Original non-pirate material

At last, The Middle East has its own equivalent of iTunes.

Recently, a musician was making a personal appearance at a Dubai Virgin Megastore and a young girl went up and handed over a piece of paper to be signed. “Don’t you have a CD you want signing?” the musician asked.

“No, I don’t need one, I’ve already downloaded it,” replied the girl, entirely unaware that what she’d done was illegal and the person sitting in front of her was essentially the person she’d stolen from. There’s an entire generation of young music fans who are largely alien to the concept of buying music, especially in this region. This month, however, regional company Music Master is launching a legal download site in the hope they can change the way people consume music in the Middle East.

“We want to educate people here and show them that there are benefits to downloading music legally,” says marketing manager, Ed Bagnall. “We have to make it easy for people so it’s not a huge effort for them to download from us.

And we have to offer something that illegal sites don’t, so there will be things like competitions, news and video content.” If you can make things easy and accessible, so the industry thinking goes, fans will be more receptive. Music Master says that Sony, EMI and Universal are already onboard, so the majority of big artists will be available. The next step will be getting the smaller record labels to join. As Ed says, “Given that it’s a chance for them to open a new revenue stream in an untapped region it shouldn’t be a problem to get more labels to sign up.”

While Spotify and iTunes have been huge legal successes, Spotify isn’t available here and iTunes only accepts credits cards that are from the U.S. or UK, so the majority of the people in this region are unable to use the service. Music Master is the first to offer a legal site and says the cost is going to be around Dhs3 per song and around Dhs30 for a whole album — which comes with the artwork that appears on the newer generations of MP3 players. Figures from the UK suggest people are responding to these sorts of initiatives. The British Phonographic Industry says 2009 was the biggest ever year for UK singles, with more than 117million sold. Of those, 98.6 percent were purchased in digital formats.

Admittedly only 12.5 percent of all albums sold were downloaded. Music fans may not want to spend a sizeable chunk of their disposable income on a physical CD or online album, but convincing them to pay pennies for a single track is viable and has proven to be successful. The huge number of these micropayments explains the upswing in legal downloads.

The bottom line, however, is the bottom line. If people can get something for free then persuading them to pay for it (either through threats or incentives) is difficult. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) claims that 95 percent of music downloaded worldwide is pirated. Internet providers have been reluctant to help with the clampdown because they make most of their money from customers paying for faster bandwidth, and the main reason people want faster bandwidth is to download large files such as those associated with music and films.

But calls to cut off the Internet from those who commit music piracy may well be counter-productive. It has been shown that the people who download music illegally are also the same people who also spend the most on legitimate downloads. The industry has finally realised that just because someone downloads a track illegally doesn’t mean that he’d have spent his money on buying the same thing.

Ultimately, marketers know that there’s a value-point and if you charge more than that, people won’t buy. Position the price below the value point and it will sell because people consider it to be worth the money. Music Master is banking on a few dirhams per- song (as well as other incentives) to be the right side of that point, as they try and welcome music fans into the hitherto unknown world of legal downloads.

For Esquire Magazine – click here for PDF

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