Lebanese artists working the web

hough relatively young, the alternative music scene in Lebanon has come a long way in its 20 or so years of existence. At least one new act pops up every year and television stations have been inviting local artists onto shows to help them promote themselves. Yet those appearances are fleeting at best, as mainstream media, including radio, remain inaccessible to home-grown talent. And while very few radio stations play music by local alternative artists, the internet however is a whole different story.

Today, millions of people use the internet, specifically social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. But artists, both professional and amateur, who in addition to promoting themselves on the abovementioned platforms have resorted to using Soundcloud or ReverbNation, which are social networks specifically dedicated to music.

While Lebanon’s infamous for its sub-par internet, it is good to know that Lebanese artists have not been left behind. Many local acts rely on the web to make their voices heard and to communicate with their public. Some even exist solely online, garnering support from hundreds of fans all over the globe as they remain virtually unknown to the Lebanese public.

Last week, the Souncloud Global Meetup Day took place. Members of music-oriented social network Soundcloud got together all over the world for a meet and greet, and Beirut was no different. The rooftop restaurant and pub Coop d’Etat in Gemmayze hosted the Beirut edition of the meet up, where Lebanese artists told NOW Extra about the importance of the internet for music production.

Ribal Rayess also known as Escape to Venus is a Lebanese electronic music producer based in New York City and the organizer of the Beirut meet up. When asked about the origins of the event, Rayess says, “If I were in New York, I would have attended the meet up that takes place there, but I don’t get the sense of a strong musical community here in Lebanon, so I wanted to put together something to unite the scene.”

According to Rayess, the goal is support and growth. “There’s a lot of competition in the community. I want people to collaborate and support one another as well as give one another feedback. The Lebanese do not take constructive criticism well, and they need to learn to consider different opinions.” 

You probably won’t find an Escape to Venus CD in record stores or hear his hit single on the radio, but that’s because Rayess chose the web as his playing field. Despite being based in New York City, he understands the situation in Lebanon. “Lebanese radio stations and clubs are corrupt, but the internet is different; it gives you a chance to make yourself heard. It’s a tool that can make you very happy if you know how to use it”.

Among the attendants was Joelle Safi, a local DJ and musician-in-training. Safi’s motivation for attending the event was the collaborative spirit and chance to meet fellow artists. “I wanted to be part of this sharing of ideas,” says Safi, who also has a strong opinion concerning the Lebanon’s internet usage. “A lot of people in Lebanon abuse the internet. It could be used for so much more, but the majority use social media for crap, just wasting it.”

But Safi herself has some good uses for the internet in the works. “I’m currently setting up a Facebook page for myself, where I’ll link to my DJ sets on Soundcloud. I also plan on making YouTube videos for my music using live footage from my sets, because I feel that people don’t appreciate the energy of a DJ while he/she is mixing music; it really has to be seen.”

Though Safi is mainly a house music DJ, she also professes to be a major metalhead and sees that the internet is also an ideal thriving ground for Lebanese heavy metal. “Mainstream media wants nothing to do with Lebanese metal, due to religious misconceptions, but online, I can find all kinds of local artists and follow up with them.”

We briefly discuss a Lebanese Metal band named Ayat, whose music is readily available on Youtube (though not for the faint of heart). Listening to one of their tracks, it’s hardly any shock why Lebanese radio stations would be reluctant to play them. But thanks to YouTube and other networks on the web, any hardcore Lebanese metalhead can access their music and dive into the elusive local metal scene, regardless of what the radio plays.

The power of the radio was somewhat diminished with the advent of online radio. Ceasar K is a local electronic music DJ, producer, and co-founder of the online radio station and netlabel, Vibe Lebanon (VL). VL is the Middle East’s first online radio station launched by Ceasar K and two of his friends back in 1998. The trio were into music that had become unavailable due to a law passed in 1995 which required radio and television stations to meet certain requirements and register with the government, leading to the closing down of various pirate radio stations that played a variety of genres (all-jazz stations, all-metal stations, all-electronica stations, etc.)

As Ceasar K says, “The idea was to promote music that was not on the radio anymore and promote local artists as well.” But as mentioned earlier, Lebanon is a land infamous for its abysmal internet connection: a major obstacle for an online radio station. “Live streaming was almost impossible, so we tried finding alternatives, and we became the first Lebanese station to release a podcast. Then we decided to start the VL Records netlabel to export the music of local artists to the world.”

With VL Records, Ceasar K was also putting one of his core beliefs into practice. “In university, I wrote my thesis on music piracy, at the time when the Metallica vs. Napster case was going on. I believed labels should have encouraged people to start buying music online, instead of restricting them and driving them to stealing it like many do today. We (VL) believed the internet was the ultimate new method of music distribution.”

Since its creation, the internet has proved itself a force to be reckoned with, and its impact and strength in Lebanon are becoming more and more significant. Even the mainstream music industry has caught onto this, with Melody having its own YouTube channel, Rotana having its own Facebook page, and Lebanese diva Haifa Wehbe communicating with fans through Twitter. Does this mean the internet will be a mirror of the real-world music industry and be dominated by major labels? As Ceasar K puts it, “Online we have a choice: we can choose what we want to follow, subscribe to, or like, and ignore all the rest.”

No matter how many big labels catch on to the popularity of the web, it will always be a place of independence, equal opportunities, and refuge for local artists, whether they are disenchanted with mainstream media, misunderstood by it, or just young up-and-comers sharing their music with friends in search of appreciation.