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Spek (PopArabia, Reservoir, ESMAA): ‘With streaming, local language music starts to become a lot more important’

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Hussain “Spek” Yoosuf, a former member of Canadian hip hop band Dream Warriors, has become one of the go to people when it comes to doing business in the Middle East.

Spek runs PopArabia, an independent music company founded in 2011 and supported by the Abu Dhabi  initiative, twofour54. He has launched three years ago ESMAA, a new UAE-based music Rights Management Entity (RME) to facilitate music licensing in the Gulf region.

In addition, Spek works with Reservoir Media, the NASDAQ-listed music company, as EVP of International and Emerging Markets, sourcing talent and acquiring catalogues across the region. In 2022, they acquired Lebanese label and music publishing company Voice of Beirut and signed Moroccan hip-hop artist 7liwa to a worldwide recording and publishing deal.

In Egypt, they signed Egyptian rapper and singer Mohamed Ramadan to a worldwide publishing deal; and acquired Egyptian label 100COPIES. Last year, they acquired the catalogue of Cairo-based content production and distribution company RE Media as well as the master and publishing rights for the catalogue of Egyptian rap duo El Sawareekh.

They also set up a new joint venture with Saudi Arabian independent hip-hop label Mashrex. Most recently, they have signed a publishing agreement with In2Musica, the label, publisher, and production company of Lebanese artist Nancy Ajram.

And when he has spare time, Spek continues to record and put out music. Creative Industries News‘s Emmanuel Legrand had a long chat with Spek to talk about music developments in the region. Here’s an edited version of his interview.

PopArabia’s Spek and Mohamed Ramadan

A few years ago you moved to the Middle East. Why did you make the decision to go to that part of the world and what made you think that there was potential from a music business perspective?

Spek: It was a combination of factors. When I first visited the UAE, probably about 2004, copyright law had been introduced in the UAE in 2002. So it was still very, very early days. If you sort of land in Dubai, even in 2004, you get out of the airport, you’re hanging out in the centre of town, and when you’re looking around, it feels like a fairly developed market. There are not a lot of markets that have this sort of infrastructure to operate both from a connectivity perspective to just bricks and mortar architecture. Sure, you’re not going to find in a country like the UAE a system of collective management already in place. But I thought that’s what made the UAE and the Gulf rather unique. I couldn’t think of any other country that was so developed and yet, on the IP side of things, still had quite a bit of catching up to do. I felt that differential represented an opportunity for the right sort of person who understood where the opportunities are.

But you started as an artist, didn’t you?

Spek: I was a kid who grew up on hip hop in the early nineties. If you wanted to bring attention to what you were doing as an artist, as a hip hop artist in Canada, nobody really took you that seriously. Look at now, 20 years later — Drake, the Weeknd, and all of these amazing artists are doing modern contemporary pop music. The lessons that we’ve learned from the development of the Canadian music ecosystem are lessons that will help to bear fruit for us to develop a healthy ecosystem for Arab artists.

The first time you went to the Middle East to set up a business, you were not backed by big pockets.

Spek: You’re right, that was a gamble. It was a big gamble. The way I explain it to people is — I had been an artist my entire life up until the age of 30. I’m 48 now so up until the age of 30, I was an artist, all I did was sign publishing deals and record deals. And that was my only source of income. So going there was a gamble, but I’ve never been somebody who was used to a nine-to-five job and a steady salary. I told myself, okay, I’m going to move to the Middle East and set up the first publisher. That sounds crazy, but not much more of a gamble than saying to yourself, well I’m a young Muslim kid who’s going to be a famous rapper from Canada. That was a gamble as well. Everything I’ve done in my life is a gamble. So it sort of fills the pattern, I suppose.

You went back and forth between the Middle East and North America. At what time did Reservoir come into the picture? And how?

