How do you define ‘making it in music?’ Obviously it depends on what level you want to reach as an artist, but a good benchmark is being able to say, ‘I make my living from recording and playing music.’
Over the next few columns, I’m going to look at whether it is possible for UAE-based musicians to earn an income from music. We’ll look at the positives and the pitfalls and finally I’ll give my own opinion on whether it’s worth staying to fulfil your dream, or if you should leave these shores in the pursuit of royalties.
Certainly many artists here are confident that they will succeed as musicians, and on paper it looks simple: add up the UAE’s credit crunch-busting money hoarders, the growing numbers of labels and recording studios, and the diverse population representing equally diverse tastes, and it looks like the odds are stacked in your favour.
And it’s not without precedent for UAE musicians to gain an international following; just look at Karl Wolf and Kaz Money, or Shu, the R&B singer who splits his time between New York and Dubai.
But you have to be realistic – the UAE’s nascent music market lacks both the fans and publicity outlets that you’d find in, say, London. As a result, you can’t rely on catchy tunes and record sales to make money. Musicians here have to take whatever work they can find: corporate videos, adverts, radio jingles and anything else that requires a musician’s touch. And, of course, landing a regular gig here usually means playing cover music to a backing tape.
Things are changing, however. With more music events – like the recent Slob Fest at Alpha, which had the likes of Juliana Down and Jonas Desai – the music scene is clearly growing. It might not be the same as playing Festival City, but events like this help bands grow and allow more lucrative doors to open.
Gayathri Krishnan recently quit her job in publishing to work on her first album. Although she still supports herself with freelance work, she believes that Dubai holds the key to a professional music career.
‘Most creative people – inventors, writers, sculptors – have their little metaphorical hole in the ground where they reside, aspire, get inspired and toil away until they perfect their creations,’ she reflects. ‘Dubai’s been my creative underground bunker.’
I was heartened at Slob Fest when a producer remarked of Juliana Down, ‘There really is a music scene in the UAE’. It may still be growing, but with a scene in place and a pioneer spirit, it’s certainly something to build on. But it’s not all sweetness and light in Dubai: next week we’ll be looking at the downside of trying to earn a musical crust in the city.
Zahra showcases the latest local musical talent on Open Mic every Sat from 8pm-10pm on Dubai Eye 103.8