On a cold November evening, curled up in bed with a hot chocolate in hand, I watched François Girard’s 1998 film The Red Violin. The film follows the history of an antique violin, crafted in Italy during the late Renaissance period. The first owner of the beautiful red instrument is a young talented boy, who leaves his small village orphanage and travels to Vienna to develop his musical technique. His mentor hopes his own patron, one of society’s distinguished noblemen, would financially support the boy’s unique talent. The aristocrat, however, politely turns down the request, leaving the mentor to sell his furniture in order to to support himself, his wife and the gifted child.
This particular scene in the film, where the patron displays his power over the artist, stayed with me long after the credits rolled. If the artist’s sole means of survival is the patron’s satisfaction with the art produced, how much freedom does the artist really have to practice their art?
Patronage played a pivotal role in the history of classical European music and art in general. In fact, many seminal works of music would not have existed if not for the affluent, art-loving, prestige-seeking patrons who supported their creators. In 1782, Baron Gottfried van Swieten commissioned Mozart to write his great opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, for an audience of high social importance in Vienna. The Baron financially supported Beethoven and Joseph Haydn as well. Meanwhile, in 1878, Tchaikovsky wrote his Symphony No. 4 for Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow who financially supported him for 13 years.
This year in Cairo, under very different historical and economic conditions, Egyptian singer, composer and accordionist Youssra El Hawary and her band decided to crowdfund her first studio album, titled No’oum Nasyeen (Forgetful, We Rise). Hawary has been active on the alternative Egyptian music scene for years, starting with her participation in the Choir Project in 2010, through to her 2012 hit Al-Soor (The Wall) and multiple independently produced singles afterward.
In 2016, Hawary secured a grant from the independent Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) to produce her album. “We wanted to produce an album to the best possible standard; to record in a high-quality studio and to invest in the mixing and mastering phase of production, ensuring our songs are polished and ready for release,” Hawary says, explaining why the band chose to seek more funds through crowdfunding in addition to the US$12,000 grant. Hawary and her band also initially wanted to produce a video clip, plan an album tour and organize a free concert to launch the album. “Most importantly, however, crowdfunding was for us a way to free our art from the controlling policies of production companies.”
Hawary says she was inspired by bands and musicians in the Arab region who took this initiative before her, such as Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, Jordanian band El Morabba3, Palestinian rock orchestra Khalas and Lebanese singer Tania Saleh, especially given that state support and the role of the Musicians Syndicate, in her words, are “non existent.”
Mashrou’ Leila, an alternative rock band formed in Beirut in 2008, is seen as a pioneer for being the first band in the region to turn to crowdfunding in music production. When their 2013 campaign launched on Arab crowdfunding platform Zoomal, the band managed to collect the full amount needed to produce their third album Raasük (They Choreographed You), a feat that probably wouldn’t have been possible without their already strong fan base in Lebanon and beyond. According to Zoomal, 543 supporters— only 2.5 percent of Mashrou3 Leila’s total Facebook fan base—contributed to the production of the album.
Meanwhile, Hawary’s crowdfunding campaign managed to collect 14,225 euros, constituting 51 percent of her target budget (28,000 euros), after extensive social media efforts that included promotional videos featuring popular artists on the Egyptian music scene, including Cairokee’s Amir Eid, rapper Zap Tharwat, singer Dina El Wedidi and alternative band Massar Egbari, as well as actors like Khaled Abol Naga and Yasmine Raees. Book Sale Fel Kher, an annual fair for selling used books, also dedicated revenues from their ninth edition to the band’s campaign.
“Crowdfunding is not an easy job. Artists often end up having to put their artistic practice aside in order to focus on collecting money from their fans,” Hawary says. She asserts that maintaining the campaign put her through considerable stress and exhaustion, especially as she was outside of Egypt at the time, finishing a two-year accordion study program at the National and International Center of Music and Accordion (CNIMA) in France. For over a month, Hawary dedicated all her available time and energy to gather the needed funds from more than 124,000 fans—the total number of likes on her Facebook page. “ًWe are very grateful, though,” she emphasizes. “Without our fans’ contributions we wouldn’t have been able to produce an album of the quality they deserve.”
Hawary’s campaign coincided with the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, the subsequent ballooning inflation rate and skyrocketing prices. These challenging economic conditions, in addition to the unfamiliarity of crowdfunding as a concept and practice in Egypt, led some of Hawary’s fans to question why they should help her and the band to produce a music album rather than donate money to a hospital or a school, especially when resources available for charity are fewer than ever before.
“I do not view it as charity,” says Nora Ayman, a young supporter of the campaign. “Art defines our time and stays for eternity. When I contributed to the campaign, I was trying to support something that is bigger than Youssra El Hawary or any other artist—something that is unique to my generation and has a deeper meaning for us: an art of our own.”
Yet Ayman believes artists should only resort to crowdfunding in the early stages of their careers, to help them develop their ideas into reality. “At some point, musicians need to find a way to sustain their projects on their own,” she says. “I consider Cairokee very successful in that regard. They are a band who worked hard and focused on their audience for years, until they reached a level of success that enabled them to found their own studio where they produce their music independently.”
