Middle East iTunes 'could protect industry'

The iTunes Store is being held back, according to experts, by the difficulty of making sure the right people get paid for their music.

Therese Neaime, a Lebanese-Swedish singer, says the lack of an iTunes Store is "greatly affecting" her as an artist. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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ITunes is everywhere. In eight years it has become the world's biggest music store, covering 37 different countries and selling more than 16 billion songs as digital downloads.

But not in the Middle East.

The iTunes Store is being held back, according to experts, by the difficulty of making sure the right people get paid for their music.

Instead, consumers have to buy CDs in shops or - as almost 95 per cent of the world's population do - download tracks illegally.

According to Dubai music expert Hussain Spek Yoosef, an iTunes Store would help protect the music industry here, but he said the lack of a proper music rights society made it too difficult for the company to set up shop.

"If iTunes wanted to enter the UAE, they would be forced to spend a huge amount of time and money to identity each rights holder of the music pieces, so they would need to make a significant investment to find out who owns what," he said.

The Dubai-based Lebanese-Swedish pop singer Therese Neaime, who released her second album, Stronger, in November, says the lack of an iTunes Store was "greatly affecting" her as an artist.

"I get emails every day from people asking me where they can buy the album - they think it's not available when they can't buy it online," she said.

Neaime, who launched her album through the Music Master label, said it was "important" to bring iTunes to the Middle East, as musicians were losing "a lot of money".

Her album can be bought on CD in Virgin Megastore, but she said the online market was where the big money is.

"People are spoilt because they're so used to everything being available on the internet. It's the main platform of today."

Nor is the absence of iTunes the only problem for musicians here. Shopping malls, hotels, radio stations and TV channels all routinely play copyrighted songs without paying a penny in royalties to the artists or labels who made them.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, a music collection agency, said it was "unheard of" that the UAE Government did not implement its copyright law, which was established in 2002.

"It is detrimental, in particular to the development of the local industry, that artists and companies cannot collect royalties when their music is used by radio and TV stations and other commercial users," said Lauri Rechardt, the IFPI performance rights expert.

According to Mr Rechardt, the IFPI has made "several attempts" to enter talks with the Government about setting up a local collection agency, which have yet to bear fruit.

"It [the Ministry of Economy] has failed to publish the proper guidance on how to apply for a trade licence, so the industry cannot legally start collecting."

Mr Yoosef said that unless the Government set up a proper one-stop-shop for all things music, the growth of the creative industry would be "stunted".

"Addressing that issue will be the first integral step in resolving the intellectual property quagmire in the music industry," he said.

* Marie-Louise Olson