Spek: I started at Reservoir right at the beginning of 2015, but I started talking to Reservoir in 2014 about a role in New York. and the connection there, of course, was that in 2012, Reservoir acquired Reverb Music in the UK and Annette Barrett was running Reverb. Prior to Reverb, Annette was the head of international at Warner Chappell. When I first moved to London in 1997, Annette signed me to Warner Chappell, at the end of 97. Through the relationship with Annette and Warner Chappell, I developed demos, I got management, which was Big Life Management, which is now part of the Reservoir family. And then I got signed to the Echo label, which was part of Chrysalis, run by Jeremy Lascelles and Liz Helms. Everybody that I’ve worked with in my artistic career are all the people that are my right and left hands in my day to day work these days as a publisher and as a music executive. I work with Jeremy, who signed me to my solo record deal. I work with Tim Perry and Big Life who were managing me as an artist and I still work with Annette, of course, who runs our UK office. Through Annette, I met Golnar [Khosrowshahi, Reservoir Founder and CEO] and that was how the connection happened.

You joined Reservoir in New York for a few years, but what made you want to go back to the Middle East and build up a bigger infrastructure?

Spek: There was a couple of things. The one thing that sort of became obvious very quickly was that streaming became a thing. It entered the US market around 2010, and streaming platforms started entering markets around the world. If you look at the trajectory of the way it rolled out, it started mostly in Western Europe and then, over a decade, developed at a macro level. What you notice is that there are patterns to streaming entering new markets all around the world. And one of the consistent patterns is that local language music starts to become a lot more important. It sort of rises to the top, as you would have seen in many countries. For example, for the first time ever, all 10 albums in the Italian top 10 were by Italian-language artists in 2023. In India, the most popular music is in Indian languages, same thing in China, same thing in Africa. Wherever you go, local language and domestic repertoire starts to become a lot more important, which is the opposite of what it was when there was a physical business where the major labels owned the real estate at the record shops. That meant that, in effect, major corporations controlled manufacturing and distribution and were able to ensure that audiences saw whatever they wanted them to see over the course of the past hundred years of the recorded music industry. Streaming changed that. You have the whole world’s catalogue at your fingertips. It means you can go down a very long rabbit hole and within a short space of time, that tends to be the way that this all happens. So when we looked at the Middle East around 2017-18, we knew that the region had all of the metrics and criteria that would turn it, on paper, into potentially the best market in the world, or certainly amongst the best — double digit year-on-year growth, vast majority of the population is under the ages of 40 or 30, with places like Saudi Arabia, where it’s like 70 percent of the population under the age of 30. You’ve got extremely well connected people, with high levels of broadband and cellular penetration and 400 million people, which is more than in the US, which has historically been the largest music market in the world for monetisation. When you added all of the metrics together, you could look at it and say, the industry was what it was, but looking at the future, I felt it was a reasonable assumption to say that over the course of the next 15 years, the monetisation of the music industry will shift. Historically, music was monetised with 80 percent of global revenue coming from only 20 percent of the world or less. We’re going to get to a place where if we will start to monetise 50 percent of the world or 70 percent of the world. It completely changes the entire game.

How would you monetise the Middle Eastern market?

Spek: Well, it’s going to be about Arabic language music. It’s going to be about these new genres that are being developed because of social media and the advent of home studios. And since you’ve got a high youth population, it means that there’s going to be large levels of expression, communicating and storytelling, reaching a wider audience. If people have been able to communicate openly and freely, then in theory, you would think that there’s gonna be something interesting artistically that comes out of that. So that was the theory, and we saw it happening; we saw the streaming platforms entering the Middle East, and the market started reacting. It’ll take a process of time for things to heat up and for it to get really competitive. When I saw that happening, I thought to myself, I think I can do a better job than anybody else can in this space. I felt confident in what we’ve been able to do on our own and we should just go after this aggressively because we think that there’s an opportunity here. I went back to Rell [Lafargue, Reservoir President and COO] and Golnar and told them this is what I think the next 15 years of the music business is going to be about. And therefore, I think it should be incumbent on me to go back and see if I could double down and really build this thing out. Rell and Golnar said, we agree with you and we should do it together. Let’s do it as partners. That’s where the whole thing came about.

You said that you had to have a proper IP infrastructure in the country or in the region to grow, otherwise that wouldn’t work. How’s the IP situation today?

