Alternative or independent music has become more than just a collection of scattered practices on the margins of large music companies’ monopolies. Previously marginal music experiences have evolved, thanks to the internet and cultural support programs, to develop a wide audience and an established pattern of production that belongs distinctly to them.
If you’re not a Star Academy or Arab Idol fan and find no appeal in the kind of music those shows present, and if you’re interested in understanding more about what’s now termed “alternative” or “underground” music, here’s a simplified manual on how to establish such a circle of music production.
1. Don’t be ashamed of your difference
The star-making industry programs depend on young, nascent voices performing the songs of older, more established singers. But the further you go from the mainstream and its ubiquitous trends, the easier it will be able to join the wave of alternative Arabic music, which in some countries has started to compete with music produced by large production companies. At first no one will pay attention. Then you will become mere entertainment to pass the time. Eventually you will become a pioneer of a new kind of music.
2. Don’t work alone
Don’t focus on only one type of music. If your artistic project depends on a specific music or singing style, try to get involved in projects with other musicians with different styles. This will enrich your musical experience and expand your audience. A good example is the partnership between Egyptian rap artist MC Amin and mahraganat singers (Sadat, Alaa Fifty, Amr 7a7a) in this song recorded by Mahmoud Refat at the 100Copies studio..
This mahraganat rap song achieved such wide fame that suddenly the name MC Amin, previously known only among rap audiences, spread to a wider audience and MC Amin’s music became a familiar sound on public transport.
3. Make use of the internet, or have someone help you to
Do not rush to get on stage. Use programs for music synthesis and production. Record at home, and if you have the capacity, establish your own “studio” and start marketing your work online.
Don’t see the internet as a space for just archiving recorded music or as a mere marketing tool. The internet is your first medium for dissemination, distribution and contact with your slowly growing audience. Get the best out of social media websites. If you’re not a fan of Twitter or Facebook, seek the assistance of online marketing professionals or experts.
Create a popular base on the internet first and then head to the stage. Sharmoofers clearly heeded this model. They launched their songs online accompanied by a drawn icon. They never showed their faces. Then they wrote a note to inform their audience that they wouldn’t hold their first concert until they had 10,000 fans on their page..
The absence of photos and information created an atmosphere of curiosity around the band and its members, especially in light of Sharmoofers’ humorous songs. In time, the band created a fan base and was able to play an encouragingly successful concert.
4. Constant and continuous education
Now that the phase of recording and online dissemination is behind you, you come to staging concerts. In this phase, you move between working on your music online and performing live concerts. You may think this is the time to rest after the effort needed to reach this point. In fact, the real work starts now. The character and style created during the previous stages could hold you hostage if you don’t seek constant progress.
You should also continue to learn and supplement your knowledge. Try to participate in a maximum number of art and music workshops arranged by local and regional culture foundations as well as foreign cultural centers. This allows you to exchange experiences with people in the countries where you work and people in other countries. Some workshops offer grants to fund art projects’ production, meaning both a good opportunity to learn more about the technicalities of recording and a good preparation for the next step.
5. Producers are all around you
Sometimes artists aspire to ambitious projects such as producing their own album. Despite low CD sales and the audience’s reliance on watching and listening to music online, the album is, in fact, still very important and it does have an audience.
Producing an album most often requires a big label, which obliges you to sign an exclusivity contract. But as soon as it listens to different music of yours, which does not mesh with that produced and shown on satellite channels or other commercial music, it’s likely to reject your project. This will leave you no option but to go back to your roots: the internet and your audience.
Keep in mind that crowdfunding is one of the best ways to fund art projects and albums. If you use support sites and collect donations, your audience may help fund your album. One of the most important examples for this model is Mashrou’ Laila’s album Raasuk (They made you dance). For its production, the band relied on donations made by fans on Zoomaal.
6. Try production grants
But there will always be music that does not enjoy sufficient popularity in the Arab region. In this case crowdsourcing may be a difficult model. In such instances, you can try applying for cultural or musical production grants. Among the most well-known is the annual grant by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) for theater, and the grant for production programs from Al-Mawred al-Thaqafy, in addition to other international grants such as the Rolex mentors and protégés grant.
This article was originally published in Arabic on Raseef22.