Lebanon’s electronic music entertainment business

There’s money on the dancefloor

The Ballroom of The Ballroom Blitz (Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive)

Electronic music is a worldwide trend—and for those who keep up with it, it must seem as though Beirut is hosting a headliner or an emerging artist who is topping the charts in Europe or the US every other week. Even those who do not follow the scene will have found it hard not to notice the increase in clubs in Lebanon with dedicated electronic music nights.

A brief history

The electronic music scene has existed in Lebanon since at least 1998, when B018 moved to its now famous Karantina venue. It was followed by its competitor Basement in 2005—though the latter shut down in 2011, an homage to it exists in the form of The Basement Reunion room in The Grand Factory. Both B018 and Basement were born in the bottle service era, with venues looking more like restaurants that moonlit as clubs. In 2012, Ali Saleh and his partners decided to take the scene to the next level, just six months after opening their winter concept, Uberhaus, they went from the 300 person venue in the basement of the WH Hotel in Hamra to what is now their summer venue The Gärten by Uberhaus, at Seaside in Downtown, with capacity of 4000.

The new summer venue, Gärten, was one of the first in the country to make its focus the DJ and dance floor. Where previously clubs had tables, Gärten made room for people to dance and move around freely (at least until a headliner or Class A DJ is playing, then you are mostly confined to rocking back and forth in a packed crowd before forcing your way to the back to get some air).

The Gärten by Uberhaus

The success of Gärten, and subsequent electronic music clubs in Lebanon, are an indication that Beirut has carved a place similar to that of the underground scenes found in Berlin or Paris. Most club owners Executive spoke to admitted that they had not expected to be received so well so quickly. Though the appetite for electronic music among the Lebanese should not have come as a shock, other than clubs like B018, there were groups such as Kaotik, Silver Factory, Acousmatik, Minimal Effort, and We Run Beirut throwing events all over the country. These bands and early adopter clubs laid the groundwork that exposed more people to alternative electronic sounds, not those usually heard on the radio during the morning commute.

With the creation of Gärten, a space that resembled a festival venue, Beirut embarked on a journey that led to an increase in both international and local DJs on the scene. In 2013, The Grand Factory, one of Beirut’s biggest club venues came into being. Owned by Jad Soueid (Jade), Grand Factory later branched out to Soul Kitchen—a smaller room resembling a pub that plays vinyls, and serves pizza and cocktails that is exclusive and by email invite only—and The Basement Reunion room—which also operates by email-invite only, and is a tribute to Jade’s previous club, Basement, that was known for having one of the best sound systems in Beirut. The Reunion room hosts Grand Factory’s annual Beirut Berlin Express (BBX) competition for local DJs and producers, the prize of which is a month-long residency in Berlin—this year’s finale will take place on April 12. The residency has changed yearly, and in 2019 will take place at at DJ Sasse’s Blackhead Studios, where the winner will produce and master an album, as well as network and learn, improving both their skills and their exposure.

BBX competition at the Reunion

Rise of the local DJs

All the DJs and clubs that Executive spoke with say that technological advances in mixing and producing software is what made DJing more accessible to music lovers, sparking the worldwide interest in electronic music. Lebanon caught on to this trend with the opening of Uberhaus/Gärten. Saleh notes that when they first came onto the scene, the DJs at B018 were limited to then-Mix FM’s Underground Sessions music show hosts DJs Gunther and Stamina, and, starting 2004, DJ Ziad Ghosn, allowing little room for other local DJs to play. He says that when they opened Gärten they showcased at least 10 local DJs, the likes of Ronin & Nesta (who also previously hosted a Mix FM radio show “Beirut In the Mix”), Romax, and Tia (both of whom are now resident DJs with Uberhause/Gärten). This opened up opportunities for local DJs who had previously been playing house parties, one off events or gatherings to create wider fanbases among the Lebanese and also internationally.

Saleh also argues that what helped local DJs gain popularity was the bottle-service style of clubbing giving way to what was available, i.e. the electronic music scene. Gärten cut its $30 entrance ticket after operating for a few years and realizing that they did not need to keep the entrance so high in order to turn a profit—the lower priced entrance meant a greater volume of guests. Now the going rate is $15 for entrance on regular nights and up to $25 dollars on nights with headliners.

Clubs like Uberhaus/Gärten, The Grand Factory, and The Ballroom Blitz (which opened October last year) also help expose local artists to international talent, through various initiatives aimed at helping grow the local talent pool. Uberhaus used to run an exchange program with clubs in Europe and the US that gave local artists the opportunity to be seen by international booking agents, though this is currently on hold. Meanwhile, Grand Factory’s BBX program can lead to opportunities like that of local DJ Jad Taleb, who turned the networking experience into a Euro-tour and being a feature act in Tunis courtesy of a club manager he met in Berlin.

The Ballroom Blitz, which consists of three rooms each playing different sets, uses The Gold Room as a way for local and international talent to showcase a more alternative sound. For Joe Mourani, the owner of Ballroom, The Gold Room is “the heart of the project.”

