It being Ramadan, some people may have experienced a shift in outing venues that has left them more frequently exposed to music video channels (and their fittingly spiritual fare).
They may have consequently noticed there has been nothing new of late on the commercial front. Despite a definite but uneven improvement in production quality, there remains the puzzle of why music videos are still shot like ads, why they insist on rolling credits for each video, and why the male singers look slightly nauseated.
Sadly, the music doesn’t make up for it. The production quality is again better overall, and there have been a few new artists – but no new sound.
For the most part, the pop songs heard in Egypt are sung the same way, worded the same way, and arranged with the same approach to music. The same handful of formulas are used over and over again, possibly because the Arab music industry has not caught on to the idea of the niche market; if it won’t sell on a mass scale, they’re not interested. Which is a pity, because there’s plenty of room for a little variety, whether the initiative to provide it is taken by gargantuan companies like Rotana or smaller (tiny) competitors like 100 Copies or Hybrid Records.
It might seem that these two Cairo-based independent labels target an exclusive (and not necessarily Egyptian) market; 100 Copies expects higher sales of its electronica abroad and Hybrid’s website for its lounge-baladi fusion is in English alone. But Egypt’s ‘underground’ music scene is rich enough to fuel a plethora of labels catering to all tastes, Egyptian or international.
We have Arabic-language versions of Western pop, rap or rock bands; multilingual folksy singer-songwriters; oriental jazz fusion; trance, house and techno; and neo-classics and nameless new genres resourcefully hammered out of musical bits and pieces. Not to mention scores of musicians who are talented enough to hold their own regardless of genre. And they all have a following – consider the small fact, for example, that El Sawy Culture Wheel has had to expand to three venues, or that it could probably open one in every Cairo neighborhood and still be booked solid.
Perhaps the musicians share some of the blame – desperate to make music but not wanting to sell out, and often unfamiliar with the business end of things, they lack the know-how (and perhaps desire) to take matters into their own hands. And with the only models for making music the mass-production line and the gig-at-a-time, hand-to-mouth approach, it’s difficult to predict if an independent recording industry is really feasible on a larger scale.
But for those entrepreneurs and musicians willing to take the risk, the raw materials are ready and waiting.