Contingency plans, cancellations, and reduced audiences. This is what Lebanon’s summer festivals had to cope with this year in the context of a bleak socio-political and security situation. Although the 2013 summer festival season has been marred by many rippling effects of the war in Syria, the event season also saw many memorable and well-attended performances by local and international artists.
The security situation has affected tourism, and where locals go — or won’t go. Lebanon’s grande dame of festivals, the Baalbek International Festival, which dates back to 1956, has been the hardest hit, due to its location in the Bekaa valley, which has been hit by rockets fired from Syria on several ocassions.
Baalbek’s stages are majestic. The biggest names in opera, jazz, dance, theater, Arab and classical music have graced the stages around the Bacchus and Jupiter temples over the years; others have vied for it. Of late, however, many Lebanese are avoiding the Bekaa altogether due to safety precautions. Baalbek festival organizers decided to move the event to La Magnanerie in Sad El Baouchrieh, just outside of Beirut. Of the line-up, which initially consisted of six performances, half remained after the opening act American soprano Renée Fleming cancelled her concert due to security concerns, Lebanese singer Assi El Hellani postponed his to 2014 and British legend Marianne Faithfull injured herself a week before she was due to perform, effectively delaying the starting date of the festival by a month.
Baalbek’s press attaché Zeina Sfeir explains the festival’s target audiences: “We try as much as we can to attract all ages and audiences, and to satisfy all tastes, from the jazz lovers, to classical music, popular singers, as well as ballet and dance.” Dolly Shaiban, a member of the Zouk Mikael International Festival says that the festival’s target audience consists of the widest possible cross section of society starting from 20 year olds. Zouk achieves this with fairly priced tickets.
The Pet Shop boys put on quite a show in Byblos
Generally speaking, having realized that younger audiences too possess financial clout, local festivals have, with significant success, started to cater for these audiences. Lebanese band Mashrou Leila gave a hugely successful performance inside the Bacchus Temple last year, and this year Beiteddine featured the China National Acrobatic Troupe Splendid Circus, which catered for a family audience. The program in Byblos, which is regularly the most eclectic, ranging from flamenco to metal, was very popular with younger revellers this year, with American singer-songwriter Lana del Rey breaking audience records.
“We didn’t reach the target of 50,000 but sold 40,000 tickets this year, which is a really good figure,” Abdallah Almachnouk from Buzz Productions, the artistic directors and producers of the Byblos International Festival, says. “Lana del Rey drew a crowd of 7,000, the biggest we have ever had; Greek composer and multi-instrumentalist Yanni and German rockstars The Scorpions performed two nights respectively and we sold 10,000 tickets over the two nights. We had a couple of really good shows!”
Audience numbers have declined but haven’t exactly plummeted, thanks to loyal local customers. “In our opinion, this is due to the regional situation,” Shaiban says. “Local Lebanese audiences have not wavered in their support. This can be seen in the number of people still coming for the first time to Zouk. We know this from the random interviews we conduct before and after each of the concerts each year.”
Hala Chahine, director of the Beiteddine Art Festival, a non-profit organization, says 25,000 to 30,000 people attended this year, a 30 percent increase from 2012, although there were more performances this year. They also saw a 20 percent increase in local attendees with a 30 percent drop in Arab tourists and Lebanese expatriates. In previous years the festival, famous not only for its diversity but also for commissioning original productions and artistic collaborations, has attracted up to 51,000 spectators. The Baalbek Festival sees around 20,000 spectators every year, says Sfeir. Figures for this year are expected to be lower, given venue change and performer cancellations.
The Lebanese keep partying nomatter what the situation
Last year, according to Shaiban, Zouk drew 5,500 spectators, down from 6,000 in 2011 and 6,500 in 2010. This year the three of the four scheduled concerts that took place attracted 5,000 people. Young up and coming crossover jazz star Jonathan Batiste and his Stay Human Band from the United States, who shared the bill with festival returnee Monica Yunus, drew a mixed-age crowd to Zouk’s Roman-style amphitheater. Batiste, a maverick musician and entertainer, managed to get the crowd on their feet.
