After reading Rami Abadir’s “The Contradictions of Independent Music,” and Charles Akl’s “On Independent Music, too,” I thought it would be useful to add my own observations on Egypt’s current independent music scene to this discussion. As part of the scene, and in light of my personal experience, I will try to find answers for important questions about independent music in Egypt.
Should this kind of music be called independent, alternative, underground or free, or is there a more accurate classification? Is there a difference between the music produced by underground singers and bands, and that of the mainstream? Is there a line between the two that can be crossed, and a free flow that allows movement? Are artists independent by choice, or is it something they are, as a transitional step perhaps, forced into?
The underground term
I use the term “underground stream,” only temporarily, to refer to all artists in this context, also referred to as “independent” or “alternative.” As a counterpart, there is the term “mainstream.” This draws an image of a huge main water flow, present everywhere with few exceptions, coexisting with another, underground stream. Naturally, we cannot see what’s underground while standing on the surface. It may seem logical to ask why some artists are underground, and why they don’t come out to enjoy the light of day. But first: Who are these underground artists?
There are many aspects to the underground definition, and it remains controversial. But a unanimous definition can be reached through polling, for example, or discussion among prominent figures in Egypt’s underground scene. The debate derives from priorities: If there were an independent music syndicate defending these artists’ rights, there would be a need to identify them and determine when an artist would be better off joining the formal syndicate instead.
In order not to get carried away into general definitions, which may seem subjective and personal, let’s start at the same point that led us to the underground image: The mainstream.
How is it characterized? In two words: by market and content. By market I mean the venues in which products and audiences can be found; by content, the lyrics, music and music production of the product itself. They are closely connected.
Amr Diab, Mohamed Mounir, Sherine Abdel Wahab and Angham are iconic examples of the mainstream.
Estimates of the cost of a mainstream artist’s album range from LE1 million to 2 million, while the cost of one song ranges between LE70,000 and LE120,000. Concert earnings lie within the range of LE600,000 and 700,000, and may reach over LE1 million like in Diab’s case, or plummet to LE100,000 for artists like Ihab Tawfik or Mostafa Kamar. Entry to some concerts can reach EGP3,500 per ticket. As for production companies’ contracts, Amr Diab’s website said early last year that his condition for signing a new contract with any company, whether Rotana, which he signed with the year before, or a new company, was that it must be for US$6 million. Sherine signed a $4 million contract with Rotana for three albums, while Angham’s contract with that company netted $1 million for one album.
At the other end of the market there’s the audience. In May 2013, 200,000 people attended a Mounir concert. And according to Al-Bawaba, Sherine’s album Ana Ketir (2014) registered a record number of online views on her YouTube channel, with over 10 million in less than 10 days. The album hit alone got 3.5 million YouTube views.
When it comes to financial backing, problems are not usually related to lack of funds. They mostly arise due to disagreements between artist and production company over release dates, delays or interference in artistic decisions.
The underground stream
Here, bands like Iskinderella and Cairokee, and singers like Maryam Saleh and Mohamed Mohsen are iconic examples. How is it different from the mainstream in terms of market and content?
This time it’s better to start with audience. Numbers available on Facebook and YouTube are indicators. There are 680,000 subscribers to Saleh’s official Facebook page, and over 500,000 fans on Cairokee’s. Mohsen’s official Facebook page has 480,000 likes, whereas Iskinderella has only 40,000 Facebook fans.
There isn’t much sense in comparing earnings and album cost to the mainstream. The capacity of the venues that host underground artists, like Genaina Theater, Rawabet, and the River Hall and Wisdom Hall at El Sawy Culture Wheel, ranges from 150 people in Rawabet to 1500 in the River Hall. The deal is usually to cut part of ticket revenue for taxes and expenses, and share the rest proportionally, except for Genaina, which pays artists and manages ticket revenue alone. Artists receive different payments depending on popularity, but ultimately fall into the same category, which is incomparable with the lowest paid mainstream artist. Hossam Habib receives LE60,000 per concert, and as mentioned before, mainstream ticket prices can reach LE3,500; this latter figure may be the average total revenue for one performance by an underground artist or band.
It is possible to tag Saleh, Dina al-Wededi, Mohsen and Hazem Shahin on Facebook, and tell them what you think of their work — maybe even send them lyrics for a new song. With Sherine, Diab or Mounir, despite their interactive personal pages, they are probably not the ones running them, and messages will not necessarily reach them.
I thus see strict lines separating the mainstream and underground streams, making them two totally different worlds, with different markets, audience and content.
The grey area
Underground artists are aware that the mainstream product is superior in terms of technical sound quality. The mainstream has more funds, and thus access to recording studios with excellent equipment, the best sound engineers and musicians. This technical superiority can be easily observed by listening to a random selection of artists from both streams.
There is nothing strange in a band or singer wanting to enjoy the merits of the mainstream’s finances, pay, popularity and technical quality. Who wouldn’t? Are there any reasons not to?
But there is no clear path between the streams. There are gates that appear momentarily then disappear, like portals between different worlds in sci-fi films.
Mainstream production companies may be able to attract some underground artists. But this requires commitment to the financial backer’s vision, for the latter’s objective is profit, and he or she knows how to make it. Coming from a different world, underground artists need someone to show them how it’s done.
Another question is why certain artists are chosen to cross to the other side. Cairokee drew enough attention to qualify, with bold songs like Matloob Za’im (A Leader is Needed, 2011), and by working really hard to present something new, despite a lack of musical creativity, through collaborations with Aida al-Ayouby, Abdel Baset Hammouda and Souad Massi — musicians unrelated to each other or to the band’s artistic approach.
Assimilation and content standardization
One main problem facing underground artists on their way to the mainstream, given that those magical gates do exist, is that this process entails assimilation, and assimilation means modifications. On this point, I agree with Abadir that there are certain set patterns: You are either absorbed into them, or the game ends.
