The Arab music industry — plagued by rampant piracy, free YouTube clips and dated channels — is the latest target for global streaming giants intent on bringing the outmoded business into the digital era.
After their successes in Europe and the Americas, online platforms are looking to invest in emerging markets in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and capture their large populations of hyper-connected youth.
In a region plagued by political turmoil and economic crises, streaming giant Spotify is hoping to blow the dust off a Middle East business that has failed to keep up in a world of paid-for digital content.
“We arrived with a fully Arabic service, localized playlists and a local team,” said Claudius Boller, managing director for Spotify’s Middle East and Africa division. “We are only just getting started.”
Global streaming revenues last year grew by 22.9 percent to US$11.4 billion, accounting for more than half of recorded music business for the first time, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry said.
However, since its peak in the 1990s and 2000s, the Arab pop music industry has declined over the past decade in the upheaval that followed the Arab Spring anti-government uprisings.
Spotify, which launched in the Middle East in 2018, said that it wants to change that by giving regional talent the opportunity for global exposure.
“We came to the region to introduce a service that is not just an addition to MENA, but truly adds value by elevating regional music streaming,” Boller said. “Today, Arabic music and artists are being showcased to the world and discovered through Spotify.”
International hip-hop is the most popular genre on Spotify in the region, but the most sought-after artists are all homegrown — including Kuwaiti rapper Queen G, Egypt’s Marwan Moussa and Morocco’s Stormy.
Pierre France, a researcher at the Orient Institut Beirut who studies the industry, said that “mutual ignorance” makes cracking the Middle East a tall order.
“It is a fool’s game because the market is not very well-known,” he said.
Some streaming services thought they were striking gold, only to realize they were dealing with an industry that is “aging,” “disorganized” and “lacking vision,” he said.
On the local side, there is “a fantasy” about tapping into the international market, but with little knowledge of what it wants to hear, he added.
Lebanese music streaming platform Anghami, which is popular in the Middle East thanks to its firm understanding of regional tastes and culture, said that musicians and labels needed to embrace new technology and paid-for platforms.
“Most artists still prefer releasing their tracks on YouTube for free, rather than putting them behind a paywall,” said Arun Sajjan, Anghami head of licensing. “Users are still not ready to consider paying for premium services to listen to music.”
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