Spek: Where are we at compared to, say, 20 years ago? Well, things have moved on, but what I would say is that I don’t think you need the same sort of copyright infrastructure [as in the Western countries] to have the monetisation of music functioning properly. You don’t need the architecture in the same way that you used to. When it was a physical business, you needed a lot more of the guardrails. When it’s a digital business, if 70 percent of our revenue as an industry is coming from digital monetisation, and publishers and labels can do direct deals with the digital platforms, it means that you don’t need to wait for an entire industry to be fixed. You don’t have to wait to have the IP architecture in place in any given country. There’s a lot more that you could do without the traditional infrastructure, which wasn’t the case when it was a physical business. It’s getting better over time because of digital.

You’ve set up a rights management organisation for the region, ESMAA, correct?

Spek: Technically and legally, it’s an RME, a Rights Management Entity, but we’re also licensing performing rights, so you could call us a PRO (performance rights organisation). We license performing, mechanical and neighbouring rights, but we are technically a rights management entity.

What are the entities that you’re licensing to?

Spek: We have licensed music to a wide range of local music users in the region, such as Dubai Expo 2020, MDLBEAST in Saudi Arabia, or the Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi. It goes from major regional live events and public spaces to broadcasting rights. We’re the only entity, either through PopArabia or ESMAA, which has been able to develop an economy around music licensing in this way. It just didn’t exist before we were here. Having said that, because it didn’t exist before we were here, when we started telling people that we were going to license, everybody told us that we’ll never going to license anybody, because the narrative that people were communicating to us was that we’d never been able to do it. We heard so many times ‘what made you think that you could do it?’ Companies much bigger than we are told us they haven’t been able to have any success. That was the sort of attitude towards it. And there was a sense that it was an impossible task, a very steep hill. What we found over time is that it is definitely challenging, there’s no question, because people who have never had to pay for music rights don’t necessarily wake up in the morning saying that suddenly they respect music and want to pay rights. That was definitely challenging, but it’s also changing and evolving in both ways. People don’t wake up in the morning suddenly with a change of heart, but at the same time, it’s becoming a more and more globalised world and the Gulf is becoming more and more a geographically integrated economy. In my view, it’s a good time, with things evolving and changing in the right sort of direction. When I moved to the region, everybody thought that that was a little bit crazy. Nowadays, most people I talk to are very excited about what’s going on in the Gulf and Middle East and all of those opportunities. Even though I looked like I was crazy 20 years ago, now I look like I had some sort of crazy vision.

Good timing!

Spek: For a lot of these things, it is really just about the timing, and being lucky enough to sort of ride the wave at the right moment as changes are about to happen. And I think I was fortunate in that way.

When you have discussions with companies in the US or in Europe, and you try and explain to them that they can probably make money in the region, what kind of reactions do you get these days?

Spek: Now everybody’s excited, right? But when I first moved out there and I had that light bulb moment where I saw the opportunity, I went back to London and I started talking to the major publishers and asking them how they were licensing their music in the Middle East. All of them at that time, and that was almost 20 years ago, basically said to me at the time ‘We give the rights to the entire Middle East via our Turkish office or Turkish sub-publisher. Turkey is our window into the Middle East, and that’s how we see ourselves addressing this issue’. I went back to them and I said, ‘Look, no offence, but nobody in the Arab world considers Turkey to be the Middle East. I get that for 50 years you guys have been doing it this way, but it sort of lacks the regional context’. How would anybody expect to open up an entire new region if you’re trying to do it remotely out of a market that’s not even in the region? We went from that moment when people were saying ‘I don’t think we need anybody in the Middle East’, which is the position that most people took, to people starting to call us once we started proving ourselves out there. Word got around. People started coming back around to us and saying, ‘Maybe we need to have somebody who’s actually there’. The attitude towards the region has changed quite a bit in the period that PopArabia has been around.

But that would also assume that there is an interest in that part of the world for music from Europe or North America. Is that the case?

