don’t have a consistent music scene, you don’t have promoters that are putting any Arab territory on the touring map except UAE and Lebanon.”
And this could perhaps be one of the major reasons why we are still constantly hearing about the battle for more stringent health and safety measures across the Middle East events industry. If only a small percentage of the region actually stages large concerts on a regular basis, how are recommended safety guidelines being enforced — if at all — across the rest of the region, and how do organisers such as Buzz Productions ensure that they are following methods of best practice? Baz explains: “We have two independent companies that come to check on safety throughout every two days at the Byblos site. You have to ask when it comes to building things or creating structures, but when it comes to rules unfortunately you have to set your own. For example, there is no legal limitation for venues, you have to set your own. This is down to your best judgement and, thankfully, no incidents at all have been reported so far. I wish there were rules — for example we are the only festival that brings Mojo barriers. It just looks so obvious to us and we’ve been doing that for years, but we have to fly them from the UAE because there are no proper Mojos in Lebanon to begin with.”
But, fortunately for music fans, the team involved in creating the site follow a strict code of safety set in place. The unique land/sea set-up is one that — obviously — requires minute attention to detail both on land and underwater and the ethos towards safety that is adhered to across the event, from start to finish, has worked every year without incident.
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So while some areas of the Middle East may be lagging behind when it comes to implementing rules and regulations, Baz believes that it is one situation where the people on the front line can lead by example and the events industry itself can be the cause for change. He says: “I hope that every promoter has safety in mind every second, before problems actually happen. I would hate to see regulations to correct something that happened in an incident. We’re first and foremost music fans — this is what drove us to be concert promoters and that spirit remains inside the organisation and is communicated outside the organisation. This is very important to us and I would hope that every promoter in this region is smart, mature and experienced enough to set his own rules.”