On the economic history of making music in Egypt and Yousra El Hawary’s crowdfunding campaign
Courtesy: Youssra El Hawary

Youssra El Hawary is a 33-year-old singer and accordionist who’s been producing music for almost six years. Her discography is small but her distinctive voice makes her stand out, and she recently made a bold move, asking her audience to “be the producer” in a crowdfunding campaign for her first album. This request raised questions about the economics of the arts, and I took the opportunity to reflect on the economic history of local music production and talk to Hawary about the campaign.

Economics shaping artistic development

Despite its richness, Arab music has not received the study it deserves — its history has been subject to grand statements that gradually turn into “facts” without much research or questioning. So with a few academic exceptions, the literature on the subject consists of historical tales and little documentation, and the economics of music and how the wider economy impacts it are under-examined. But one cannot understand phenomena such as crowdfunding and “independent music” without putting them in their economic context, especially as they are both very much related to the production process.

In their 1944 essay, Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, German philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer argued that although the arts have always been commodifiable, the fact that artworks were not only commodities made them part of reality. But then the culture industry came along, deluding consumers that it tailors itself to their reactions, while in fact it forms them. It offers the masses homogeneous products that entertain instead of surprising them, with no chance of destabilizing the status quo. They argue that this results in the weakening of the ego, so that the essence of art disappears, leading to the “de-artifictation of art.” What we call independent music or independent cinema emerges through different means of production and a desire not to be restrained by the market’s tight criteria and binding production conditions. Through searching for new means of production, independent arts try to find an outlet for new aesthetics. All this is to say that a discussion of the mechanisms of production is at the core of writing about the historical evolution of the arts.

The beginning of production; the begging of monopoly

The brief historical summary of the economics of Arab music production that follows relies on a 1976 essay titled “Record Industry and Egyptian Traditional Music: 1904-1932” by Lebanese composer and UCLA ethnomusicology professor Ali Jihad Racy (published in the journal Ethnomusicology that year) and the work of French music historian Frederic Lagrange.

Lagrange argues that 1903 — the year the first recording devices entered the region — was a defining moment in the history of Middle Eastern music. It was a time when the question of modernity was a pressing one in the Arab world, perhaps especially in Egypt, and one manifestation of this modernity was the institutionalization of the state and law. In other words, modern technology did not arrive by itself: it was accompanied by intellectual, political and social modernization. These shifts augmented the great change that record companies wrought in regional music.

“The invasion” — as Lagrange puts it — was led by the British company Gramophone in 1903. Because first-class singers initially abstained from using this “heresy,” Gramophone carried out what we now call market research surveys. They invited less famous singers to try the new medium, then assessed the outcome. This meant that the first recording artists were unknown, as none of the big names (such as Sheikh Youssef al-Manyalawi or Abdelhay Helmy) took part. Gramophone’s recording campaigns continued throughout 1903 and 1904 in both Cairo and Alexandria, and started in the Levant in 1905.

Odeon began working in Egypt between 1904 and 1906 (there is a lack of documentation on its work), then swift on its tails came Baidaphon, founded by Bortos and Gabriel Baida, of a well-known Lebanese family, in Beirut. It initially took musicians to record in Berlin and shipped records back to Beirut to sell — their first documented sales in Beirut were made in 1907, the same year it started recording locally. Playing on the fact that it was an Arab company, it soon expended to Cairo, and later had branches all over Egypt and beyond. The company understood that its biggest market would be in Cairo, the largest Arab city, and most of its sales were of famous Egyptian singers, such as Abdelhay Helmy and Sayed al-Safti. After the economic model of record sales became part of the music sector and the market imposed its laws, Baidaphon started to force singers into exclusive contractual ties. While most succumbed to their monopoly, it appears that some singers, such as Abdelhay Helmy, refused exclusive contracts.

The record market continued to expand in Egypt, and in 1927 electric recording arrived in the region. While these new records were more “pure” in sound, they had shorter lives as their quality deteriorated with time. This technical shift was introduced in Egypt by Mechian, a company that primarily made recordings of Sayed Darwish (between 1914 and 1920). But with the introduction of radio and films with sound in Egypt, the early 1930s marked the beginning of the end of the golden period for record production. The Great Depression of 1929 had also affected record sales.

Still, records drastically changed the nature of Arab music consumption at the beginning of the century. While eastern melodies used to rely on singer-audience interactions, which allowed for a great deal of improvisation, the relatively short duration of the record made improvisation all but impossible. Instead companies had to rely on preconceived and documented melodies. They also assumed the power of making certain musicians famous.

Nationalization and the uniformity of music under state control

Despite the decline in sales after the emergence of radio and the spread of cinema, record production survived due to the number of companies and competition between them, which created a state of musical richness. And some singers used cinema and radio successes to advertise records, such as Om Kalthoum, who sung Ala Balad al-Mahboub (To the Country of the Beloved) in Wedad (1936), the first Studio Masr film, and made a record from it after it had been sung by Abdu al-Surugy and became a hit.

Musician Mohamed Abdel Wahab bought Baidaphon in the early 1940s and renamed it Cairophon, under which he exclusively recorded and distributed songs by Farid al-Atrash and later the singer of the revolution, Abdel Halim Hafiz. Abdel Wahab’s success inspired the singer Mohamed Fawzy to found Masrphone. A large part of a book published by the Investment Ministry about Fawzy, as part of their “investment pioneers” series, is dedicated to his economic contributions to the commercial arts sector. He founded a film production company in 1947 and produced the first Egyptian colored movie, which was not a box-office hit but a considerable technological leap. He then founded Masrphone, using all his wealth: LE300,000 — which was a significant amount at the time. It launched on July 30, 1958, and was highly praised by the industry minister at the time for bringing in hard currency. Fawzy sold records at a third of standard prices, complete with new perks like shatter resistance and extra playing time (two songs instead of one). Masrphone was a great success, and started to produce songs by Om Kalthoum and Nagat. Most companies paid musicians a set fee, but Fawzy introduced a contractual system that gave the singer royalties, which benefited everyone involved and the economy at large.