Marina Samir, a member of independent Egyptian band Bent Al-Masarwa, says they were inspired by Hawary’s foray into crowdfunding to do the same. Last August, the trio of female Egyptian musicians launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo (the same platform used by Hawary) to produce their second album, Mazghuna (Silenced, Imprisoned), made up of 10 songs inspired by real stories collected from three storytelling workshops the band organized with women in marginalized villages in Upper Egypt.
Before deciding to crowdfund, Bent Al-Masarwa had applied for production grants from AFAC and non-profit organization Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy) with no luck. However, with support from 98 people, compared with their 11,000 fans, they managed to secure 77 percent of their target budget, raising a total of $9,820. In addition to this financial backing, the feminist nature of Bent Al-Masarwa’s artistic project has garnered them support from activists who promoted their project by forwarding their campaign to wider mailing lists. The Goethe Institut also offered the band a space to perform a concert, the revenues of which are set to go to the production of the album, and Samir says some of the women who took part in the band’s workshops also contributed with small amounts of money. “This is the real value of crowdfunding. It takes the power from the hands of the state, production companies and cultural institutions, and places it with the people instead,” Samir says. Samir, however, like Hawary, holds that crowdfunding is a draining process for the artists who undertake it, not only mentally but financially as well, because they still need resources to promote the campaign itself.
Many musicians believe a change in the structure of Egyptian music production is sorely needed. Abdullah Miniawy, a poet, Sufi chanter and trumpet player from Fayoum, says that his experience with production companies has so far been frustrating. “Most production companies give priority to their own interests, namely money,” he says. “Producers take advantage of young, poor musicians trying to make a living off their art, through contracts that allow the companies to take 50 percent of the profit, after deducting the cost of production,” he adds. According to Miniawy, it is an arrangement doesn’t leave the artist with much money to live on.
Ahmed Saleh, an Alexandrian experimental electronic musician, sound artist and member of Telepoetic, a post-rock band started in 2006, agrees that production companies’ “material ambitions” often compromise the quality of the music and get in the way of the musician’s interests. “We were not happy with the mixing and mastering of our album, and we found it worse than playing a live concert,” he says about Telepoetic’s first album, Ensehab (Withdrawal), which was produced in 2016 by Cairo-based music production company 100 Copies, which has a focus on experimental music. “However, 100 Copies has contributed to the Egyptian music industry by creating a movement and a scene unique to Egypt, and Telepoetic has benefited a lot from its 100 Live Music Festival, where many local artists were given a platform to present their work,” he continues.
Cultural institutions and funding bodies, too, seem to welcome the change initiated by the introduction of crowdfunding onto the scene. Cathy Costain, the head of the British Council in Egypt’s art programs, explains that the state-sponsored council’s funding for the arts in Egypt has decreased by 15 percent over the past four years, and as such it currently prefers to work with organizations rather than individual artists, in order to make sure that a wider number of people can benefit from their funding. “We think it’s great that artists and musicians are finding new ways of sustaining their work beyond institutional funding, particularly in light of the new NGO laws in Egypt, which might affect the way we operate,” she says.
On the other hand, grants manager at AFAC Cathy Khattar says that their funding for different fields of artistic practice in the region — visual arts, performing arts, literature, cinema and music—has increased in recent years. “Our funds still go to individual and institutional projects depending on quality, innovation, relevance and cost, with a maximum of $50,000 per project,” she says. However, Khattar agrees with Costain about the importance of artists finding other means of supporting their work, especially that the internet and social media have opened the door for new possibilities. “In most cases the AFAC grant cannot cover the whole budget of the artistic project submitted, and our total budget cannot accommodate all the submitted projects,” she clarifies.
Crowdfunding in the Arab world began at a time when major social and cultural change was taking place in the wake of the 2011 revolutions. Every campaign that’s been launched so far has framed its core aim of raising money to fund music as part of a larger movement for a greater cause, with hashtags that read more like political slogans—from Mashrou’ Leila’s #OccupyArabPop and Hawary’s #BetheProducer to Bent Al-Masarwa’s #FeministsSinging. There is no question that crowdfunding can be considered an empowering tool for artists. Hawary released her album on December 7, and even though she has not been able to produce a music a video as she had hoped, nor has she been able to pull off free entry for the album release concert (tickets for the event, set to take place at the American University in Cairo’s Ewart Hall on December 15, cost LE65), she says she is happy with her decision to crowdfund the project, and would definitely do it all over again. “It’s enough for me that it’s enabled us to liberate our artistic creativity and protect our music from the interference of a record label that would have tampered with our sound,” she says.
Yet Hawary’s use of the word “liberate” raises questions around how effectively crowdfunding can help maintain artists’ proclaimed “independence.” Can we really be sure that there won’t come a day when crowdfunding platforms—even contributors—begin to impose their own rules on the artists who use them? Moreover, crowdfunding requires musicians to have a pre-existing fan base, otherwise who would support their campaigns? This prompts me to wonder about the young musicians out there who are yet to build a following willing to pay money to help them produce their music.
As Khattar points out, the internet has ushered in a new era of innovation in music production, yet, it has also lowered record sales which were previously a substantial source of profit for musicians. Likewise, as empowering and game-changing as crowdfunding may be, it remains a form of artistic patronage—collective and more progressive, yes, but not without its limitations, which artists may soon find themselves needing to navigate. From Mozart in 18th century Vienna to Youssra El Hawary in post-revolution Cairo, musicians remain dependent on a financial system beyond their control to support their work.