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Towards a New Arabic Pop?

The grand return of the music industry to the Arab world since 2018 is not easy nor successful so far. Furthermore, it has come along with the return of historic players in the region, such as the Saudi company Rotana, as much as it has confirmed YouTube’s dominance since the mid-2000s. How will the Arab world move past an equilibrium invented in the 1990s, in the era of music videos and stars like Amr Diab? Is the 2000s piracy frenzy coming to an end? Which new “urban music” and streaming feeds are about to hatch?

Anghami’s offices in Beirut

Instead of a clearly established market, what is emerging at the moment around Arab music mainly resembles a fool’s bargain woven with bluff. Every actor bets on the rise of an internal Arab market prior to knowing its contours, while relying mostly on the illusions of many Arab artists in hope for a worldwide diffusion of their productions. In fact, most of them are groping their way towards new musical tendencies. According to Dolly Makhoul, head of one of the few teams exclusively dedicated to the MENA region at Believe: “The current challenge is to educate the market. Including artists. We have to help them at a better management of their expectations, to chart their paths with clearly defined objectives”.

Rotana: the return of a dinosaur

Paradoxically, the arrival of new players in the Arab market (Spotify, Deezer, Warner) in 2018 has put some dinosaurs back in the saddle, starting with the emblematic Rotana label. The Saudi mastodon is back on track while many predicted its fall a few months before this agreement. After having ruled unchallenged over the Arab market for 20 years (1990-2000), the company was said to be in difficulty in the last 10 years, yet it has unexpectedly returned to the fore. “Rotana was no ordinary company. “Nowhere is there a company that has been able to sign ALL the stars of a region. Their musical monopoly is one of a kind,” said a market expert, who preferred not to be cited. The deal with Deezer turned up as a divine surprise for the Saudi company that had notoriously missed the digital turn, after dominating the era of satellite television in the years 1990-2000.

Sole interlocutor with a critical size, sufficient historical depth and a recognized catalog, Rotana thus was one of the only credible players for an international deal with Deezer. Moreover, it holds a key position related to another crucial shift, the opening of the music and concert market in Saudi Arabia: “it puts Rotana in the position of being the intermediary for foreign promoters to approach this market”, according to a specialist who works from Dubai on these matters.

Dropped by many of its artists in the 2010 decade for lack of money, Rotana has been able to attract them again with juicy contracts, a new financial windfall, along with dangling a promise to aging stars: worldwide streams and global success. A dream that Samira Saïd, who started her career in the 1980s, is famous for her “Youm Wara Youm” hit and is part of the Rotana roster, formulated aloud in the middle of the Deezer/Rotana deal launch party in October 2018, in Beirut: “for 20 years I’ve dreamed of us reaching the entire world [...]: Indian music is world-famous, yet Arab music remains local”.

However, other players in the market are adamant on this matter: “people who listen to Samira Said are not going to stream it” for one of them. Another explains that the bulk of streaming users are young people not into these artists: “18-19 year-olds are not interested in Rotana” states another actor. Foreign ears even less. Rotana’s loss of momentum is best understood by contrast with the good health of Anghami: 18 months after the entire Rotana catalogue was removed from this streaming platform to be moved to Deezer exclusively, Anghami has not collapsed.

YouTube as a key actor

The return of the music industry in the Arab world comes up against well-established actors and habits, which newcomers sometimes discover after having believed in an El Dorado where everything was possible. The precedence of YouTube, for instance, remains remarkable, firstly because it is the space where very popular formats are deployed, by essence between video and music: the Arab music video, historic format of the 1990s, is still vivid there ; snippets from musical programs (X-factor, Arab Idol) appeal to regional audiences ; YouTubers’ or TV programs’ channels, where some artists sing only a couple of songs (in between comedy videos and slice of life segments) attract lots of viewers. Not to mention musical advertisements, such as that of Vodafone in Egypt, in 2018, which totals no less than 81 million views. More than the vast majority of music hits that year.

