CUT THE CRIT­I­CISM

TALK­ING FES­TI­VAL CHAL­LENGES WITH THE BIG THREE

Executive Magazine - - Executive Life - Words by Olga Habre

with the fes­ti­val sea­son ap­proach­ing, the Le­banese have be­gun their an­nual rit­ual of mak­ing plans for con­certs — and com­plain­ing about them. What most peo­ple don’t re­al­ize, how­ever, is the tremen­dous work that goes into es­tab­lish­ing a fes­ti­val. Ea­ger to un­der­stand the chal­lenges, Ex­ec­u­tive Life talked to or­ga­niz­ers from three of Le­banon’s most prom­i­nent play­ers, Baal­beck In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val, Beited­dine Art Fes­ti­val, and By­b­los In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val — the three big Bs — and all echoed sim­i­lar con­cerns.

SE­CU­RITY CHECK

Baal­beck Fes­ti­val Pres­i­dent Nayla de Freige ad­mits that there are in­ter­na­tional artists who don’t want to come to Le­banon, or any­where in the Mid­dle East, be­cause of safety con­cerns. How­ever, or­ga­niz­ers agree that large fes­ti­vals’ long-stand­ing rep­u­ta­tions help. In the early years, it was very di icult, but years down the road, peo­ple trust Beited­dine Fes­ti­val. We have a long list of artists [that have per­formed at the fes­ti­val], and in case some­body is re­luc­tant, we just send them the list,” says Hala Chahine, the fes­ti­val’s di­rec­tor.

Or­ga­niz­ers take se­cu­rity con­cerns se­ri­ously, with Baal­bek work­ing es­pe­cially hard on this as­pect. “Dur­ing the pe­riod of the fes­ti­val, the army and se­cu­rity forces take special mea­sures to sta­bi­lize se­cu­rity in the area, which is very im­por­tant,” says de Freige, ad­ding that the lo­cals are call­ing on author­i­ties for such strong safety mea­sures to be im­ple­mented year round. Sadly, Naji Baz, By­b­los fes­ti­val’s p ro­ducer points out that se­cu­rity con­cerns are be­com­ing a world­wide prob­lem, but he says of Le­banon: “There are years that are eas­ier than oth­ers. This year, we are lucky enough to have a rel­a­tively sta­ble sit­u­a­tion.”

SIZE MAT­TERS

How­ever, Baz says that Le­banon’s small size is an even big­ger prob­lem than se­cu­rity — we’re just not very pro ta­ble and there­fore not at­trac­tive for many in­ter­na­tional acts. If fes­ti­vals do want to coax an artist to come, it usu­ally has to be planned way in ad­vance. Another prob­lem is that Le­banon’s fes­ti­vals are in the sum­mer, the time many artists take leave to go on their own va­ca­tions, adds Chahine.

But ul­ti­mately, book­ing lesser-known artists isn’t a bad thing. De Freige says that we shouldn’t be go­ing to fes­ti­vals just to watch acts we al­ready know, but to also use the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cover new tal­ents, trust­ing the fes­ti­vals to cu­rate a se­lec­tion of qual­ity per­form­ers.

All three agree va­ri­ety is key — in a small mar­ket, it’s not ad­vised to be­come spe­cial­ized be­cause there isn’t enough of a niche crowd to ll up sev­eral sim­i­lar events. The big Bs, and many other fes­ti­vals, are pur­posely var­ied to at­tract di er­ent crowds.

FES­TI­VAL FI­NANCES

One of the big­gest chal­lenges for the in­dus­try is nan­cial. Or­ga­niz­ers lament that they are strain­ing un­der in­creas­ing taxes, while receiving lit­tle gov­ern­ment sup­port. Large Le­banese fes­ti­vals are usu­ally par­tially spon­sored by the gov­ern­ment, and ac­cord­ing to an o icial de­cree, are sup­posed to re­ceive a percent sub­sidy. In re­al­ity, fes­ti­vals say they re­ceive less, and the funds usu­ally come two years late, which means they must take out loans to cover what they will later re­ceive from the gov­ern­ment. Plus, there is the rest (two thirds) of the fes­ti­val costs — which are cov­ered through ticket sales and the cru­cial sup­port of pri­vate sec­tor spon­sors. By com­par­i­son, fes­ti­vals in Europe usu­ally re­ceive around 40 percent of their costs from the gov­ern­ment, as well as 0 percent from mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

Costs them­selves are high. Chahine breaks it down: artist fees are about 0 percent of fes­ti­val costs. Other ex­pen­di­tures in­clude ac­com­mo­da­tion and ights, in­surance, as well as huge chunks go­ing to build­ing stages, light­ing, and sound. “We pay huge amounts on sound and light. Sound has to be per­fect. There’s no point in go­ing all the way to Beited­dine and not hav­ing good qual­ity sound,” she says. Baz adds that, “Artist fees are grow­ing higher, es­pe­cially for the cal­iber of artists that are pop­u­lar.”

Chahine notes that nan­cial strain makes it hard to take risks when choos­ing per­form­ers. “Of course Kadim Al Sahir is a sure [sell-out], but take a new pro­duc­tion, a new artist — even if they are great, it puts you at risk be­cause you ask your­self, are they go­ing to sell? Are we go­ing to lose?” It seems as though Wael Kfoury is per­form­ing in just about ev­ery town this sum­mer — per­haps this is why — he’s a sure thing.

To make mat­ters worse, the Le­banese gov­ern­ment taxes the fes­ti­vals heav­ily, in­clud­ing a he y 0 percent tax on ticket sales and a pos­si­ble new tax on artist fees. Or­ga­niz­ers agree that, es­sen­tially, what the gov­ern­ment is giv­ing them in sub­si­dies they end up tak­ing back in tax. “The tremen­dous amount of taxes are jeop­ar­diz­ing the ex­is­tence of the fes­ti­vals,” Baz warns, ad­ding, “This is a heavy bur­den, and we are obliged to per­form ex­traor­di­nar­ily in terms of ticket sales just to break even.”

