Spotify CEO Akshat Harbola is keen to support local talent
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Spotify’s Akshat Harbola is keen to support local talent, read to know more

Spotify’s Akshat Harbola is keen to support local talent, read to know more

The managing director for the MENA region and South Asia shares the key trends impacting the streaming platform, inclusive initiatives that are bringing fresh talent to the fore and his strategy to get everyone on Spotify

Neesha Salian
Spotify MD MEA Akshat Harbola

Spotify recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of its foray into the Middle East, North Africa (MENA) region. Akshat Harbola, who took over as Spotify’s managing director of MENA and South Asia last year, is driving the brand’s efforts to support local talent while introducing new features to deliver memorable listening experiences to users.

Harbola, who has previously worked in key roles at McKinsey & Company, Google and Spotify India, is well-versed in the intricate dynamics of culturally diverse regions. During a chat with Gulf Business, he shared the key trends impacting the streaming platform, inclusive initiatives that are bringing fresh talent to the fore and his strategy to get everyone on Spotify. Here are excerpts from the discussion.

Spotify recently celebrated its fifth anniversary in this market. How has the company done so far and what are your plans to drive further growth?

The MENA region is an exciting market for us, and we’ve seen strong growth in the region, and we expect it to grow faster in the future. From 2019 to 2023, our business has grown by 170 per cent in terms of music streams, and 224 per cent in terms of podcasts.

In terms of priorities, I think we have broad areas that we already focus on and will continue doing so in the future as well. We want to provide more opportunities for artists from this region to be discovered and enable the consumption of music from the region, both locally and globally.

Our priority is “discovery” through manual curation with personalised algorithmic recommendations, as well as tools for creators. It’s interesting to know that music exports from the region have been growing 40 per cent on average every year between 2019 and 2023.

The second is lowering barriers to entry, especially for emerging talent. The music industry is complex, and it’s hard to break into. We have a programme called Radar Arabia, which is focused on supporting emerging talent from the region. We provide best-in-class marketing and editorial support, including placements for artists in prime locations around the world. Our third area of focus is empowering women creators. It’s a complex, highly uneven industry and we want to level the playing field and work with female creators from the region to provide them with both the platform and visibility on Spotify and different platforms – it could be through discussion forums, or media placements with our partners. These are
the three key areas that I am excited to be driving in this region.

Give us examples of how Spotify has supported local content creators.

There are different ways we do that. For example, we have a long-term global partnership with FC Barcelona. As part of that partnership, we took a few Egyptian content creators onsite to the stadium in Barcelona.

One of the reasons we took them along was that they were also big FC Barcelona fans. We gave them a lot of visibility, including playing their music in the stadium during matches. We’ve also worked closely with Saudi artist, Zena Emad. She was picked for the cover of the EQUAL Arabia playlist for September last year. An extension of Spotify’s global Women in Music Program, EQUAL Arabia is focused on elevating the narratives of Arab women artists by offering support on and beyond the platform.
We put Emad on Spotify’s billboard in Times Square, New York City, ahead of the Saudi National Day last year. It gave her great exposure and created opportunities for her. She recently collaborated with Alan Walker, and the song went viral. It’s being consumed and appreciated globally.

Another example would be the XP Music Futures conference held in Saudi last year. We partnered with Femme Fest, which focuses on enabling gender equality in music. Furthermore, we regularly conduct masterclasses with the content creator community to help them use the tools we offer called Spotify for Artists and Spotify for Podcasters. These are some examples of how we’re trying to activate our support across different markets.

In your opinion, what is the difference between the users in this region and the West?

Our core thesis is that every market is different, which means that there are differences between Western markets or emerging markets in Asia and the MENA region. However, there are many differences within our markets in the region as well. Egypt is very different from Morocco, for instance, and this impacts what they consume on the platform. In Egypt, for example, our top charts feature 70 to 80 per cent local hits. In Saudi, you see a lot of interest in Western music and a high consumption of K-pop, but also a growing emergence in what are truly local sounds. So Khaliji is growing in popularity as is Shalat. In the UAE, it’s a mix. There’s a lot of international content, along with South Asian, Filipino and Arabic content.

When we think of plans for these markets, particularly when it comes to product adaptations, marketing and content curation, it is tuned to match the needs, trends and cultural nuances of a specific market rather than a regional strategy. Other factors include income and demographics (the MENA region is essentially the youth capital of the world).

Globally, music industries are also structured very differently. If you look at emerging Asia, the supply chain, which means the artists, artist management, labels and the platforms, are fundamentally different from the US or the MENA region for that matter.

What sets you apart from your competitors?

I want to highlight three things that are our core product differentiators. The first is personalisation. Spotify is neatly personalised to the user, which makes your Spotify experience different from mine. This personalisation is the result of years of investment in machine learning and artificial intelligence, which makes our recommendations work. Over 80 per cent of Spotify users say that the core reason they return to Spotify is personalisation and the strength of its recommendations.

The second one is what we call ‘freemium’. We have both a free tier and a paid tier. We adapt these tiers depending on the needs of the market. Fundamentally, we believe that music should be accessible to all. We provide a seamless experience on the free tier if that’s what you choose. If you want an uninterrupted listening experience without ads and the ability to take your content ‘offline’, you have the paid tier that offers these features.

The third is something we call ubiquity, which means we want to be present wherever music consumption happens. It could be on your smartphone, but you may choose to listen to it on your smart speaker or in your car. Sometimes our integrations are as deep as in gaming consoles — 30 per cent of our listeners in Saudi consume music on gaming consoles. Over the last four years, we’ve gone from about 200 hardware partners to almost 2,500 hardware partners across the globe to enable this offering.

However, the differentiator is not one of these, but the interplay of all of these at the same time, which provides a unique product experience. We top it off by continuously launching new industry-leading features. So whatever Spotify launches as a feature usually sets the standard for what becomes a ‘norm’ in the industry going forward. You can look at it from a playlist point of view or from the way algorithmic recommendations work. For example, last year we revamped our home screen, which is the first page you land on when you log into Spotify, as we heard from our users that they wanted a more ‘lean forward’ (content that requires or encourages active participation, engagement, and/or interaction from the audience), visually richer experience.

We responded to that feedback and undertook a complete revamp of the product. So we continue iterating on the product and localising it where it makes sense. For example, in this region, during the month of Ramadan last year, we launched the Ramadan Hub (in certain markets), which offered a more ‘lean-back’ experience (where the audience is a passive recipient of the content with little to no interaction taking place) where the tone was more spiritual. There’s a well-thought-out strategy behind all of this.

What can we expect to see from Spotify in the coming months?

We are launching Wrapped here, which we have been doing every year since 2016. It’s a pretty interesting spin on what you were listening to during the year.

It gives you great insight into your listening habits (fun and embarrassing ones) both as listeners and creators. It’s also a way to celebrate feelings and experiences that you may have gone through during the year. These often reflect in your content choices.

Wrapped as a product experience is being enabled for all users, and I am excited about it. On the creator side, our programmes in the region: EQUAL Arabia, focused on women creators, and Radar Arabia, which is dedicated to emerging artists, are important to us. You will see continued investments from our side in artists across this region. These are artists we haven’t probably highlighted in the past, but we will be investing in the future. So, stay tuned in.

Read: The rapidly changing music industry landscape


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