Pub Vodafone — YouTube

Seldom does this popular type of content, both visual and musical, have an existence outside YouTube. Egyptian actor Mohammed Ramadan for example recently made his business of multiple releases, some of them exceeding a hundred million views. Yet, this shapes a crucial issue in general: such a production, relating to both advertising and arts, does not fit into streaming categories, where the logic is to add advertisements between songs. Notice how telling this case is as to the level of connections between business and music in the Arab world, incomparable with those observed in Europe or North America. To put it another way, moving hybrid cultural products never intended to be sold as songs, from YouTube to other platforms, is a complicated task.


YouTube, which has been present for more than 10 years in the region, is leading in terms of volume of plays, far ahead of streaming services: a recent standard pop hit like “Fraise”, by Hazem al Sadeer, is played forty times less on Spotify than on YouTube. What is more, YouTube views are actually the only widely recognized authoritative figures. That is why, faced with the revolt of artists against the withdrawal of their songs from Anghami, to be found only on Deezer because of the aforementioned deal with Rotana, the Saudi company found a compromise: songs were not removed from YouTube, where they have been cumulating views for years.

Hazem Al Sadeer, Fraise — YouTube

Similarly, independent music, such as football fan songs (which became a musical style per se, studio-recorded and played outside the stadium) or Egyptian moharagan electro, have chosen YouTube as a base since long ago. Overall, in the opinion of Ghassan Chartouni, head of the Watary label, “YouTube is not a competitor, it is a key player, like a service provider, with whom everyone works and who works with everyone”.

Live show, streaming: the future shape of income

Nevertheless, this centrality of YouTube is not entirely a good thing, as Eddy Maroun —founder and CEO of the regional streaming service Anghami—notes. "It is the largest streaming platform in the world, but it was not thought to be one, and it is also the one that pays artists the least in proportion”. Listening on YouTube would in fact yield to the artist 50 times less than on other streaming platforms. So far, artists have not paid much attention to this: selling songs is a secondary source of income compared to concerts, mainly because of piracy. In fact, only live shows matter, from wedding DJs of the moharagan scene to Rotana-signed megastars of overproduced pop: they all earn their living this way. The latter are said to have contracts for tens of thousands of dollars for each concert in the Gulf. There again, the Arab world went very far and long before the world music industry of the 2010s into making concerts the major source of income. Almost to the point of making it the only one.

However, as Habib Achour of SACEM stresses, sales and copyright must not be forgotten. They are actually expected to regain significance in the years to come: “even if it represents only a hundred euros of copyright fees sometimes, artists should care about it, because it is going to become much more important in the future”. On a larger scale, what is at stake is also to convince government authorities to deal with these issues and create copyright management entities. More massive figures are called on in this case: “the culture industry represented 44.6 billion euros in France in 2018, almost as much as the automotive industry.” It is not unlikely that the Covid-19 will accelerate this shift faster than expected, for lack of possible live shows.

Taking listeners into consideration

Broadly speaking, the Arab world has already widely experienced three aspects supposedly representing the “revival of the industry”: the entrepreneur-artist model, that of revenues mainly from concerts, and finally the advanced integration between different forms of business and pop music. Getting away from this situation is not an easy task for artists, nor is it for listeners.

In 2018, a Deezer executive was optimistic, pushing forward an instrumental idea in the history of streaming, that "people go into piracy if it’s complicated or too expensive to go legal. If you offer good user experience, they stay.” However, the user experience is not yet up to par in the Arab world, with neither Spotify nor Deezer being very good at supporting Arabic language while Anghami’s interface has aged.

Likewise, the catalogs still have large holes, due to a number of disappeared labels and never-ending entanglements of rights holders. For this reason, an entire part of the catalog of an absolute superstar, Fairuz, is missing from legal offers. Lastly, piracy is not only a question of “supply”, of a product on the market, more or less suited at a given time, it is also a matter of ingrained practices on the long run. Until now across the Arab world, sellers of ripped CDs with mp3s are well established, piracy websites some of which have been around for 10-15 years are still active, and new illicit forms like stream ripping (mp3 recording of a YouTube video) have appeared.