De­spite ev­ery­thing, most tick­ets to shows at prom­i­nent fes­ti­vals start at $40 or less, though By­b­los tick­ets start at $50, and in places like Tyre, just un­der $7 — which is rel­a­tively rea­son­able given the qual­ity of the per­for­mances and venues. The big­ger prob­lem is that peo­ple have too many fes­ti­vals to choose from.

MORE FES­TI­VALS, MORE PROB­LEMS

Ex­ec­u­tive Life counted al­most 50 fes­ti­vals from

end of June to be­gin­ning of Septem­ber listed on var­i­ous web­sites. Chahine says that the num­ber is closer to 90. Stag­ger­ing. The or­ga­niz­ers all agree that these mush­room­ing fes­ti­vals are good for res­i­dents of the ar­eas where they’re held, pro­vide en­ter­tain­ment and bring some eco­nomic move­ment. How­ever, the over­all in­crease is do­ing more harm than good. This amount of com­pe­ti­tion is dan­ger­ous Baz says, ex­plain­ing, “The large num­ber of fes­ti­vals is seen as a joy­ful thing … Iron­i­cally, what’s per­ceived as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of life could [kill] the whole con­cept.”

What’s worse is that the fes­ti­vals are com­pressed into two months, July and Au­gust. Sum­mers in Le­banon are ex­pen­sive and busy enough with wed­dings and a con­stant ow of vis­i­tors, so peo­ple have to be selec­tive about what to at­tend. “We have a bud­get limit and a time limit — and we don’t only have fes­ti­vals, there are other things to do,” says Chahine. De Freige agrees, “Peo­ple don’t have a lot of money any­more and the tourists are not enough yet.” She adds that ir­gin Tick­et­ing BoxO ice re­vealed last sum­mer’s sales had de­creased from pre­vi­ous years. “More fes­ti­vals does not mean more sales,” she says.

One way to ease the strain for ev­ery­one would be to stretch the fes­ti­val sea­son — fes­ti­vals in ar­eas not con­di­tioned by cli­mate could be held in spring or fall, which is re­al­is­tic in Le­banon, where we are lucky to have mostly mild weather year round. “Let’s all en­joy [fes­ti­vals] for six months. Ide­ally if we can ex­pand the fes­ti­val [sea­son] it’s a win-win sit­u­a­tion,” says Chahine. Un­for­tu­nately there’s no lo­gis­ti­cal way to do that, as there’s no gov­ern­ing body that reg­u­lates who gets to have their fes­ti­val when.

Or­ga­niz­ers are also ap­peal­ing to the Le­banese Min­istry of Cul­ture to clas­sify fes­ti­vals ac­cord­ing to cri­te­ria such as years ac­tive and the signi cance of their lo­ca­tion. De Freige says for the whole coun­try’s sake, es­tab­lished fes­ti­vals set in his­toric lo­ca­tions shouldn’t be lumped to­gether un­der the same “in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­val” ti­tle as emerg­ing fes­ti­vals, though she says the lat­ter should de nitely be en- couraged. “I’m not against [the in­crease in fes­ti­vals] at all, but it has to be or­ga­nized to cre­ate a pos­i­tive, not neg­a­tive, im­pact,” she says, also ad­vis­ing fes­ti­vals to work on dis­tinct iden­ti­ties so that we don’t have copy-paste events in each town.

VI­TAL AND VALU­ABLE

Work­ing hard, with barely any gov­ern­ment aid, these an­nual events add value to our lives and our tourism sec­tor. As ini­tia­tives that help the coun­try’s so­cial and cul­tural spheres, as well as con­trib­ute to an im­por­tant part of our econ­omy, fes­ti­vals should be receiving way more pub­lic sec­tor in­cen­tives and be taxed much less. They open us to new worlds of mu­sic, dance, cul­ture, and beauty, staged in some of the most breath­tak­ing nat­u­ral and his­toric set­tings: mon­u­men­tal tem­ples, an­cient ports, spec­tac­u­lar sea­sides, pic­turesque moun­tains — even in our de - ant, daz­zling cap­i­tal.

Fes­ti­vals pro­mote Le­banon in­ter­na­tion­ally as a cul­tural bea­con. By draw­ing peo­ple to speci c his­toric lo­ca­tions for fes­ti­vals, they pro­mote these sites too. “We’re say­ing, ‘look, this is Le­banon, these are the beau­ti­ful sites of Le­banon, come and see them dur­ing the fes­ti­val,’” says Chahine. Be­sides their cul­tural value, fes­ti­vals also have great eco­nomic im­pact with all the ser­vices around the shows, in­clud­ing ho­tels, restau­rants, buses to trans­port at­ten­dees, lo­cal ar­ti­sans sell­ing cra s, etc. De Freige says Baal­beck res­i­dents wait for the fes­ti­val to see ac­tion in the city. “Our job is to or­ga­nize con­certs, and their duty is to pro­vide good restau­rants, ho­tels — to in­vest in this tourist in­fra­struc­ture. But they need to be sure that peo­ple are com­ing. Ev­ery­thing is linked,” she ex­plains. In­creas­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tion of Le­banese tal­ent in fes­ti­vals also en­cour­ages lo­cal mu­si­cians, ac­tors, and artists. And on top of that, fes­ti­vals are a beau­ti­ful bond­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for peo­ple from all walks of life. We have so many rea­sons to be proud of, and grate­ful, for what these fes­ti­vals con­tinue to bring us — but it’s vi­tal to keep them eco­nom­i­cally healthy.

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