Yet shrinking box office figures are significant, as all festivals are heavily dependent on ticket sales for revenue in addition to sponsors’ support and government subsidies. When coupled with delays in the delivery of the Ministry of Tourism (MoT) subsidy, operations could be heading for trouble.
Key to surviving these turbulent times are corporate sponsors. These are most often banks but also local businesses that have committed themselves on a long-term basis to the festivals, as well as generous private individuals. All festivals contacted confirmed having solid and long-term relationships with their sponsors, and some such as Baalbek have secured new ones this year.
“The [overall] budget varies between $2.4 million and 3.5 million and it is financed 55 percent through ticket sales, 28 percent partners and sponsors and 17 percent governmental aid,” Beiteddine Festival’s Chahine says. In the case of Byblos, Almachnouk says that ideally the festival would be looking at a budget that would be evenly split between sponsors, ticketing and subsidies. “That’s how it works in France. But here we are faced with a breakdown that looks like this: 50 percent ticketing, 30 percent sponsors and 20 percent subsidies [by the MoT]. The challenge with regards to the subsidies is that these are most of the time paid out one year later, which leads to a minute profit margin.”
American band One Republic got in touch with their Lebanese sides
Local festivals collaborate with the MoT and the Ministry of Culture respectively, especially when it comes to advertising and attracting visitors from abroad. Even this year festivals haven’t given up on the foreign audience, with both Zouk and Beiteddine confirming that they actively targeted Lebanese and non-Lebanese audiences.
“We have a very diverse audience and we take a different approach with regards to advertising for every audience,” Byblos’s Almachnouk says. “For the younger audiences in particular, we go through Facebook.” This year, Baalbek focused on a social media strategy. “Social media helps in reaching the youth that we wish to attract to attend the festival,” Sfeir.
At the time of going to press, Byblos Festival’s Facebook page had over 12,000 likes, Beiteddine just under 7,000 and Baalbek 6,500. All festivals have registered a drop in their advertising budget with the advent of social media coupled with a shift from traditional media — print, radio, TV — to online platforms and social media.
The economic impact of festivals on their local communities are also significant. “Around $2 million dollars are injected yearly into the local economy covering different sectors,” Beiteddine’s Chahine says. “Furthermore there are Lebanese artists’ fees, hotels, airlines, freight, local transport, restaurants, stage and tiers rentals, sound and light systems, insurance etcetera.”
“It is thanks to the local businesses that support the festival that it is able to continue year after year,” Shaiban says of Zouk. Chahine underlines that local businesses benefit significantly from yearly festival activities, which bring in regular business opportunities.
Back for more
Retaining artists and even booking venues has become more challenging, but festival directors have been resilient. Unlike Zouk, Beiteddine and Baalbek, Byblos encountered challenges when it approached artists with requests to book them. “Frankly, we weren’t expecting it to be that hard,” Almachnouk admits. “We had a crazy time convincing them but we did in the end manage to get some of the biggest names to Lebanon,” referring to Lana Del Rey, who arrived in July on the day of a bombing in south Beirut.
Shaiban says that he uses “personal connections” to approach artists. “There is a trust factor that has been established over the years and that then plays a big part in their decision to come or not,” he says. However security concerns still can trump personal ties, as happened with French artist Pascal Obispo’s decision to cancel his show.
Some festivals re-invite artists: Monica Yunus performed in Zouk this summer for the second year running. Jazz diva Dee Dee Bridgewater brought Ramsey Lewis along to Beiteddine, where she had wowed audiences in 1997 and The Scorpions came back by popular demand, after having sold out in Byblos two years ago.
“Every year it gets harder,” Almachnouk says. “We need to choose artists that are relevant to Lebanese audiences and that are not too expensive. We have so many constraints locally and regionally; we don’t know how to approach people. And next year we’ll have to take into account the World Cup — if Brazil plays Germany, people won’t come to Byblos even if Coldplay is performing!”
In light of an extreme shortage of public spaces, especially in Beirut, festivals can fulfill a crucial role as social equalizers and meeting places. Many of the concerts held across the summer transport audiences to a different place through their perfomers, providing a much-needed breathing space.