In quest for the best recipe

From the Gulf to the Maghreb, the passing of a world is pending, as is the rise of a new balance between a listening medium, a general organization of the industry (still uncertain), new types of income, and finally new music. Because the music to come is one of the central questions at stake.

Marshmello & Amr Diab, Bayen Habeit “In Love” (Lyric Video) | عمرو دياب Marshmello - باين حبيت— YouTube

Over the past few years, Arabic music production has been vibrating to the rhythm of new sounds, awaiting the good recipe for a crossover, i.e. the world hit. “There are trends, we see more and more collaborations, more and more hip-hop...”, says Eddy Maroun, "and it’s something we support, it’s nothing pro bono, that’s how we develop”.

As a stakeholder claiming to know how to “take the pulse" of the market, Anghami is well positioned to take chances at this. It has produced songs like Bayen Habeit, (In Love), a duet between Amr Diab, biggest arab seller of the 1990-2000 and a symbol of the passing era, and the American DJ Marshmello. Despite being the biggest hit of 2019 on Anghamio, it did not move beyond this platform, and has only 10 million views on YouTube compared to other titles from the same year that reached a hundred million views. Same with a Diab cover (of his historic hit Nour al Ein, a rare international Arab hit, from 1996) involving American star French Montana, which was a mixed success.

The failure is more blatant with an attempt at regional rap, a supposed crossover between several hip-hop artists, but the production sounded from ten years ago: Anghami Cypher. A poorly timed release while in Egypt for example, Wegz and Marwan Pablo explore the 2010s signature sound of trap, and likewise, moharagan artists are massive with a highly recognizable local twist.

Wegz, Saleny | ويجز ساليني (Official music Video) — YouTube

Anghami’s approach is just one of many, be it in its successes or its failures. Competition has now started between importing international sounds, as does Morocco’s Psychoqueen with the Latin sound of Enta Habibi, or even more so a new generation of hip hop artists converted to trap music. In addition, featuring and international collaborations between artists have blossomed, such as the future one between Egypt’s Mohammed Ramadan and France’s Maître Gims. Last, bilingual songs, including those of Moroccan singer Manal or the Kuwaitis of Sons of Yusuf, have multiplied.

Manal - Slay x El GrandeToto (Official Music Video) — YouTube

Resounding crashes and musical Frankensteins attest to a certain climate for trials and errors, as in the case of Lebanese singer Elissa in 2019, with an international electro track sounding slightly outdated, or the strange mix of Flip and Daffy (duet between Bahrain and Kuwait), in 2017, with a hip Arab electro sound in the chorus and a questionable early 2000S R&B verse.

Many artists, instead of creating a new sound, do the opposite: “they take the international market and copy”, bluntly says Ghassan Chartouni. What could become the new global sound, the successor to reggaeton, is therefore still in limbo, though several pioneers have started going beyond the mere copying process: among them Palestinian veterans Dam, the trap of Shabjeed (Palestine), that of Issam (Morocco), some pop friendly moharagan hits, as well as the attempts of Majd el Aissa (Saudi Arabia). In these promising tracks, a mix of hip-hop and electro is at play, “this is what has emerged since the Arab revolutions, and this is what we see a lot in Africa too, this new category of urban music”. Dolly Makhoul, of Believe, is expecting a lot from this trend for new music.

Issam, Caviar — YouTube

The rise of these scenes lies somewhere at the intersection of three structural elements. Firstly, the increasing importance of home studio practices and music (electro and hip-hop) that only needs a computer. Sometimes 100% digital, this music even enables artists to choose whether or not they want to perform live. Secondly, the rise in the music industry of players who actually are familiar with these styles of music and digital media. These aggregators (Believe, Idol, the Orchard, Qanawat, etc.) are emerging globally as keys to this new music industry. In charge of distributing music online when “labels” only distributed CDs in the 2000s, they now compete with labels or sometimes even replace them. Along with streaming services, they have become the privileged interlocutors for artists.

