The Fridge opens the door to recording artists
The musical landscape of Dubai is sometimes perceived as being devoid of originality, with little but hotel cover bands and repetitive dance music to keep the masses sated.
Yet, persistence can uncover the existence of a grassroots live circuit, although admittedly one that's still only in an incipient state.
Arguably, the epicentre of this underground scene is The Fridge, a warehouse-based arts venue located in the far reaches of the Al Quoz Industrial Estate.
As well as being a performance space for up-and-coming bands and quirky theatre acts, it also doubles up as a booking agency for musicians of all genres. Now, the business has ventured into a new realm with the launch of its own record label.
Overseeing that enterprise is label manager Chris Rayner, a 32-year-old Londoner who moved to Dubai three years ago. Back in his home country, he worked as a 3D graphic designer, but always aspired to earn his livelihood as a dance music DJ, an ambition he sought to fulfil in the Emirates. Nowadays, as well as being on the books as one of The Fridge's performers, he also manages the day-to-day operation of the burgeoning record label.
Rayner admits that his initial perception of Dubai's music scene was disappointment, before realising there were untapped depths to it.
"When I first got here, I worked out quite quickly that the music scene was not brilliant," he concedes. "As everything's hotel-based, a lot of it tends to be mainstream, but with a bit of digging, you can find something esoteric and underground and The Fridge has built its reputation on being this way.
"The company's booking agency has some pretty mainstream acts, but definitely the performance space here in Al Quoz is all about being slightly arty and underground."
The label aims to promote this left-field mantra, as evidenced with its sole release thus far, Giant Steps to Heaven by the Elie Afif Quartet.
But, while Dubai is home to numerous online record labels, The Fridge is one of a few that persists in releasing music in physical form, with CDs of Giant Steps currently swelling the shelves of Virgin Megastores across the Gulf.
Rayner readily concedes that such is the niche appeal of jazz, the LP has only achieved modest success.
"The way we work is that if you want to release an album, you have to sign an exclusive contract with us, so we can claw money back through the bookings," he explains.
"We have what we call 360 [degree] deals. You sign one deal which covers everything - concerts, merchandise, publicity, and the rest. You can dip into the pot to fund one thing or another. So as long as the overall balance sheet is in profit, everyone is happy."
Although The Fridge has yet to draw up a detailed release timetable, albums in the pipeline for 2012 include ones by soul singers Melisa Le Rue and Rachael Calladine, as well as an electric harp LP by Shelley Frost, the director and founder of The Fridge.
However, with record sales in terminal decline, why persist with CD releases?
"It's just something that artists want us to do," contends Rayner. "Physical sales are on their backside anyway and are nigh on zero everywhere else in the world. I'm guessing at some point soon it won't happen any more and artists will give [their music] away for free. But, there is still a desire among musicians for a physical thing that you can get out there, with a launch party and the like, for publicity purposes."
But Rayner refuses to be downbeat about the industry: "You can look at this in two ways. Yes, it could be seen as depressing that no one's selling any music, or you could see that it's about time people woke up and realised we need to change," he suggests. "The industry hasn't changed for so long, and a lot of people have got so rich by doing nothing.
"In the old days, an artist or band could release an album, become overnight millionaires and play just a couple of gigs every year. Now, to earn money those bands have to work, they have to tour constantly and they have to be good. It kind of filters all the rubbish out of the system. You look at most of the bands who make a good living these days, and they're generally top-notch performers."
Also, record labels are having to come up with inventive ways to continue to create income.
"Nobody [in the music industry] really knows what they're going to do, so everyone is trying something new. Not everything is going to work or be right, but at least it opens new avenues.
"At the moment, we've kind of adopted this 360 model and that seems to do pretty well."
Despite his optimism, Rayner points to a number of concerns specific to the Emirates.
"The massive issue we have in the UAE is that there aren't any collections agencies," he says.
"So if our music is played on radio anywhere in the world, we should get some cash for that. In fact, nowadays, most record label's [in other countries] main source of income is through licensing for TV series or adverts, not through sales."
Not only does this harm profitability, but it also encourages up-and-coming bands to head elsewhere to seek their fortunes.
"From an artist's point of view, this [lack of collection agencies] kind of stifles anyone wanting to do what we're doing and set up a label to nurture the local talent and to keep it localised.
"When someone gets quite good here, and to the point where they want to record, the first thing they used to do was look abroad to do it.
"So the deal we offer with our record label is to persuade them that they can make a good living from working in the hotels, but also go about their dreams of creating their own music."
This comes, says Rayner, without the daunting fear of failure imposed by major labels.
"You know the cover versions and the hotel work is what pays the bills," he admits. "It's not really 100 per cent your passion, but even though you love playing music, the corporate work is just your bread and butter."
For example, Elie Afif and his band are regulars at the Blue Bar in the Novotel Dubai World Trade Centre hotel.
"Doing this work every week can be a bit draining," continues Rayner. "But as an agency it's an awesome thing to be able to offer the musicians the chance to pour some of their energy into what they love doing most."
Thus, Rayner believes his record label could provide a fillip to the country's embryonic music scene.
"Even if we don't shift millions of units, we're keeping these artists happy and here in the UAE and that's got to be a good thing for them, hasn't it?"
Published: February 3, 2012 04:00 AM