The Ballroom Blitz also hosts a “take-over” night one Saturday each month, where local groups that already have strong followings, such as TeknoAnd and Lebanese indie label Ruptured (co-founded by music promoter and radio producer Ziad Nawfal and sound engineer and producer Fadi Tabbal) can showcase their or their artists’ signature sounds to new crowds. Ruptured has been producing and promoting Beirut’s experimental electronic sounds on Radio Liban since 2008.

Venues like Yukunkun in Gemmayze (which last year closed its doors) hosted similar events, with groups such as the Beirut Groove Collective using the space in their earlier years. Yukunkun was also where local artists like Taleb and Ziad Moukarzel launched their DJing personas.

The Ballroom Blitz also has plans to host workshops featuring international and local talent, with the aim of educating those interested in sound production in the hopes that fans of electronic music scene will come and appreciate both the skill and creativity it takes to produce the sounds they love.

Greg Demarque | Executive

The Ballroom Blitz—The Lobby

The Reunion room of the Grand Factory is also dedicated to widening the skills of local talent, as Lara Kays, project manager at The Grand Factory tells Executive, “We’ve hosted Ableton on software & hardware, Berlin producers CYRK who gave an intensive three day production workshop, and Gigmit to help our local artists look to get promoted in Europe, and have access to newer audiences.”

Beirut Electro Parade, meanwhile, is an electronic music label and international rendez-vous organized two days a year by artists from the underground scene in Lebanon, with an aim to promote the modern electronic music of Beirut and the region. The Paris-based label, founded by Hadi Zeidan, also aims to promote Lebanese talent to international audiences. Taleb performed in the past four editions, and this year more rising local electronic talent—like Kid Fourteen, a noise-pop duo made up of Khodor Ellaik and Karim Shamseddine, DJ Tala, who is also a resident DJ, partner, and creative director at The Grand Factory, and Jad Atoui, electronic musician who worked with American composer John Zorn in New York, and is also stage manager at The Ballroom Blitz—will showcase their work.

Recognizing talent

Line-ups for these kinds of clubs are typically handled a year in advance by their music directors, who scout out emerging talent at festivals, such as the DGTL festival that started off in Amsterdam and now has various locations, the Time Warp festival in Mannheim, Germany, and the Awakenings festival held throughout the Netherlands. “These key festivals are an index, a world wide index,” Saleh says.

Scouting also goes on in places like Ibiza, Spain, and Berlin, Germany, where the latest trends in the electronic scene and sound exploration take place. Saleh travels at least three times a year to help organize the line-up for both Gärten and Uberhaus first hand, other club owners do the same. And most club owners tell Executive that they hear some club-goers travel from Dubai and Cyprus to watch acts perform in Lebanon. Clubs like Uberhaus and The Ballroom Blitz also help promote the tourism market by dedicating a team to take their artists on a tour around Lebanon, usually sightseeing with a nice lunch in a small town by the sea.

The government, however, does not recognize local DJs as artists or even members of the hospitality sector. Lebanon has no syndicate for DJs as in other countries, like Germany and the US. “We tried to start a syndicate in the 90’s, but the government didn’t give us the approval,” says Dany Samaha, one of the first local DJs to break onto the scene.

Since there is no state support for their work, most local DJs tell Executive that the important thing to get your name out there is to network. Some argue that the time is ripe to try and formalize the industry, having the government recognise DJs as legitimate artists, creating a syndicate, and ensuring that DJs are fairly compensated for their work—the reality, however, is that there is little unity among local DJs to push for these changes, and little hope that such pressure would be effective on the political level.

BBX competition at the Reunion

Regardless of the lack of formal structures, more and more Lebanese are choosing to DJ on the side or full-time. Going rates for DJing vary depending on venue and experience, but in general the club owners Executive spoke with say that local DJs can pull in between $250-$800 per set, while international acts pull in no less than $5,000 with expenses, up to $10,000 depending on whether the DJ is a Class A, B, or C act.

Teething pains

The inevitable topic of harassment and drugs at electronic music venues is a challenge the electronic music industry faces. With all clubs fully aware of the correlation between this kind of music and recreational drugs, they ensure that their staff is appropriately trained to handle customers who are using at their venues. Club owners tell Executive that they do not condone drug use and try their best to identify when a deal is being made and act accordingly.

Marginalized communities can also often find a safe space at these venues. Beirut’s club scene has become one of the few spaces in the region that offer acceptance to members of the LGBTQ community. But harassment, in all its forms, be it sexual, physical, or verbal, is still an issue. The clubs Executive spoke with say that any incident should be reported to the bouncers or security guards at the venue. It is then up to the staff on that night to determine the response, with perpetrators being blacklisted from the club the most extreme measure owners take.

Teething pains aside, Lebanon’s electronic music scene is growing in strength, with more clubs opening and more support being offered to local talent from within the community itself. Beirut it seems, will continue bouncing its way up the list of top places to party, ensuring that of the few industries still thriving in this country, the business of nightlife and entertainment will continue to evolve.

Sarah Shaar

Sarah is the deputy and online editor of Executive Magazine.

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