Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia’s inaugural XP Music Conference took place over three days and three nights in Riyadh, attracting hundreds of professionals and artists from the music industry from the Persian Gulf and the -of the.
The event was sponsored by the Saudi government as it seeks to open up more opportunities in the music industry – such as Justin Bieber’s recent concert in the country – amid both criticism international reports on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and a difficult time for private companies with annual music conferences, such as Midem in France (which announced on Wednesday that it would not host an event next year). Riyadh is gaining momentum, with an all-new splashy festival site built for the occasion that seems inspired by Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood; the XP festival was held in the Jax district of Riyadh and took place in and around several stylish warehouses.
While some suggest the initiative is for the show, a cynical attempt to whitewash the Kingdom’s abysmal human rights record (Human Rights Watch has called the state-funded promoter MDL Beast’s massive music festival Soundstorm, which was tangentially attached to the conference, “yet another of Saudi Arabia’s reputational laundering schemes”), it seems likely that their motivation is more based on economic reasons, in light of the success of neighboring countries such as the United Arab Emirates – where Dubai has become the region’s music capital by default – not to mention the billions of dollars music brings to the economies of countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan.
For attendees of the tightly-executed conference, which included numerous panels with regionally relevant discussions on music copyright issues, streaming successes and the live industry in Saudi Arabia, XP stood out. proved to be a useful starting point for national music. market that is growing, and rapidly.
“We are very excited about the opening of Saudi Arabia as a music market,” said Moe Hamzeh, Managing Director of Warner Music Middle East, panellist at the event. “Festivals like Soundstorm show just how much enthusiasm there is for live music here, and we are already seeing huge volumes of recorded music consumption. [from Saudi Arabia] on platforms such as YouTube and Spotify, ”he adds.
Hamzeh also believes the conference is “an invaluable tool to help us start building a real musical ecosystem here, including educating the market about the value of music.”
For artists and future Saudi music executives attending the XP conference, the feeling was that Riyadh was really at the start of what could become a stage to compete with other cities in the years to come.
“In Saudi Arabia, I’ve never seen anything like it before,” says singer-songwriter Tam Tam, who divides his time between Riyadh and Los Angeles. “This is such an important first step for Saudi artists and creatives to have a chance to better understand the industry, I am so excited and so proud that this is finally happening here,” she said ahead of her. presentation at the conference.
Jeddah-based DJ Ahmad Almalki was equally optimistic about the musical awakening underway in his country.
“I feel something like a shock, it happened so quickly,” he gushes from his booming DJ career and the suddenly flourishing electronic scene in Saudi Arabia. The DJ / producer, who goes by the name Malkin, is exactly the kind of success story that MDL Beast (who in addition to being the producer / promoter of the XP conference also hosts the annual EDM Soundstorm event) is hoping to replicate in the future. , while attending the 2019 edition of the festival as a fan, returned home, got inspired and started making music. DJ Malkin plays Soundstorm, alongside some of his heroes such as David Guetta and Afrojack.
“After going to Soundstorm I was like, ‘OK I can do what they do’ and during the pandemic I just worked really hard to learn electronic music,” the 28-year-old said. .
For aspiring Saudi executives such as Talal Alshehail of Riyadh-based entertainment firm Capital Entertainment, XP offered mixed results, but still contained valuable information.
“I’m more into sparse business speeches – I don’t really like sappy ‘you can do it’ speeches,” he says. “I want to know more about the politics, the data and the specific numbers. “
For context, it’s important to note that just five years ago, it would have been unthinkable for Saudi Arabia to host a music conference like XP – let alone a music festival like Soundstorm, where hundreds of thousands of men and women dance side by side in a massive rave in this still deeply religious country.
But since Saudi Arabia launched its Vision 2030 “a strategic framework to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, leisure and tourism ”, the country has experienced radical social change. changes that have given rise to new opportunities for musicians and those seeking a career in the music industry.
Still, it is an open question whether Riyadh can replace Beirut, Tel Aviv or Dubai at any time as the region’s hotspot for music, as so much physical and intellectual infrastructure is still being built in the city. musical space (although Saudi Arabia is spending millions trying to achieve it over the next decade), and alcohol is still banned in the Kingdom.
Still, UAE-based music executive Hussain “Spek” Yoosuf who recently left America for the Gulf to focus on his rights consultancy and independent music company PopArabia, is optimistic about the future of the country.
“I think that will depend in part on the activity and how quickly the Saudi authorities deploy and implement their music strategy,” he said. “However, the creation of a music commission is very encouraging and in general I think the next 5-7 years will see a seismic change in the region. The growth of streaming subscribers and digital services will serve as a tipping point, leading to investments in new talent and an A&R economy.
“Saudi Arabia has always had an inordinate influence over the Middle East due to the size of its population and the country amid one of the most significant socio-cultural changes we have seen in our lifetime. in one place, “he said. keep on going. “I don’t think a lot of people fully appreciate the progress made in Saudi Arabia.”
Another Gulf-based panelist at XP, Alex Andarakis, founder of the management and creative consulting agency that bears his name, echoed the sentiment that Saudi Arabia will become a vital market in the years to come for the music industry.
“The recipe is there in Saudi Arabia: a pool of young, dynamic and creative talent, a clear statement of intent from the country’s leaders for cultural and social enrichment, and a commitment to build the musical ecosystem of the country. ‘well-suited’ education, production, performance, distribution, advocacy and licensing, with a particular focus on intellectual property rights for companies and artists to make the music industry its way to the world.