At 13 years old, Zain Khan, founder and CEO of The Sound Gaarden, started playing bass guitar for a few high school bands in Dubai.
After attending university in the US he returned to the city to find something missing.
“I spent a fair amount of time in New York and in Brooklyn... eeverywhere you turn there's a different sound,” Khan observed. “It’s kind of like the city has its own soundtrack. When you come [to Dubai] there's silence, you just hear honking.”
While the UAE is at the center of some of the most celebrated musical acts - consider the New Year’s eve Coldplay concert as an example - there are few events dedicated to local musicians. In September 2015, Khan founded The Sound Gaarden (TSG), a discovery and hiring platform for UAE based musicians, to change that reality.
Interested musicians submit an application online. The TSG team, made up of Zain and two other producers, judge the submission and respond to each musician. The youngest was 12-years-old and their oldest artist 56 - so there is no age limit to sign up - and no fee. Though, Khan admits that a year and half later, he is more selective. TSG now has signed 110 artists.
A tough nut to crack
In Dubai, busking - the practice of artists leaving a hat for donations while they perform and test their art’s resonance - is illegal.
“The laws we have around live performance, while they are slowly changing, are not changing fast enough,” Khan told Wamda. “[There’s also no] sustainable infrastructure for people to do this. You can’t sell your CDs, you can’t put out a hat just to see what happens... there’s a lot of fear among people who do want to go and busk that I'm going to get in trouble, then I’m done and have to leave Dubai.”
The Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing categorizes an entertainment event as one that includes the attendance of the public and involves “shows or activities designed to entertain, for free or otherwise”. A street performance would fall under that category.
For the event to take place, the event vendor along with every performer within the event requires an e-permit. After registration for the e-permit, the approval process could take five to eight days or longer. In case of misinformation or any error, the application can be rejected and the vendor would need to start over again. That there is lack of many music 'pop-ups' around the city is, therefore, not very surprising.
A growing scene
hile Khan does take issue with companies “throwing money” at international artists to play in the region, he appreciates the efforts of similar platforms like Freshly Ground Sounds (FGS) or Goplaytheworld where the focus remains on the local artists.
Abbo, founder of Goplaytheworld and a pioneer in Dubai’s open mic culture, noticed many were “hungry for a music scene they don’t have to travel somewhere else to experience”. And after setting up regular open mics and local events, “it highlighted the fact so many of us were here but didn’t have anywhere to gather and share music and ideas on a regular basis.”
Now, Abbo finds himself mentoring many local musicians looking to move forward such as Vandalye, a band that formed during one of his events and then opened for Lionel Richie’s Abu Dhabi concert.
“[We] are more of a nurturing support network and open to newcomers and seasoned musicians [while] coaching the artists along their journey,” Abbo said. “TSG and FGS are the next step on the ladder as a showcase platform.”
For FGS, keeping the platform independent is top priority, said Ismat 'Izzy' Abidi, founder of FGS.
“There was a period where we were being pushed in a hugely commercial direction. The opportunities were hard to say no to,” Abidi said. “But it’s important to have more independent platforms in the UAE, not just for music. Platforms like FGS demonstrate the positive impact of the emerging creative economy in the UAE.”
Abidi, however, says relying on regulations and venue support to increase platforms for local musicians is not sustainable.
“These change quickly in such a fast-paced, relatively young country,” he explained. “Freshly has always relied on the crowd and community following, rather than the musicians and venues. There is no scene without them... We try and make the live music experience as engaging as possible. The more [fans turn up], the more venue support will follow. Eventually... this can help navigate regulations,” he said.
Currently, Khan tries to “operate 200 percent within the rules until this becomes a whole ecosystem effort”. That involves the venues, the fans and the musicians. To get musicians on board, Khan offered a platform for their original music as opposed to the cover songs most artists are relegated to playing in Dubai.
“I can't think of a better sensation than being hired to sing a song I wrote rather than the Hotel California or Wonderwall,” musician Jay Abo told Wamda. “Original music didn't have much of a voice here before TSG stepped in, and now we're belting out some pretty high notes.”
Winning over the crowd
While onboarding musicians was fairly easy for Khan, getting the venue managers to trust him took a while.
TSG played their first four events for free to build momentum. After that, Khan hired a head of production and filmed music videos of his artists performing around Dubai to post online.
“[The videos] started to gain some traction,” Khan said of the move. “People here are very loyal which is amazing. Through those [videos], the venue owners and decision makers started to take notice and they said, ‘Hey I remember you came to me three months ago, let’s have that discussion'."
Within the first year itself, TSG hosted 200 nights. Samantha Hamadah, marketing and events manager at Aegis Hospitality, represents Stereo Arcade, where TSG hosts a monthly event. Hamadeh said the challenge was to move past the practice of only working with bands who are somewhat famous and have an obvious following.
“When we signed up [with TSG] we wondered how many people were going to show up,” Hamadah said. “The show was a success, the venue was full. And most importantly, I remember one band went up on stage - mind you, we've never seen or heard of them before - and then a few minutes later over 200 people were singing along to their original songs.”
Hamadeh ended up signing three of the bands that performed that night to their weekly live music line-up.
TSG is self funded and with a revenue model that’s split three ways. The largest cash generator is its hiring platform where they charge a transaction fee for any artist hired followed by its events (where they do a bar split or bring in sponsorship) and native advertising opportunities on their videos. Payment for their work, however, remains one of the biggest challenges for TSG. With it being difficult to enforce payment, Khan is still figuring out what to do.
“I’ve tried writing contracts, payment in advance… I understand natural human sense is ‘I don’t want to pay right now', but there are the ethics of paying a vendor or a client or a customer,” Khan said, sounding exasperated.
On the brighter side, the musical opportunities and appreciation for local talent continues to grow in Dubai. January 20, saw the Emirate’s first ever music festival for alternative Arabic music, Wasla Music Festival. TSG curated the festival’s local stage, complementing headliners like Mashrou’ Leila and Emel Mathlouthi.
For future plans, Khan intends to head to Lebanon and Egypt in the summer to “give the artists [there] the same kind of opportunity in terms of creating content and finding shows nationally and internationally”.
Feature image Rear Be Softy at a Sound Gaarden 'Food Truck Jam' via The Sound Gaarden.