It’s a common grumble among music fans: there aren’t enough venues in Dubai showcasing live music from original artists. But there isn’t necessarily a dearth of talent or enthusiasm here. One factor that may have an effect is the emirate’s performance legislation, which dictates that every musician needs to be rubber-stamped by the government before they can take to the stage – something alien to most Western expats. Recent weeks have seen local live music come under fresh scrutiny after venues were dealt fines for falling foul of a different law. Here we delve deeper to get to the bottom of what shapes Dubai’s live music scene.
Spend any time with Dubai’s undercurrent of itinerant musicians, and you can expect to hear the word ‘permissions’ crop up. Under the emirate’s law, any musician who performs on a Dubai stage first needs to obtain a special licence giving them the right to perform, a process that doesn’t exist in countries such as France, Lebanon or the UK. These government approvals reportedly cost Dhs800 per performer, which means venues are far more inclined to book ‘safe’ cover bands than take a chance on new, original music. And maths states that an ongoing licence to host a band playing the same gig six nights a week is cheaper than a one-off bill of multiple original bands.
But one 41-year-old freelance keyboard player from Canada, who wished to remain anonymous, looks on the bright side, explaining that the licence permits protect him as a musician. ‘I don’t have 50 other players biting at my heels and taking my gigs, because it’s [relatively] hard to get work out here,’ he explains. ‘I could never make a living from music at home.’
But recent weeks have seen the local music scene in the spotlight for another reason. A handful of venues were fined for flouting a different law, by allowing musicians to talk to the audience offstage. One musician, a 44-year-old bassist, told us what he witnessed at one venue. ‘It was late in the evening, the gig had finished and the last musician was walking out. His friends called him over to their table on the way
to the door to say “well done” – the venue was fined Dhs20,000.’
Some musicians are unaware that fraternising with the audience is illegal, and don’t understand why it is. Khaled bin Touq, executive director of licensing and classification at the Dubai Government’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, which controls licences, explains that these laws are an important part of local traditions and customs. He says: ‘The mix of actors and musicians with the audience is not allowed because it contradicts our values and traditions. It is fined by law.’
At jam nights the line between performance and social event is blurred. Every Tuesday night, up to 25 casual players gather at Maxx Music Bar & Grill, at the Citymax in Barsha, sometimes just for a single song. By law none of these performers can talk to a single guest – as of recent weeks, they sit in the corner of the bar in a cordoned-off area. ‘If you want to come down with your wife and play a little guitar, you have to sit in the corner and not talk to her all night,’ explains the 44-year-old Brit.
Some musicians now fear that the fines – reported to be Dhs20,000 each time – will deter bars from hosting bands at all, affecting both the live music and the nightlife scene. The British owner of one long-standing agency, which places bands in several bars across the city, said he saw the Friday night takings in one Bur Dubai bar slip from Dhs37,000 to Dhs7,000 after it was fined. ‘It’s going to destroy the industry,’ he stated.
Inspired to support the local music scene? Here, we bring you a round-up of the best of the city’s live music – just make sure you don’t talk to the musicians.