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Forget Glastonbury: How Lebanon's Byblos Festival attracts biggest stars

From Leone Lakhani and Eoghan Macguire, CNN
updated 9:50 AM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Byblos International Festival attracts music lovers from across the world
  • World famous acts like Gorillaz and Snow Patrol have played the event over the years
  • Instability in Lebanon and the wider region has caused headaches for the organizers

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Byblos, Lebanon (CNN) -- The ancient town of Byblos has long been a draw for visitors to Lebanon's picturesque west coast.

Home to a fascinating history, it is believed to have been the first Phoenician city and can be dated as far back as 7000 BC.

But these days Byblyos (or Jbeil as it is more commonly known in Arabic) dances to a very different tune.

Every summer a 600 strong production crew comes together to put on the Byblos International Festival (BIF), transforming the Mediterranean town into an unlikely haven for music lovers.

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This year's event witnessed a record number of artists on stage in one night -- a testament to how popular and ambitious the event has become.

"Lebanon and this particular venue, for those who have experienced it, has a particular aura," said Naji Baz, the festivals producer and artistic director since 2003.

For Baz, the festival is a full time job, which he and his core team spend all year working on without pay.

It's this passion and commitment that has allowed them to convince international stars like the Gorrillaz, Patti Smith, Snow Patrol and Lana Del Rey to perform at Byblos.

"Artists do talk to each other, so each one who came here over the past 13 years has become our best ambassador."

Artistic roots

BIF first began in the 1960s and ran periodically through the next four decades before becoming an annual fixture since 2003.

The spectacular setting backlit by a 12th-century castle has become the event's defining feature. But putting on the show doesn't come without its challenges.

Lana Del Rey performs at the Byblos International Festival in 2013. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

"We're in the site that's 2,500 years old so each time you need to use a hammer, you have to get proper written authorization from the Ministry of Tourism and stuff because it's very much a protected site," Baz said.

Ancient artifacts aren't the only obstacles. Putting world-renowned artists on show is an expensive business.

Baz describes how this year's festival will cost between $4 million and $4.5 million. Sponsors and public funds take care of $1.5 million worth of this cost meaning the extra $3 million must be met ticket sales.

Just to break even on expenses, therefore, the event has to sell 40,000 tickets.

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Whereas most other festivals rely on ticket sales for a third of their income, in Byblos they make up 75% of revenues.

Regional unrest

Then there's the difficulty of bringing international musicians and fans to a country that has experienced its fair share of turmoil in recent years.

Visitor numbers have been dipping since the war in neighboring Syria began three years ago.

"We're relying almost solely on locals (for ticket sales)," Baz explained.

2014 headline act Marcel Khalife, a Lebanese singer and composer, led an ensemble of 160 musicians. He spoke of the concerns of his fellow artists on visiting and performing in his country.

"I always play with large orchestras around the world," Khalife said. "However, here in Lebanon in these difficult situations to be able to carry out this sort of work is not easy.

"People come warily because maybe something will happen, an explosion, so it was difficult."

Patti Smith performs at the Byblos International Festival in 2008 (Courtesy Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images).

Fortunately for Baz and Khalife, this year's event has been a success despite all of the difficulties entailed with staging such a sizable event in this part of the world.

"We're achieving our quantitative goals year after year because Lebanon has got a strong middle class and a strong need for cultural events," Baz said

But after all the drama and the stress of ensuring everything goes off without a hitch, there is now another pressing concern for the indefatigable organizers.

How to begin preparing for next year.

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