Spek: Sure, absolutely. Well, in the Middle East, there’s markets like the UAE and Qatar that are 90 percent expat, 10 percent local, which is a very unusual demographic and the total reversal from markets like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, where it’s very Arabic. It’s not one market, it’s a diverse market of 20 odd territories, and each of them have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. My personal take on it, going back to the original question, is that I really feel that in the next 10 or 15 years this region is going to be completely delivering, not just from a financial perspective, but also in terms of impact. These high growth, highly populous markets will not only deliver billions of streams but I think that the new face of pop is going to be this global. Artistically, creatively and financially, the next 15 years are going to be really about Africa, Asia and the Middle East. As streaming services build their subscribers’ numbers up every year, in the next 10 years, we’re going to get to a place where for the first time the US will be eclipsed by other markets. English language music is no longer going to be the dominant form of music around the world. All of those changes are happening before our eyes and we’re in the middle of all of that unraveling as each day goes by.

But, at the moment, what are we talking about in terms of business? Is it million dollars or are we talking about hundreds of millions?

Spek: There’s the macro aspect with the IFPI figures and we can always extrapolate on that. But then there’s also what you can do with boots on the ground, and how you grow the market.

But is the flow of revenues coming from the region significant?

Spek: It’s significant, but we’re still early in the story, and that’s okay. There’s a lot of challenges to the monetisation of music rights in markets where that has not happened before. On one hand, you’ve got all of the excitement around the region and how growth is exploding. It’s super exciting. There’s many positive signs, yet it’s still actually not easy and not straightforward to collect. If you look at markets like Africa, India, China or the Middle East, it’s not as straightforward to make sure that you’re collecting every penny and that you’re not leaving money on the table somewhere. In fact, it’s very easy to lose money in these markets because the mechanisms for capturing collections are imperfect. It is just getting better year on year in these new markets and it can only improve. We still have some time ahead of us before we can really fully capture all the opportunities, but that’s what we’re doing now.

Another aspect of your business is to identity and invest in local talent and acquire catalogues.

Spek: When we announced the Poparabia-Reservoir deal, out plan was to go out, hit the ground running and find opportunities. We announced the deal in January or February of 2020, and then Covid hit us just a few weeks later. That sort of slowed some of the plans. Having said that, acquisitions in emerging markets is hand to hand combat. Having done this at Reservoir and at Olé before that in the West I have some experience in this, but it’s always challenging. In the West, you’re generally getting your deal flow from lawyers and managers or through your contacts. In emerging markets, you have to be out there, you’ve got to be in the studio in the middle of the night with the artist or the owner of the label. You don’t have the kind of brokers you have in the West. Therefore it’s much more challenging to find catalogues and to get to a place where there’s a deal that’s ready to do. We’ve got a significant deal flow but that’s a testament to how long we’ve been in the market and how many active conversations we’ve had.

You’re seeing all the major companies coming your way and starting to be pretty active in the region. You were the first entrant, but you’re no longer the only player. Has that changed your perspective because there’s more competition to acquire catalogues?

Spek: It’s gonna get there. Again, we’re very early in a five to 10 year story in terms of how this market is going to start opening up and where the opportunities will come from. We think of ourselves as fairly unique in the marketplace. There are definitely other labels. There are definitely other publishers. The market’s opening up. The way I see it is that there’s going to be opportunities and more people are going to move in. I don’t see what we do as purely just like a first mover advantage. Being a first mover can also be a disadvantage as well sometimes. What we have is a lot more than a first mover advantage — we’re the only independent music company in the region that has really focused in publishing rights, which is fairly new in the region, but we’ve also got a unique team of people with skill sets that have been really focused on signing A& R development, licensing a lot of the stuff that the traditional labels weren’t really that focused on in the region. I feel like we’ve developed a core set of skills that is more important than just being a first mover. You can be a first mover and still not have all of the skill sets that you need to really take advantage of the opportunities that will presents themselves over the course of the next decade. The team that we’ve assembled is people with backgrounds in music, A&R, acquisitions, and we’re about as big as some of the majors now. The PopArabia team itself is nine people. That’s about as much as the Sony office or Warner’s office in the Middle East. I think that we are well positioned. We are just going to keep fighting and trying to do what we can to help develop the market forward. Over the course of the next decade, we’re going to hit past the tipping point where we’ll start to feel the whole market open up. That’s what we’re preparing for and I feel quite confident in our steps in that direction.

