From managing Indian pop singers to setting up radio stations in Dubai, music has dominated Mehirr Nath Choppra’s career.
Which is why he knew just the right time to revive a business idea he had put on the back-burner – internet radio for retail outlets and malls.
Launched last year, the Dubai-based Audio Republic customises song and instrumental music playlists, interspersed with retail messages, for malls, stores, hotels, banks and restaurants.
The company began approaching clients in June, and has already secured business deals worth Dh500,000 from nine clients including Giordano, Paris Gallery and Baby Shop.
“Any marketeer will tell you that the best time to talk to a customer is when he is at the store,” Mr Choppra says. “And audio is non intrusive, whereas video requires attention.”
Start-ups such as Audio Republic are boosted by the UAE’s growing economy, especially in the retail and hospitality sectors. But what has helped it to succeed is the way consumers shop now, says the entrepreneur, as well as the fact shopping features highly as a national pastime.
Dubai has around 2.2 million square metres of retail space and a further half a million sq metres under construction, according to CBRE analysts. Of this, mall expansions will add around 26 per cent while the remainder will come from new properties.
“The way we buy and interact with products has changed, and shopping has got more immersive,” says Mr Choppra. “But while [brands] design the interiors and lighting of their stores, they don’t design the music.”
Audio Republic provides a Dutch-manufactured music receiver to the clients that is fed from their offices in Dubai’s Al Barsha direct to the client’s outlet – running as long as the store, restaurant, mall or bank is open. The company buys the licence to play the music in public spaces from British and Indian licensing bodies.
“Some clients want the Quran in the mornings, some want silence during azan, some want only the latest chart toppers or just instrumental music, and we are OK with all,” Mr Choppra says, adding that for one retailer, flute music was banned from their playlist.
The service costs clients US$100 per month per store with the music receiver free for those with a long-term contract of three years or more.
When Mr Choppra, who is 38, first came to Dubai in 2001, his plan of a custom radio station for the retail sector led him to ask malls, stores and cafes if they liked the idea. While the response was positive, internet costs were too high to turn the idea into a feasible business.
“[Back then] 256 kilobytes would cost Dh250 a month,” Mr Choppra says. “Then I got busy and when the recession came all efforts to bring innovative businesses came to a stand-still as companies were trying to save cash.”
However, after a few years of consultancy work, he relaunched the idea when internet rates crashed, selling “everything – land, gold, and two cars” and investing $1 million of personal savings into setting up Audio Republic.
Among the job requirements of the company’s five full-time employees is to edit out any inappropriate language from the 250,000 songs on the company’s database. Every day, new releases are added to the stock.
The playlists also change through the year to make them suitable for Eid, Christmas and National Day holidays.
Time of day matters, too. “When there is high footfall, such as the weekends, stores are noisy and you don’t want chaos with noisy music as well, so we play soothing music at that time,” he says.
Audio Republic expects to launch its India operations with a call centre there in the second quarter, and is looking for $1m in investment to expand the sales team and build up on technical support as well as introducing a social media team.
Currently operating only in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, Audio hopes to be in 2,000 stores in the Arabian Gulf region within two years.
Even though he started the business after noticing changes in the music industry, there is one entrenched habit that Mr Choppra is grappling with to expand the business.
“The challenge is convincing people to pay for music,” Mr Choppra says.