Is the independent Arab music scene ripe for investment?
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Is the independent Arab music scene ripe for investment?

Is the independent Arab music scene ripe for investment?

As the shift to streaming takes hold, it is expected that more local language artists will emerge with increased quality of musical output and sustainable fanbases

Spek

An Arab music renaissance is underway. For the first time in modern history, content created by Arabs is being developed, produced and monetised for global audiences – with tools available to laypeople with creative ideas.

Since the advent of recorded music, the markets which flourished were those which worked to develop their infrastructure around intellectual property protection. As the music industry developed creatively, so too did the industry around it. The innovations of jazz, soul, rock ’n’ roll and hip hop were monetised around physical products: vinyl, CDs, tapes – and if not for the ability to monetise in the big Western markets, one can argue that the innovations of these musical genres would not have matured and developed globally in the ways that they since have.

In markets like the Middle East, monetising music has historically been a challenge, to say the least. Throughout the wider region, we found CD piracy was as high as 90 per cent of sales, so rights holders had very little incentive to invest in artist development. In more mature markets, you had indie bands who might’ve started by playing in small venues eventually becoming the next Coldplay, or hip hop artists building a following by selling CDs independently before eventually signing with a big label that would super-charge their fanbase and career. Many great artists started this way before the mainstream adopted them: Jay Z, R.E.M., U2 and Nirvana, are only a few of them.

The MENA region didn’t have support for that kind of a platform; it made it difficult for genre artists to have a platform. If you wanted to make a living, you would probably have to start singing someone else’s songs.

Technology changed that. Over the past decade, recording high-quality productions at home became infinitely cheaper. Then, streaming made it possible for new artists to create music and build audiences using social media. Suddenly, genres that were never touched by regional labels were finding fans in markets the gatekeepers swore there was no audience for. Nowadays it isn’t uncommon to find an Arabic language trap artist getting tens of millions of streams, all on their own, based on a fanbase in Egypt or Morocco.

I started my career as a rapper in Canada in the early Nineties. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that rap was a fad that would eventually recede as quickly as it appeared. From my vantage point, Arab artists are currently fighting a like-minded struggle to gain recognition. There are parallels, and just as hip hop proved everyone wrong, so too shall the independent music scene we see currently sprouting out of the Arab world.

Over the next several years as the shift to streaming takes hold, we will see more local language artists increasing the quality of their musical output and building sustainable fanbases. This is becoming possible because they now have ways to monetise their original music, which wasn’t easy before. Once money filters to the local artist – so too will an independent label scene invest in the growth they see happening around them. It’s a sort of economic Darwinism, where the money being paid to artists leads to more investments, which in turn accelerates the evolution of the scene and thus the quality of overall creative output.

Artistic maturity can take time to evolve. It’s an amalgam of industry infrastructure, access to opportunity and the synthesis of a local scene. But we are already seeing this develop with the likes of Lebanon’s Mashrou’ Leila, Palestine’s Bashar Murad and Syrian/Lebanese trip hop outfit Bedouin Burger. The big streaming services are already clued in, which is evident by their focus on supporting Arabic music. They can see that an Arab renaissance in music is already underway.

With a little reflection, one can see how pop is evolving to include a global output of music in which Arabs will play a meaningful role. The tech companies see the power of our connected populations. They’re already there, they’re just waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

Spek is the founder and president of PopArabia

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