Cut the criticism Talking festival challenges with the big three

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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 difficult, but 32 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, Byblos Festival’s Producer Naji Baz 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 profitable 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 fill up several similar events. The big Bs, and many other festivals, are purposely varied to attract different crowds.

Festival finances

One of the biggest challenges for the industry is financial. 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 official decree, are supposed to receive a 33 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 20 percent from municipalities.

Costs themselves are high. Chahine breaks it down: artist fees are about 30 percent of festival costs. Other expenditures include accommodation and flights, 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 financial 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 hefty 30 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 flow 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 Virgin Ticketing BoxOffice 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 significance 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 definitely be encouraged. “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 defiant, dazzling capital.

Festivals promote Lebanon internationally as a cultural beacon. By drawing people to specific 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 crafts, 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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