Lebanon’s Electronic Music Entertainment Business
Electronic music is a worldwide trend. For those who keep up with it, it seems that 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. At that time, B018 moved to its now famous Karantina venue. It was followed by its competitor Basement in 2005, although 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. Venues looked more like restaurants that moonlit as clubs. In 2012, Ali Saleh and his partners decided to take the scene to the next level. In fact, just six months after opening their winter concept, Uberhaus, they increased capacity. 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 a capacity of 4000.
The Gärten was one of the first clubs to make its focus on the DJ and dance floor. Where previously clubs had tables, Gärten made room for people to dance and move around freely. That is at least until a headliner or Class A DJ is playing, and as a result, the venue is at full capacity.
The success of Gärten, and other electronic music clubs in Lebanon indicates that Beirut carved a thriving EDM scene. In fact, this scene is similar to that of the underground scenes found in Berlin or Paris. Furthermore, several club owners stated that they were not expecting the welcome reception they received. However, the appetite for electronic music among the Lebanese should not be shocking. In addition to nightclubs like B018, other groups were also throwing events all over the country. These include Kaotik, Silver Factory, Acousmatik, Minimal Effort, and We Run Beirut. These bands and early adopter clubs laid the groundwork that exposed more people to alternative electronic sounds. These sounds typically are not heard on the radio during the morning commute.
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. Soul Kitchen is a venue consisting of a small room resembling a pub that plays vinyl. The venue also serves pizza and cocktails. Furthermore, the venue operates exclusively by email invite only. It is a tribute to Jade’s previous club, Basement. In fact, it was known for having one of the best sound systems in Beirut.
The Reunion room also hosts Grand Factory’s annual Beirut Berlin Express (BBX) competition for local DJs and producers. The prize of the event is a month-long residency in Berlin. Another interesting point, this year’s finale will take place on April 15. The residency has changed yearly, and in 2019 will take place at DJ Sasse’s Blackhead Studios. There, the winner will produce and master an album, as well as network and learn. As a result, they will improve both their skills and gain exposure.
Rise of the local DJs
Many of the DJs and clubs stated that Djing became more accessible due to technological advances in mixing and producing. It also sparked worldwide interest in electronic music. Lebanon caught on to this trend with the opening of Uberhaus/Gärten.
Ali Saleh stated 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. Later, starting 2004, DJ Ziad Ghosn was added to the show. However, this allowed little room for other local DJs to play.
However, when they opened Gärten, they showcased over 10 local DJs. These included 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 also opened up opportunities for local DJs who had previously been playing house parties. It also allowed for one-off events or gatherings to create wider fanbases among the Lebanese and internationally.
Changes in the nightlife scene
Saleh also states that part of what helped local DJs gain popularity was the bottle-service style of clubbing giving way to what was available: the electronic music scene. Gärten cut its $30 entrance ticket after operating for a few years. He realized that they did not need to keep entry costs so high in order to turn a profit. The lower priced entrance also 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.
Exposure to international talent
Lebanese nightclubs also help expose local artists to international talent. They accomplish this through various initiatives aimed at helping grow the local talent pool. Uberhaus used to run an exchange program with clubs in Europe and the United States. This gave local artists the opportunity to be seen by international booking agents. However, this exchange is currently on hold. Meanwhile, Grand Factory’s BBX program can lead to opportunities. For example, local DJ Jad Taleb turned the networking experience into a Euro-tour and later became a feature act in Tunis, courtesy of a club manager he met in Berlin.
The Ballroom Blitz, consists of three rooms each playing different sets. It uses The Gold Room as a way for local talent to showcase their skills to their followers. It also enables those coming to hear the international act playing in the room next door to hear them. 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. During this night, local groups with strong followings can showcase their sounds 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 and Events
Venues like Yukunkun in Gemmayze 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. They intend to educate those interested in sound production. As a result, they hope fans will begin to appreciate both the skill and creativity it takes to produce the sounds they love.
However, The music venue’s winter season is coming to an end. A sister venue with the same concept will replace it on the rooftop of the same Harley Davidson building in Karantina for the summer.
The Reunion room of the Grand Factory also dedicated itself to widening the skills of local talent.
Lara Kays, project manager at The Grand Factory stated the following:
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 appointment organized two days a year by artists from the underground scene in Lebanon. Their goal is 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. This year, more rising local electronic talent will showcase their work. This includes 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, who is also stage manager at The Ballroom Blitz.
Music directors create the line-ups for these clubs a year in advance. Thess directors scout out emerging talent at festivals, such as the DGTL festival that started off in Amsterdam, the Time Warp festival in Mannheim, Germany, and the Awakenings festival held throughout the Netherlands. “These key festivals are an index, a worldwide index,” Saleh says.
Scouting also goes on in places like Ibiza, Spain, and Berlin, Germany. This is because the latest trends in the electronic scene and sound exploration take place there. 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. In fact, many club owners stated 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. They dedicate a team to take their artists on a tour around Lebanon. This tour usually includes 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 do not discount the importance of networking. Some argue that the time is ripe to try and formalize the industry. Having the government recognize DJs as legitimate artists, will create a syndicate and ensure DJs are fairly compensated. The reality, however, is that there is little unity among local DJs to push for these changes. As a result, there is little hope that such pressure would be effective on a political level.
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. However, in general, local DJs can pull in between $250-$800 per set. Meanwhile, international acts pull in no less than $5,000 with expenses. They can even pull up to $10,000, depending on whether the DJ is a Class A, B, or C act.
The inevitable topic of harassment and drugs at electronic music venues is a challenge the electronic music industry faces. Almost all clubs are fully aware of the usage of recreational drugs in the electronic music scene. As a result, clubs train staff to handle intoxicated customers. Clubs state that they do not condone drug use. They also state that they try to identify when drug deals occur on their property.
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 offers acceptance to the LGBTQ community. However, harassment, in all its forms, be it sexual, physical, or verbal, is still an issue. When incidents occur, clubs request that incidents get reported to the bouncers or security guards at the venue. It is then up to the staff on that night to determine the response. Perpetrators can be blacklisted from the club, which is the most extreme measure club owners can take.
Teething pains aside, Lebanon’s electronic music scene is growing in strength. More clubs are opening and local talent is receiving support from within the community itself. Beirut, it seems, will continue bouncing its way up the list of top places to party. This shows that of the few industries still thriving in Lebanon, the business of nightlife and entertainment continues to evolve.