Is it correct to assume that although it’s the same language throughout the region, it’s not because you sign an artist from one country in the region that it will resonate elsewhere?

Spek: It’s one common language, for sure, but there’s different dialects depending on where you are. If you are in North Africa is going to be different than Levantine and Levantine is going to be different than the Gulf. So it is definitely not one territory. but there are cross-regional opportunities. We’ve seen over the decades a number of artists, such as Egyptian or Lebanese artists, that could travel across the region. In more recent times, we’ve started to see acts cross out to not just the region, but globally. It’s an exciting time. In each of these markets, there are kids that are literally inventing new genres of music that are traveling and exporting through social media and via Reels and YouTube. I feel quite excited about where the music is going to go.

What do you think of Saudi Arabia’s initiative to set up a music-centric organisation? Do you think that this kind of initiative can bring more professionalism in the region and more awareness?

Spek: I think it’s a good thing. I like Paul Pacifico [CEO of the Saudi Music Commission]. He’s a knowledgeable person. He knows his stuff. I can’t think of any other government in the Middle East that has created a music commission and then installed somebody who’s a very experienced person to come in and run it. The more people that we have on the ground that are really experienced and knowledgeable about the way that the music industry should work, about the way intellectual property laws should be respected, about the rights of music creators and rights owners be respected, the more people like that we have in the market, the better, because the market needs to mature and it can only do that through a certain degree of education.

You were an artist in the first place. Do you still have time to produce music and record songs?

Spek: Yes, I’m putting out a Spek album this year and I’ve been recording a lot lately. In the last couple of years Nitin Sawhney — who is a Reservoir writer — and I have been writing and recording together. I was supposed to play with them at the Albert Hall in September and I got Covid the day before the gig so I had to pull out of it. I always felt somewhat shy about being an executive who started his career as an artist, I always felt slightly embarrassed about that whenever I would meet people because it felt like it made me less of an executive.

Do you mean you had the imposter syndrome?

Spek: Yeah, total imposter syndrome. When I started taking meetings as a publisher, I was very self conscious initially that most of these people already knew me, but as a composer, because I had done so many writing camps and sessions and meetings and the rest of it. I was so conscious about that, to the point where I didn’t really want to put music out as Spek anymore because I felt like it would be a conflict. Now, I am at a point where I don’t care about the conflict anymore. That’s what I was put on this earth to do. The skillsets that I’ve learned around the making, production, writing, and touring of music has made me a better music executive who can appreciate the nuances of an artist’s career, in a very real and direct way. I’m no longer embarrassed about it, but I have consistently continued to make music. I never stopped making music, even though I’ve been an executive for the past 20 years.

You have lived in Toronto, London, New York and now Dubai. Do you still feel Canadian?

Spek: I am Canadian, but I live in Dubai. I live in the UAE.

When you look back at your trajectory, how do you feel about it? Would you have expected that kind of life?

Spek: No, not at all. I was completely convinced, rightly or wrongly, that I was going to be a hippie musician my entire life. I never thought of myself as an executive, or an entrepreneur, or any of those sort of things. I never really thought of myself in that sort of way. The shift to becoming a music executive was a difficult one because I felt like if you’re gonna do the art, you have to really throw yourself into it. When I got into the music executive part of my career, the only way to be fair to it would be to really throw myself fully into it, and that’s what I did. I think I’ve had a decent career as an executive, but it was a difficult decision to make. I really battled with the idea that I wasn’t going to sit there and make music for a living. These days I found a better balancing act between those two things and I’m really proud of the music that we’re just finishing up. We learn about ourselves every day.

Emmanuel is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist, blogger and media consultant, specialising in the entertainment business and cultural trends. He was the US editor for British music industry trade publication Music Week. Previously, he was the editor of Impact, a magazine for the music publishing community (2007-2009), the global editor of US trade publication Billboard (2003-2006), and the editor in chief of Billboard’s sister publication Music & Media (1997-2003).

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