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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Dubai jazz festival chief hits right note

Anthony Younes, co-founder of ChillOut Productions, talks about the logistics behind the region’s longest running music festival

Anthony Younes, Co-Founder of Chill Out Productions, which stages the Dubai Jazz Festival. Antonie Robertson/The National
Anthony Younes, Co-Founder of Chill Out Productions, which stages the Dubai Jazz Festival. Antonie Robertson/The National

Anthony Younes is co-founder of ChillOut Productions, the company behind award-winning Emirates Airline Dubai Jazz Festival. Here, the Beirut-born Canadian chief executive talks to The National about the logistics behind the region’s longest running music festival, which returns to Media City Amphitheatre from February 21 to 23.

How did the festival come about?

I was working as a freelancer for different events in Dubai. I worked at jazz festivals around the world as a producer, and thought, ‘Why not put together a jazz festival for a new audience’ in this region? The original idea was to launch in Beirut, but the situation at the time wasn’t good. We founded the company in 2002, launched the festival in 2003. The first edition focused solely on jazz acts.

How has the event evolved?

After a couple of years, we discovered jazz doesn’t attract the biggest crowd. We decided to include pop acts, and in the early days had Kool & the Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire, Toto, Electric Light Orchestra and more. The number of fans began to grow, so we added even bigger names like Santana, Sting, John Legend, James Blunt and One Republic - that attracted an even bigger crowd. We continue to inject as many jazz artists as we can, but this mix worked for the market. Today, the event has attracted the biggest crowd for a (music) festival in the region and is ... a welcomed event by major sponsors.

Has it become more attractive to major stars?

It is easier to attract bigger names because most agents know us and the festival; they trust that we take care of their artists. But it can also be difficult to bring big names year after year, because of timing. In February, there are few international tours coming through Dubai or going to Asia or Australia, so Dubai isn’t on the tour map. That means increased artist fees, as the concert is a one-off, and the artist is usually coming from and returning to their home country, which can be very costly. Sometimes it can be challenging to find the right artists.

How far in advance does planning begin?

The minute we finish an edition we take a couple of weeks off, and then we’re back working on the following year’s festival – especially on line-up. Everything presents different challenges from year to year, such as new laws in the region, new terms and conditions, and demands and requirements from artists. In the early days, when the festival was smaller, so were costs, but as it gets bigger associated costs grow, which can be tricky. We’re lucky to have great key sponsors like Emirates, Habtoor Grand Resort, Marriott Rewards, Mastercard, Network and Bank of Sharjah.

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How important is sponsorship?

It’s the most important part of the festival. If we don’t have sponsors we don’t have a festival. If you look at most festivals around the world, they’re mainly sponsored or supported by government, municipalities, cities, or similar entities. Just four/five years ago we used to cover up to 80 per cent of costs through sponsorship alone, and ticket sales were the cherry on top, but now we cover less than 40 to 50 per cent through sponsors, and ticket sales are getting tougher because people are becoming more price conscious.

Is there a wishlist of acts?

I have favourite artists, and artists we would love to see perform, but it’s not always possible due to schedules, logistics, timing or other factors. Usually in March I contact agents around the world, especially ones we know and have a relationship with, ask who they’ve in mind for next February. We start shooting names back and forth, and at the same time I’ll check to see who is performing around that time, maybe coming through Dubai. We’ve built such a strong reputation sometimes agents call first, suggesting artists who may be available.

Has the festival altered much since it began?

In many ways; from location and structure, to types of performers we showcase. We used to host the festival at Al Badia, much bigger than our current location but a little too far out. Most of our target audience lives around Media City – the Palm, Dubai Marina, Jumeirah Lakes Towers, other local areas - we get a lot walking to the venue, taking public transport. We used to do the festival over two weekends, and in the middle the Jazz Garden, feature bands from the US and around the world. The three-day festival is more streamlined, gives the chance to enjoy the atmosphere that surrounds it. Most sponsors also prefer three days in a row.

Is transforming a park into a self-contained temporary venue challenging?

This year the outer area has shrunk 10 to 15 per cent because of construction [Radisson Blu side], so we’re pushing the main entrance 30/40 metres inside the venue. It takes huge logistical effort to bring it all together, from organising security to light and sound systems. For the production itself, because we don’t have a permanent venue, we invest quite a bit to set one up, then after three days dismantle it. The cost of production and artists is very high.

How many fans have attended over the years?

Since we began we’ve had 550,000, across 480 separate shows. We always have over 4,000 come no matter who is playing; about 10 per cent of overall attendance. Most people wait until acts are announced and decide. We have 16 per cent attendance from overseas.