Thirdly, this return of the music industry is a game changer for another type of actors which have proved to be essential this last decade: the network of small festivals and expos, such as Visa for Music (Morocco), Beirut and Beyond (Lebanon), Al Balad (Jordan), or more recently Palestine Music Expo. A network of local scenes that has been active for years and whose hitherto “alternative” sounds of electro and hip-hop are becoming mainstream. “It’s a fundamental ecosystem, which the Sacem has been trying to help for years,” says Habib Achour.

Post-Rotana Arab Pop

Will electro and hip-hop influence the dominant Arab pop that Rotana has long embodied? As the music that circulates between Arab countries, and not only to or from the international market, listened to by millions of people in the region through programs like “Arab Idol”, it is the most attractive financial windfall. The Amr Diab generation of artists has not been replaced in years. “Why hasn’t there been a single new female Arab star for fifteen years? The question must be asked”, asserts Ghassan Chartouni, whose label counts as a key star one of the only”survivors" of these TV shows, Nassif Zeytoun.

What will become of this Arab pop, massively listened to on YouTube, whose format belongs to musical styles by nature little adapted to streaming? It features characteristics that go against the current of standard international hits: long and slow mawali-shaped intros, songs that often exceed five minutes, minor keys rather than major keys, ternary or complex rhythms rather than binary, slower BPMs (beats per minute), etc.

Meanwhile, in Europe and North America, streaming has reconfigured the format of international pop music over the past ten years, and the new economic and listening model had some consequences on the shape of songs. Hence, an album by Canadian star Drake is shorter in 2016 than in 2010 and has more songs, each shorter and designed to avoid having listener skip songs before 30 seconds (time after which the songplay is counted and paid). American artist Thierra Wack has pushed the logic to an extreme, with an album entirely made of one minute songs, whereas French rap champion Jul has multiplied the number of releases to have the most songs played.

The new era of Arab streaming is still pending, and it is hard to know what influence this medium will have. But this streaming era marks the fading of stars with declining production. Remarkably, male and female singers of Diab’s generation all have the same trajectories: Elissa or Haifa Wehbé continue to play the same bimbo role more than twenty years into their career, Amr Diab that of a seducer, all of them with the active support of cosmetic surgery. While this type of unchanging artist career exists elsewhere in the world, think for instance of Julio Iglesias, it remains one possibility among others when in the Arab world, it is almost the only option besides falling into oblivion.

Musically speaking, these artists are stuck on a 1990 format, a “Rotana” pop recipe with accelerated, shortened songs, close to the international pop of the time. An international pop that has since radically evolved whereas current Arabic pop albums remain structured along these codes and sound like remastered versions of old recipes: Shérine’s, Nassay, released in 2018, is a good example as it still includes some songs with Spanish guitars, others pouring with strings, etc.

Shérine, Nassay | شيرين - نساي— YouTube

Certainly, Gulf rhythms have at times replaced Egyptian or Lebanese ones. Egyptian language, lingua franca of Arabic pop songs for fifty years, gives way to dialect (Saad Lamjarred sings in Moroccan), and electro sounds may sometimes be heard. However, these are marginal developments when at the same time this pop has been almost hermetic to the king instrument of the 2010s, on a global scale, that is the auto-tune. Can the era of streaming change this? This is where one of the biggest current bets lies. Overall, what is coming is a new generation of stars called upon to adapt with streaming and digital as their native format; new contacts beyond labels (aggregators, streaming services); new concerts and revenue formats ; and eventually new sounds in ambush, backed by a new generation of producers now playing (almost) on equal terms with American or European artists as to hardware and software equipment.