But Fawzy’s company did not remain his for long. Along with its factory, it was nationalized by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1961 it. The state appointed Fawzy the manager of his factory at a fixed salary. With the state monopoly over all means of production, competition disappeared from the market, and with it any notable artistic innovation. The popular names endured, and music’s mainstream became stronger as all newcomers to the scene had to be “approved” by the Egyptian national radio.

The cassette revolution

After Nasser’s death in 1970 and the softening of socialism, new private companies started to appear. As the state’s grip loosened a little, market rules resurfaced, which allowed the phenomenon of former café waiter Ahmed Adaweya and his new brand of pop with working-class roots to take place in 1971. The popularity of Adaweya’s break-through song, Al-Sah al-Dah Embo, prompted the company Sout al-Hob (Sound of Love) to record it. Song sales exceeded those of the legendary Abdel Halim Hafiz, surprising both the audience and the market.

The cassette was introduced to the market in the mid-1970s, but only spread by the end of the decade, as companies felt the need to offer a new product. This is when a new, rebellious music emerged, one that could be called “independent” or “underground,” as it relied on new means of production and a new medium. Acts such as Mohamed Mounir and bands like Tibah, ElMasreyeen and the Four Ms revived the market, and their success encouraged investors to venture into this new territory.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the cassette market reached its full glory, as big record companies (including the state-owned Sout al-Qahera, or “Sound of Cairo”) started shifting to cassette production in response to demand. Commercial competition opened up space for more diverse music production, especially with Mounir’s success, and later that of Ali al-Hagar and Mohamed al-Helw. It also created space for producer Hamid al-Shairi to emerge – who went on to produce many big hits in the last decades of the 20th century.

Back to the monopoly

Adorno argued that the industry does not merely adopt arts production that is already popular but promotes one type at the expense of others. And it’s true that by joining the market in the early 2000s Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s entertainment conglomerate Rotana Group (in which Rupert Murdoch’s News Corps has an 18.97 percent stake), with its massive exclusive contracts, shifted the region’s music scene. Some stars’ careers started to decline, while others emerged, and what’s often described in Egypt as a “Gulfie” musical taste was imposed. Then, with the introduction of CDs, Rotana absorbed the new medium and increased its power even more — it’s now the Arab world’s largest record label (on top of its film, TV and radio activities).

Open source in the face of capital

But the emergence of the internet has broken monopolies such as Rotana’s over the past decade. While the internet as an open-source platform presents a big challenge to intellectual property rights, it also destroys the market’s monopoly. With the shift in forms of production to the virtual world, the music sector started to find new space for experimentation, and “alternative” and underground music started to emerge.

But the challenges facing music production are not limited to the market: music often requires technology that needs the backing of a production entity – which are mainly concerned with profits from concerts and sales. This has led independent musicians to look for alternative means of production, such as crowdfunding.

The first Egyptian musician to rely on crowdfunding

Crowdfunding relies on online interaction between the fundraiser and their audience: A musician reaches out to listeners for financial support to complete a musical project, which requires transparency from the musician’s side.

“We have been working on this album for almost a year now,” Hawary tells me. “As we were looking for different ways of funding, we came across previous successful crowdfunding campaigns in various Arab countries, so we decided to rely on this new production method.”

Being the first Egyptian to crowdfund music opens the space for an important debate about its potential to help democratize arts production, so I ask Hawary about some of the issues that came up during the campaign, which raised 14,255 euros, just over half of the target.

“We do not have any issues with transparency,” Hawary says. “We uploaded a video on the campaign’s Facebook page to break down how we would spend the 28,000 euros. Keeping in mind that it is less than what other groups like Mashrou’ Leila, El Morabba3 and Tania Saleh have asked for in their crowdfunding campaigns, this sum, in addition to a grant we received from AFAC [the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture] covers the recording costs, musicians’ fees and several concerts to launch the album. We envision these concerts to be non-profit, as I’m keen for them to be affordable for my audience.”

“An album is not a profitable project — especially in Egypt, we’re used to downloading songs from the internet but not buying songs on iTunes, which is something that I cannot control,” Hawary says when asked about the profits made from album sales. “So the main idea behind the album is documentation rather than profit.”

“We have to admit that there is a problem with the music scene and concert venues in Egypt,” she adds. “Especially with the state regulations and its confusion about whether to embrace or reject independent arts. In addition to the issues of production, independent musicians in Egypt suffer from a closed public sphere that doesn’t allow concerts, which are musicians’ main source of income. Maybe if doing concerts was easier, musicians would be able to cover their album costs and musicians’ fees.”

“I refuse to accept that independent art is of lesser value, or that it should settle for less advanced technologies,” Hawary says. “It has the right to live, breathe and reach the audience in a way that satisfies the artist.”

The successful crowdfunding experiences of the band Mashrou’ Leila and musician Tania Saleh, both from Lebanon, and Jordanian band El Morabba3 constitute a practical test of their popularity and a means to rebel against the tight regulations and mechanisms of the market and the state.

This is an edited translation of a article published in Arabic on Al-Diffah al-Thaltha. Translated by Mariam Aboughazi.

Ahmed Nada 

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