Music streaming gets in tune with the Middle East beat

It would be fair to say that Egypt’s Amr Diab is not a household name outside the Middle East, save for the households of a few dedicated music aficionados.

In the Arab region, however, the 57-year-old singer, who has been entertaining his millions of fans for 30 years with a style that blends Western and local rhythms, is hailed as the “Father of Mediterranean Music”.

The relative international obscurity of the region’s top-selling artist underlines the Middle East’s curious position in the global music industry. The region is home to countless producers and consumers of mass market music, but that has travelled very little. And moreover, it hasn’t been helped by the Middle East being behind other regions in online streaming, the revolution that has swept the industry and made its product far more accessible to millions worldwide.

Now like a top 40 hit that until a week ago you hadn’t heard and is now playing on every radio you walk past, a whole host of music distributors have turned their sights on the Middle East. Warner, Deezer and Spotify are all suddenly involved, drawn by a youthful population, an explosion in smart devices and a belated shoring up of IP in an area where piracy has often ruled.

Canadian-born Hussain Yoosuf, better known as the rapper Spek, says the market has altered dramatically in recent years. He is the founder of music company PopArabia, based in Abu Dhabi, and recently told the music industry magazine Billboard: “Five years ago, if I happened to have a hit in the Middle East that got played by every radio station in the country, it would’ve had zero impact on my revenue.” Now, he said, artists and songwriters were more confident about being paid by a variety of digital services in the region and music publishers had a more stable indication of where they should invest.

Spotify, the world’s most popular paid music streaming service, launched in 13 Middle Eastern and North African markets in November 2018. It also introduced a curated Arab hub of local content to complement its Latin and Afro hubs. French streaming service Deezer entered the regional market in partnership with Saudi-owned Rotana, the region’s largest content producer which has also teamed up with China’s Huawei.

Deezer CEO Hans-Holger Albrecht acknowledged at the time of the launch that Middle Eastern music lovers had been slow adopters of streaming but said his company was confident of rapid growth.

These new entrants will be operating alongside homegrown rivals such as Anghami, the first legal Middle Eastern digital platform, set up in 2012 in what its Lebanese founders acknowledged was a region where music was dominated by piracy.

In some regional jurisdictions, artists have been hampered by a lack of infrastructure to enforce copyright. Anghami said it was offering a legal alternative that would ensure that artists and music labels were fairly remunerated. It now says it has more than 70 million registered users across 180 countries, reflecting its popularity among the Arab diaspora.

By making regional material more accessible via international streaming providers, regional performers will be opened up to a wider international audience. Arab indie bands and solo acts are beginning to make an impact on the international live concert circuit, particularly in places that have a strong diaspora fan base.

Mashrou’ Leila, one of Lebanon’s top indie bands, staged sell-out gigs in London and Washington as early as 2015 after they released a new album. In 2018, Emirati singer Hussain Al Jassmi became the first Arab artist to perform at the Vatican City’s annual Christmas concert.

And just two months earlier, Egypt’s “pop king” Amr Diab sparked a rush for tickets with a billing at London’s Wembley Arena, a further step perhaps towards becoming a household name among music fans well beyond the Middle East.