Booming music scene in MENA opens possibilities for regional artists

The amalgamation of different musical cultures is making MENA a region open for a fluid and thriving music industry.

Sindhu Kashyaap

Nikita Bameta

Booming music scene in MENA opens possibilities for regional artists

Tuesday April 11, 2023,

6 min Read

Key Takeaways

Universal Music Group, Sony Music, Warner Music Group, and Spotify are working with Arab artists, with a focus on promoting Arab music and culture.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman are all creating their own subcultures of music.

Apart from welcoming global artists, the MENA region is providing opportunities to local musicians.

Twenty-four-year-old Ahmed Ali, who is better known as Wegz and rose to fame in 2017, recently became the first Egyptian artist to perform at the FIFA 2022 World Cup held in Qatar. One of the most popular artists on Spotify in Egypt, as well as the wider Arab region, his song El Bakht, has hit over 194 million views on YouTube. 

Wegz’s story is just one example among the many artists who are gaining popularity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as the local music industry is undergoing a significant transformation, with major record labels increasingly investing in discovering and promoting local artists. 

Two years ago, Universal Music Group launched Universal Arabic Music, a label dedicated to promoting the rich musical culture of the region. Sony Music Middle East and the Arab music streamer Anghami followed suit in 2021, forming a new joint venture record label called Vibe Music Arabia, with a focus on supporting artists in the GCC regions. 

Also in 2021, Warner Music Group announced an investment in the Arab world's leading independent record label, Rotana Music.

This investment in the region's music industry is paying off, as local artists are gaining popularity and recognition. Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, for example, has collaborated with DJ Marshmello, while Algerian musician Cheb Mami has collaborated with the popular British singer Sting.

A unique cultural blend 

In the past, the MENA region promoted artists from other parts of the world, and now the emergence of local artists with their own unique cultural amalgamation is adding more flavours to the region’s music industry. 

"I am seeing more artists that grow up in this part of the world, using Arabic or Middle Eastern roots or stylisations within more commonly found Western music. While people make Western style of R&B music, it is performed in Arabic, and rap is in Arabic. There are Arabic rappers. And that is a beautiful cultural amalgamation," says Stephon LaMar, a self-employed musician based out of Dubai.

The scope and appetite for music in the post-pandemic world have started to grow exponentially.  Speaking about the evolution of the market, Adam Cotier, DJ and Independent Musician based out of Dubai explains there is a growing demand for more music and bigger artists. 

“I've been a creative director for many different global companies. So I've seen the more competitive regions in the world. At moment, in the last six months, this has become hyper-competitive. Also, Dubai is a cultural hub and melting point, a lot of the scene sees that cultural amalgamation,” explains Cotier. 

The music of the UAE incorporates various Arab and non-Arab cultural influences, resulting in a diverse range of styles. House and techno, particularly melodic genres, currently dominate the music scene in the country.

“There is an interesting mix of African, Indian, European, and Arabic influences,” adds Cotier. 

LaMar adds the region acts like a hub for the rest of the world. The UAE is a melting pot, and Saudi Arabia is following suit. 

“And obviously, arts and entertainment are a huge part of that. A city can not really, truly progress, if it doesn't allow the growth and expansion of arts and entertainment. So I see Saudi much like they are in so many other industries, doing their best to be as forward-thinking as possible, and accepting as possible in their promotion of art and acceptance of Western culture and Western art,” adds LaMar. 

Growing acceptance 

According to LaMar, the growing acceptance and promotion of live music are also helping the industry.

“So now I really feel as though you continue to see and experience more people who are making music from this region, and also have the opportunity to express it and perform it and put it on stage and more venues are more open to having those kinds of live acts come on stage. The live music scene continues to be fostered,” he adds. 

While regions like Bahrain have always had more liberal policies towards entertainment and attracted musicians of all genres, the emergence of music entrepreneurship has been interesting, where artists like Cotier are starting their own ventures. 

The growth of artist collectives, and record labels with built-in support tools, is increasing the growth of the underground music scene.

"At the moment, in the last six months, this has become hyper-competitive. Also, Dubai is a cultural hub and melting point, a lot of the scene sees that cultural amalgamation," explains Cotier. 

The MENA region saw revenues from recorded music climb by 23.8% in 2022, the world’s third-highest growth rate for the segment, according to the latest Global Music report. Streaming music dominates the MENA market, with its revenues accounting for 95.5% of the total.

A thriving underground scene 

Cotier has been a part of the global music industry for over 25 years. When he decided to open a nightclub in Dubai four and a half years ago, he discovered a gap for something more expansive, underground, and less opulent.

“I had formed a company, Disrupt with a friend of the family, the idea was to disrupt and change the market. I opened a nightclub called Industrial Avenue, the idea was to give everyone access to people from different cultural backgrounds. It acted as a platform for musicians and artists that weren’t getting it elsewhere,” adds Coteir.

Today subcultures of different forms and types of music are opening in the wider MENA region. For example, in Oman, where electronic music was once frowned upon, things have begun to change, especially since 2010. 

One possible explanation for this shift is that at the beginning of the last decade, pop artists increasingly started collaborating with electronic music producers and DJs, according to an article in Scene Arabia. Commercial radio also pushed electronic music to the mainstream. 

With the growing interest, there are now newer opportunities for underground electronic music enthusiasts, who are working regular day jobs. 

However, the increased demand for international artists has led to an inflation in their costs, making it difficult for smaller players to compete for their services. This has created an upper or elite tier of operators that are going after the biggest and the best artists. 

Moreover, Oman is known for its homegrown talent, which has contributed to the promotion of live music. "If people who write music or create music don't really have a chance to promote it, then basically the only music that would get shown or would get promoted would have to come from outside of this region. So now I really feel as though you continue to see and experience more people who are making music from this region," says LaMar.

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Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti