Mideast Tunes is a solid platform to discover underground musicians in the Middle East and North Africa. Founded in 2010 in Bahrain, it aims to unite people in the region through music, and to give underdog musicians much needed exposure for free. “Middle East” and “thought provoking music” usually don’t come up in the same context, but that is the message Mideast Tunes wants to deliver through its platform. We talked to Esra'a_Al-Shafei, Bahraini civil rights activist, and the founder and executive director of Mideast Youth and its related projects, including CrowdVoice.org and Mideast Tunes.
“We believe music can change the world and that the musicians of the Middle East and North Africa will lead the way.” exclaimed Al-Shafei.
You’ll find on this app musicians who have spent their lives composing and recording music for the fun of it, because they wanted to express themselves in a meaningful way, and often enough, this kind of attitude doesn’t convert in dollars.
Have you ever heard of Saudi Arabian hip hop or Sudanese jazz? I know I haven’t. Being a music enthusiast myself, I’ve scoured the internet for good underground bands. Alas it was always rare to find something that’s gotten a lot of attention from the public but was still good. I was pleasantly surprised with the iOS and Android app showing so many different bands, organized well, and quite easy to use.
Mideast Tunes does its part here, they showcase real musicians from all over the region, and they got a lot of bands featured on top media publications, from radio stations to BBC and NPR. Even Amber Fares, the Director of Speed Sisters commented on the app saying "Mideast Tunes was a huge resource for us during the making of our feature documentary film Speed Sisters. We wanted to use regional independent bands with a variety of different sounds, and we discovered most of the artists on Mideast Tunes. It really is the best resource for independent Arab music out there."
The iOS app, Android app, and website all have beautiful interfaces, and gives these independent musicians a chance to reach wider audiences in the Arab world. MidEast Tunes currently features the music of over 1300 bands and around 7,000 tracks to listen to from Egypt, Lebanon, Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain… you can browse these bands by country, or by genre, as well as by popularity or chronologically. As you add more musicians to your collection of favorites, MidEast Tunes will make suggestions for you based on your taste.
New Features after the 2014 Investment from AFAC
The app is bilingual now, users can create their own playlist, and pretty soon they will be able to create multiple playlists. The apps were built in partnership with AFAC: the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in Beirut. They started funding Mideast Tunes in early 2014 and with the 40,000$ fund they were able to release these new applications.
They’re developing offline listening for favorited tracks so you can listen to them anywhere without an internet connection without having to stream the track all over again, so you’re able to listen to them while driving or jogging without WiFi or 3G. This isn’t the same as downloading music, since the tracks are only available on the app. So you won’t be able to take the song out of the app.
Al-Shafei continued: “We talked a lot with the bands on this to make sure they’re comfortable with this decision, most of them don’t do it for the money, they do it because they’re political and social artists. They are doing it for the fans, if you go to these artists on Soundcloud, a lot of them are not signed, so they just enable people to download their music.”
But AFAC isn’t a venture capital firm looking for a return on its investment, it’s basically a funder that supports independent music as well as the film scene in the Arab region. Last year they launched a music creation and research program, out of which Mideast Tunes was able to win the grant. They have been approached by angel investors and VCs, but these investments would expect something in return, which would mean that Mideast Tunes would have to sell out and start thinking about money, and not about social good.
“It’s been a really good partnership with AFAC, they really understand the potential and need for an application that focuses on the indie scene in the Arab region, as so far there aren’t any of this kind. However, Mideast Tunes has an extensive database with more than 1300 bands in the region that we spent the past 4 years compiling, many bands also hail from Iran, Turkey, and Kurdistan.”
Bands can’t easily get Visas to travel and perform across borders these days, which means some performances in different countries are unfortunately turned down. There’s the cost issue involved, as Mideast Tunes is 100% non-profit. All operations were self-funded up until January 2014, “We’ve passed 100,000 app downloads, and we’re gaining traction and got a lot of great feedback especially on the new apps, and we’re thinking of ways to monetize, but feel it’s too early still because we want to reach critical mass and we haven’t yet.”
Mideast Tunes might consider charging radio stations for the information they request, it takes them a lot of time and effort to find all the pop artists in Egypt and put radio stations in touch with them, or all the metal artists in Kuwait, and to ensure that the interviewer and the band are being connected. To be fair here, the radio stations are getting advertising money or support from corporations, and the bands are getting some exposure from the interviews as well.
Mideast Tunes wants to have the bands earn money as well as them, while staying true to their original goal. Their relationships aren’t with record labels, but with the bands themselves. They’re not to be mistaken for another Anghami.
Indie music is becoming more popular In the Gulf region, there are more Metal musicians and Hip Hop musicians to satisfy that demand. Before these artists used to get 50 to 100 people for a concert, but these days there are concerts where tickets are sold out the day they go on sale.
More bands now aim to raise funds by crowdfunding or monetizing their work so they can record in professional studios. They’re doing this by being inspired by bands like Mashrou’ Leila who really made it in the Arab world and in the international scene.
Mideast Tunes gives many of these bands exposure, and connect them with media entities, as they’ve built partnerships with Shazam, Radio Netherlands, and Radio Monte Carlo.
“Every week they say they want to interview bands in Qatar or Bahrain and we connect them. Even radio stations in the region are starting to notice and respect these bands.”