When inspiration strikes, Ahmed Garoon makes his way to the living room of his Dubai home, which he has transformed into his very own performance space. In it you will find his elaborate DJ and computer set-up, which not only houses his extensive music collection, but serves as a portal for potential fans to appreciate his production work.
Once he's "in the zone", Garoon – who goes by the stage name DJ Somalie – begins one of his regular Facebook streaming performances, a concept he began experimenting with back in 2015 and which amassed a dedicated following thanks to his well-curated hip-hop and funk mixes, in addition to the epic duration of some sets.
To celebrate his 33rd birthday in 2017, he created a regional online stir when he performed uninterrupted for 18 hours straight. While admitting it was a "crazy idea" and that a wave of appreciative emojis is no substitute for the real-life reception he gets from the Dubai club crowds he normally plays to, Garoon enjoys the artistic integrity that comes with an online streaming set.
"I love it because I am not held by the pressures of a club or venue to play a certain type of music. When I do decide to stream, it is just me and my records and a desire to show people what I am feeling musically right now," he says, before adding: "If the question is, do I make money off it right now? The answer is no. But if you are a big star you can definitely monetise it as there is an audience for that."
How coronavirus is taking music online
This is becoming increasingly true. With coronavirus spreading rapaciously around the world, leaving shuttered venues, concerts and festivals in its wake, a growing number of musicians and cultural institutions are migrating online. It is also a development underscored in irony. Where the online world was once viewed as a major disruptor for the music industry, it now provides a potential path forward.
Interesting examples of this trend are found in territories hardest hit by the virus. In China, the popular Strawberry Music Festival – which travels through various provinces during the spring – teamed up with local social media app Bilibili last month for a series of free, live-streamed concerts around the theme "Hi, I'm home too". It featured popular local acts such as rappers Kafe Hu and Tizzy T, as well as rock groups Birdstriking and Re-Tros. Meanwhile, Shanghai super-clubs All and Elevator ensured their beats were being heard through a series of online "bedroom parties" featuring streamed sets from its DJs spinning from their homes.
Over in Italy, which is currently the epicentre of the virus in Europe, musicians and theatre companies are also showcasing their respective crafts online. Venice's historic opera house, La Fenice, recently had the string quartet, Quartetto Dafne, play to an empty hall with the concert streamed live. And after ditching her national tour, X Factor Italia winner Francesca Michielin still took her music to the masses through a series of online live concerts. "Music doesn't stop, and neither do we," she posted. "We can't physically be together, it's true, and that's why I thought I'd prepare something special."
With all that activity online, it begs the question: are we seeing the birth of a new genre of the live concert market? And with the UAE's music scene also severely affected by the virus – with a growing list of music festivals being cancelled or postponed – should all sectors of the local industry consider the new format not only as a stop-gap measure, but as a permanent feature of and addition to the entertainment marketplace?
The answer is not simple, says Mike Fairburn, general manager, Sony Music Middle East. The online concert boom in Asia cannot be easily replicated in the region, he says, as consumption behaviours in places such as the UAE are radically different to those in China and South Korea. "You have to take a wider view and look at it in context," Fairburn says.
"One of the reasons it is successful in China is that this kind of model is already part of the cultural conversation over there. If you look at one of the biggest companies, like Tencent, they found success in doing things like online concerts and virtual gift giving. In China you can virtually give flowers or a private virtual solo performance by a pianist as a gift, for example. That is a huge business and has been for years."
Fairburn also says the growth of the online concert space in China is partly down to issues surrounding access. For a country of its size, the virtual world is a quicker and cost-effective method for both artist and fans to meet. "The online space offers more options and access, which is key for any market to develop."
Online concerts bring everyone to the party
It was precisely that challenge of access that pushed Garoon to first explore the online space five years ago. With his Somali passport proving a major hurdle when it came to European travel, he says he can still join the party by accessing concerts and festivals, such as Belgium's Tomorrowland, online. "For many of us who live in the region, it is not so easy for us to travel to the best European music festivals and clubs," he says. "So if my favourite in Europe are broadcasting sets from some of my favourite artists, like [UK DJ] Carl Cox, I would definitely tune in online."
This reasoning was partly behind the concept of Unite with Tomorrowland. Held in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2016 and 2018, respectively, the event had UAE dance music fans – alongside those from cities in Italy, Mexico and Spain – gathering in large venues and dancing along to simulcast sets from star DJs such as Armin Van Buuren and David Guetta from the Tomorrowland Festival in Belgium.
Envie Productions was charged with putting the UAE shows together. The company's founder, Nicolas Vandenabeele, says streaming the festival was a "win" for all involved – regional fans could overcome the financial and travel barriers that would have come with going to the original festival, while the event itself could increase its global imprint at a relatively minimal cost. "With the digital world we know that record sales are not the main income for artists anymore. The money is in the concerts. However, some fans don't have the financial power to buy a concert ticket. If they could stream a show live for a reasonable price they would do it – they could invite their friends and enjoy their favourite artist together," he says.
"So it's definitely a win-win. No travel restrictions, no mobility issues, the shows are accessible to a wider demographic because of price and this results in a happier fan base."
While the live music experience will always be the superior option, Vandenabeele believes the online concert market is only going to grow. And in the end, it took a global viral outbreak to showcase its potential. "I predict that soon, as part of ticket sales, you will also be able to buy live streaming [tickets] and witness the concert on your sofa with friends," he says.
"There are a lot of festivals already streaming part of their events online. Coronavirus just made people more aware of options to protect themselves."
Abu Dhabi musician and promoter Waleed Shah agrees with Vandenabeele's prediction of the rise of home-viewed concerts. However, he puts that immobility down to the growing list of lazy habits caused by social media consumption. "This is what happens these days. You are sitting in bed and you are online and scrolling and if you are not fed that information directly, you won't seek it. So adding that live stream strategy to your art is important because of that segment [of people] that will never get out of the house, or frankly, don't love you enough to go out and see you."
Society has a desire to stay connected, whatever it takes
While the debate on the merits of live music streaming continue, the fact such technology exists also confirms our fundamental human need to connect with the other. More than the music, Somalie says he is inspired by what the musicians from China and South Korea are doing online in sharing their experiences living among the virus. "It is human nature that once we are put in a corner we will make the best out of it," he says.
"And I see that happening now with streaming. I follow some Chinese and Korean streamers, from gamers to DJs and what they do is provide a glimmer of hope to not only me, but the world because they show us what they are going through day by day. They tell us, 'Don't worry. We are good. We are still creating. We are still here.'"