Coronavirus: Middle East’s musicians turn to virtual concerts, reject ‘exposure’

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Across the world, the coronavirus pandemic has moved live performance from the stage to social media, forcing the Middle East’s musicians, struggling to stay afloat without their traditional income, to search for paid sponsorship for virtual concerts.

Hassan Ahmad Dennaoui, a Saudi MC and radio host known professionally as Big Hass, has made efforts to unite the musical community during COVID-19, staging a Dubai-based regional music festival called the Beat DXB Lockdown on April 8 for 11 hours with artists from across the region. The event was invigorating for the artists involved, acting as a proof of concept for brands in the region to collaborate with the artists in the future.

“It was initially 30 artists and then more people came in from different countries, and we ended up with around 50. Though nothing matches the thrill you get from a live performance, it was nice to see everyone come together and to connect with other artists. As hard as these times are, there’s always a positive side,” Sudanese musician Jindi told Al Arabiya English, noting that he still felt nervous performing remotely for an audience he couldn’t see.

As much of the world stays home under lockdown orders, young people have increasingly turned their attention to social media. Insights and consulting firm Kantar has found that Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook usage shot up 40 per cent from mid to late March for 18 to 34-year olds. Messaging in countries hit hardest by the virus increased 50 per cent overall in the month of March across the aforementioned platforms, according to Alex Schultz, VP of Analytics and Jay Parikh, VP of Engineering for Facebook.

To capitalize on the increase in usage, companies worldwide are collaborating with entertainers for branded social media events and performances. NYX Cosmetics live-streamed a virtual musical festival from April 10-12 though Instagram Live, a live-streaming feature within the app, with artists such as Kim Petras, Jessie Reyez and Princess Nokia participating. On April 23, rapper Travis Scott performed a concert within the popular social game Fortnite, with 27.7 million unique players virtually attending the concert within the platform, according to the game’s publisher Epic.

No more “exposure” payments

After the first Beat DXB Lockdown event, Dennaoui was approached by numerous brands in the region looking to get involved with the artists the first Beat event had showcased. Dennaoui himself made it clear that, as artists are having difficulty financially due to the current crisis, those collaborations should not be free.

“Some of them said, ‘we want to give them exposure’. I said, ‘listen, you want to give them exposure, you speak to them directly. I know for me, I really want to help the artists. I would really, really appreciate it if you can pay them dollars.’ Some of them actually agreed with that. And we managed to pull out like three or four companies that actually agreed to pay, even if the performances were only online,” Dennaoui told Al Arabiya English.

According to Dennaoui, streaming music platforms are not profitable enough for artists despite their popularity, so the only avenues for regional artists to make money are performing live and brand collaborations, with only one possible during lockdown and social distancing measures.

“That's why I've been very vocal about having brands reach out and you know, blessings to God, I was able to really be vocal about it because I said to them, it doesn't make sense. If you're a brand or corporation, you want an artist to come on your page, to shout you out and to perform for 15 minutes. Why not pay them?” says Dennaoui.

Dennaoui delivered an opportunity for the artists involved in his second event, tying up with Casio-owned watch brand Baby G to sponsor an online music festival spotlighting Saudi women. Subtitled “Saudi Femmes,” the event featured performances from 13 Saudi musicians.

While some are finding success in the new paradigm, others have not been able to, according to Dennaoui. Many brands are still offering only “exposure” to musicians, effectively using them to build engagement with their social media pages and offering nothing financial in return. While Dennaoui encourages the artists that he knows to turn down such offers, some still accept, hoping it will lead to an increased profile and more opportunities in the future, he said.

Jay Wud, a prominent Lebanese rock musician and producer based in Dubai, has recently turned down an offer during the COVID-19 lockdown from an interested party, opting instead to work more closely with brands with whom he already has a relationship.

“For one, the pay was really low, and two, they wanted to brand the whole thing, and three, I didn’t believe in it. I felt that it was riding the social media ‘live’ thing for musicians, which I felt that was a bit low,” said Wud.

Exposure from brands that artists don’t have a long-term relationship with don’t do much for an artist in terms of building their brand, according to Wud. Renumeration is more important.

“It’s really not fair for brands to claim they’re giving exposure unless you work with that brand and you are affiliated with them. I’m doing that with Red Bull because I’ve been working with them for 10 years. Musicians should be paid fair and square. Even if they’re performing from home, they’re still putting in an effort to practice, and putting in the same effort to do a show even if it’s on Instagram or Facebook,” he said.

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