Culture Summit Abu Dhabi zooms in on future of Gulf music industry

Recording Academy chief executive Harvey Mason Jr and award-winning producer Jimmy Jam among speakers on second day of annual event

Harvey Mason Jr, chief executive of the Recording Academy, during his talk, Music and Influence on Global Culture, at the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi on Monday. Victor Besa / The National
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The Gulf is the fastest-growing music territory in the world, uniquely poised to spearhead a global influence similar to K-pop or cultural phenomenon the British Invasion.

For that to happen, however, a supportive ecosystem is needed to help it thrive, Recording Academy chief executive Harvey Mason Jr said during his talk, Music and Influence on Global Culture, at the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi on Monday.

“I am excited and optimistic about what’s happening musically around the world, but particularly this region,” he said. “There's such a rich heritage here. The music legacy is deep. I don't see why the next global superstar, the next sound, couldn't come from right here.”

As the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi looks into bolstering the creative industry, Mason Jr said it was important to provide education, training, and the infrastructure to support local and regional artists.

“K-pop didn't just appear out of nowhere. Rap music didn't just appear out of nowhere. The Beatles and the British Invasion didn’t just pop up. All that came out of a supportive ecosystem that helped nourish the artists, music teachers, venue owners, local studios and intellectual production protection strategies,” he said.

“I see no higher purpose than nourishing creators, supporting the music of communities and cities, building music markets and regional music scenes. It's not only good for those communities, or those countries or those regions, it's good for all of us.”

Mason Jr was in a recording studio in Qatar earlier this year when he got the chance to hear one of the songs written for the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022.

The songwriter and producer, who has worked with Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Britney Spears, among other big names, didn't specify the title of the song, but said to him, it represented “the miracle of music” and its ability to overcome borders.

“The song was beautiful. My favourite part was that it was sung in three different languages by three artists. I heard Arabic, I heard English, I heard Spanish, all in one song. Hearing it in the studio was a moment that hit me. I knew that the future wasn't almost here. The future is here.”

Music was a highlight of the second day of the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi, with several international award-winning figures and experts speaking on the region’s potential to expand globally in the digital age.

“The music industry grew 35 per cent in 2021,” Mason Jr said. “Streaming is skyrocketing. Platforms like TikTok, Instagram reels and YouTube shorts are all seeing a huge growth here. There’s so much fantastic innovation going on. There’s this energy here that anything is possible. You only need to look at streamers like Anghami to see the pace of change. From 30 million annual users in 2017, it now has more than 70 million users and becoming the first Arabic technology company to be listed on Nasdaq stock exchange.”

Listing examples of how regional artists have made an impact on a global level, Mason Jr cited Egyptian singer Mohamed Hamaki’s concert in September in collaboration with online game Fortnite, which “almost broke the platform with millions and millions and millions of views.”

“We’re paying attention. The world is paying attention,” he said. “Today, the world has never been small. Music is blowing through borders and boundaries, and languages and cultures. Right now, on the US charts, three of the top artists are all from outside of America.”

Jimmy Jam also said he is excited to see the unique sonic signatures that will come out of Arab cities. The Grammy Award-winning producer, along with his long-time collaborator Terry Lewis, has worked with several high-profile musicians from Janet Jackson and Prince to Mariah Carey and Usher.

Speaking in conversation with Recording Academy president Panos A Panay, Jam said he was looking forward to spending more time in Abu Dhabi to discover its musical identity.

“It'll be exciting to see what happens,” he said.

“All it takes really is one artist to really break out. Then everybody feels like, wow, oh, that must be the thing. That’s what happened when Prince broke out, everybody all of a sudden came to Minneapolis to figure out what that sound is. It's the same thing in Philadelphia or Detroit or a lot of towns. What's exciting is that there's an interest in music here, but it also seems there is going to be infrastructure to really uplift the musicians and the creative community here.”

Updated: October 27, 2022, 7:53 AM