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Music-streaming in the Middle East: ‘There is a space and place for everyone’


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Spotify and Deezer’s recent launches in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have highlighted the region’s status as a strategic priority for the music industry – although these companies (and Apple Music) are facing strong competition from local streaming service Anghami.

Trends in the MENA region were the focus for a panel session at Music Ally and Music Biz’s NY:LON Connect conference in London today. Speakers included Eddy Maroun, co-founder of Anghami; Moe Hamzeh, MD of Warner Music Middle East; Liliana Abudalo, manager of music content partnerships, Middle East, at Google and YouTube; and Habib Achour, head of Africa and Middle East at Sacem. Music Biz’s Bill Wilson chaired.

In setting up the discussion, Hamzeh talked of the importance of understanding the rich complexity of the region, with its many cultures, languages and dialects. A flat and uniform approach across the Middle East, then, will not pay off.

“A lot of people think of the Middle East as one entity and if you have a product that works there it will work across the region – but it won’t,” said Hamzeh.

There was talk of how the Middle East can be broken into sections depending on cultural themes but also in term of how developed the technology and industries are in those markets.

Hamzeh, for example, discussed the huge impact of Egypt in the region since the 1950s where it became the headquarters of the movie business in the Middle East, and how this shaped the music business that grew up in its wake.

“Egypt is a continent on its own,” he said. “Back then [the 1950s] there were no music videos. They would make a film just to put a few songs in it. Was Egypt the Bollywood of the Middle East? It still is!”

It was argued that understanding the impact of technology (and how that changes country by country) was key to understanding the region.

Abudalo noted that YouTube is seeing on average that 60% of its views are happening on mobile, but this rises to 70-80% in some countries. “A lot of people don’t know that internet penetration is quite high – at 45%,” she said. “But mobile is key.”

She noted that Saudi has 103% smartphone penetration. “It is a country with a high GDP and it is a strong economy,” she explained. “They like their toys so like to have more than one mobile device. They are connected all the time.”

On a licensing level, Achour noted that there is still a lot of work to be done and that a robust music industry is at the mercy of very different legal frameworks, moving at different speeds in the region.

“All of these countries have different legal frameworks,” he said. “For CMOs, that makes it very difficult to do business in these countries. In some countries there are no laws – or no laws that are enforceable.” Egypt, for example, is a mix of French and British law.

The Arab Spring and its impact on both politics and culture in the region was a major theme.

Achour said this has meant that underground scenes are able to bubble up in a way that was impossible before the political uprisings that started to happen at the end of 2010.

“There has been a rise of an indie scene that was hidden behind the rigidity of government structures,” he argued. New private foundations have also emerged after the Arab Spring to help nurture these scenes in countries like Tunisia.

Hamzeh talked about the huge changes to how music was created as a result of the cultural changes brought in by the Arab Spring.

“When we produced artists in Egypt [before the uprising] we were focused on the mainstream and the music was self-censored,” he said, noting that music had to fit within very strict laws and structures. “When the Arab Spring happened, we found that young artists were THE voice of the revolution […] Music is a way for artists to express their freedom.”

Abudalo also added the Arab Spring was a catalyst for digital expansion in key countries in the region. Social media was how the movement gathered speed and this has now rolled into the daily lives of most consumers.

“Digital platforms played a big role in the Arab Spring,” she said, “but that had a wider impact on the shift to digital media.”

Maroun proposed that cultural and musical hybridisation was the way forward. “People in the Middle East are very eclectic,” he said. “It is not just the local music, The younger audience is very influenced by the Western world but also want something local. The new thing is in the collaboration between the two worlds.”

He said he hopes to see a fostering of more collaborations between Arabic and Western acts and gave the example of ‘Bayen Habeit (In Love)’ – a collaboration between Marshmello and Egyptian singer Amr Diab – which was the most-streamed song on Anghami in 2018.

On the theme of Anghami, it was noted that it was the key local player but Hamzeh argued there was still plenty of scope for new entrants to make their mark.

“This is a great emerging market,” he said. “There is a space and place for everyone.” He did, however, accept that the big challenge for DSPs in the region is converting free users into paying subscribers.

Censorship is also a concern in some markets, with Maroun saying Anghami has to be careful not to mix religious songs in with pop or Western songs on its playlists, as this could cause serious issues in a country like Saudi Arabia. “It is pretty delicate but so far we are managing it,” he said.

Achour returned to the repercussions of the Arab Spring and noted how most governments were now awake to the importance of music.

“There is an understanding of the cultural and creative industries to their economy,” he said, saying that the music services and industry entities still need to drive home the point that remunerating musicians for their work will help to drive a culture of creativity.

“What is needed is more education in the market and all of us should be playing this role,” agreed Hamzeh.

Maroun also said that he would like to see labels get more involved in streaming marketing. “Here we invite labels like Warner to invest a little bit more!” he joked.

Abudalo said that the musician community is growing but that artists need to better understand how rights work and what that means for their current and future earnings.

“There is a lack of awareness in the region,” she said about copyright. “A lot of artists don’t know what they own in terms of rights, We are doing education where we can but we know it is a long journey.”

Another thing she felt would help was the launch of official music charts in the region, to give greater visibility to the acts doing well.

At this point Maroun came forward to say that Anghami is working on exactly that and is hoping to launch a series of Middle East charts in the coming months.

The pieces are slowly but steadily falling into place in the Middle East. There is still work to be done around copyright and monetisation, but its potential as a key digital market and also as an exporter of musical styles and artists in the coming years is exciting.

Eamonn Forde

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