When Mounir sang a song produced by the underground, he had to modify, for example. I don’t think many would agree that the version he sang was aesthetically better. By modifications I mean changing the melodic mode (maqam) and omitting the second verse, which some consider the song’s artistic climax. In my opinion, this was not a matter of personal taste, but had to do with acceptable music patterns. This song was taken from an independent film (Ibrahim Batout’s Ein Shams, 2007) and Mounir’s version became the main song for a documentary (Reham Ibrahim’s Ya Aziz Einy, 2012) that would never show in the cinema, so there was no financial motive: He just did what he always does.
One of my favorite tracks by mahraganat duo Okka and Ortega is Haty Bosa Ya Bet (Give Me a Kiss, Girl) alternately called Al-Wesada al-Khaliya (Hollow Pillow). Again, I agree with Abadir that mahraganat is “a mixture of popular culture and subculture; it started with independent production, and was quickly assimilated by the major producers into the mainstream.”
I don’t know how much they netted for the song Aywa, Aywa from the film Abdo Mota (2012), an El Sobky production. But I do know that the melody was a pale version of Haty Bosa Ya Bet. Why would they recycle their own work? Perhaps because originality is not the key factor in the mainstream. We produce because we have to, not because we actually want to. It is worth mentioning that the view count of Aywa, Aywa has reached 10 million, whereas Haty Bosa Ya Bet hasn’t obtained half that number, despite being released two years before.
Can the mainstream assimilate a band like Iskinderella, if they stop singing about the revolution, or perhaps if the revolution starts to trend again on TV shows?
This would not happen easily. You have to mimic the colors of the image, or you can’t be part of it. If after moving to this world you remain unchanged, you will be considered a misfit and discarded. That’s the thing about normalization: everything looks normal. In this mainstream, there are strict rules regarding content and production terms. Like the rules of any other system, they aim to ensure stability, through slight changes that abate boredom and desire for change.
When such a generous offer of assimilation is made, the only obstacle is artistic compromise, which I believe is inevitable. Some gamble that they can “return” after having established themselves “there.” But I’ve never heard of anyone winning this bet. I guess it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible.
This explains the importance of huge commercial companies, like Pepsi and Coca Cola, sponsoring bands like Cairokee and Wust al-Balad, and the importance of appearing on Al-Bernameg show. That is also why it was inevitable that Al-Bernameg’s Bassem Youssef would move from ONtv, after the revolution started trending again and his popularity went back up, to channels like CBC or MBC. There is much more to it than adding digits to pay, making millions instead of thousands. The whole band moved from one market to another, from one space to another, gaining an enormous number of views, popular TV channels and a different production pattern. I agree then with Abadir that the “independence of music seems to be just a transition or interim choice that qualifies artists to enter the mainstream and produce popular music — with exceptions, of course.”
In his philosophical analysis of the term “independent music,” in an article on Ma3azef, writer Shady Lewis refers to Theodor Adorno’s views on pop music: “Mass production of musical texts in a capital market tends to restrain the listener’s imagination: musical texts are standardized through a mechanically repeated process similar to industrial production, where copies and reproductions of the commercially popular melodic and textual patterns are made to please the listener’s pre-programmed palate.”
Lewis then says “it is impossible to separate alternative culture from the capitalist consumerist production pattern in modern societies. Thereof, alternative music is subsumed by the flexible capitalist production system on a regular basis, taking the place of popular music, or complementing it, in a cycle of renovation and replacement which sustains the production system and enriches it.”
But by appearing on Al-Bernameg, the Alexandrian band Shawarena obtained 450,000 views for their video from the show. This would not have been possible for this band, at this stage, had they not used this non-typical channel. What’s more, millions of viewers in Egypt and the Arab world watched the band on the show.
Some Cairokee YouTube videos have over 2.5 million views, such as Isbat Makanak and their song with Ayouby. But their most famous video, Matloob Za’im, released during the revolution and before their recent rise in popularity, has not yet reached 1.5 million.
This explains why many new bands are keen to perform at Al-Fann Midan in Abdin Square, to crowds of nearly 3,000 people, despite no compensation and many sound issues. Famous bands like Cairokee are no longer interested in playing there, as they don’t need that audience, especially now that the tide of revolution and performances in public space has receded.
In his article, referring to the European and American models, Abadir wrote of music independent from mainstream or popular music, saying that the “concept of indie has apparently disintegrated, and music’s independence is no longer exclusive to subcultures, having become instead a production choice made by a band or the artist regardless of the product.”
In response, Akl suggested that “independent music” is financially independent, where capital has no control over musical decisions. He adds: “Hypothetically speaking, if Amr Diab makes the final decisions in his music he is independent, despite having the largest production companies behind him, especially if promotion and distribution focus on him, not the companies. But if a small band is asked to make a song celebrating ‘the glorious October victory’ pro bono, it’s not independent.”
There are two definitions here: the first defines “independent” as distinct from mainstream, while the other suggests that independence derives from artistic freedom. The second fails to differentiate between mainstream and underground, though. Diab’s insistence on making the artistic decisions rather than Rotana does not exclude him from the mainstream (or make him independent). Likewise, if Saleh let Eka3 handle the artistic choices in one of her projects, it would not make her mainstream. Simply put, artistic freedom cannot be the sole definer of “independence.” That’s why I believe controversy can be avoided if we use the term “underground.” It is also worth noting that some mainstream stars fund their own production, like many underground artists. Therefore defining musical independence through self-reliance cannot be the answer.
Many underground artists are not aware that they should aim for professionalism: high product quality, and making profit to earn a living. A majority have other jobs which to fund production, or apply for the few grants offered in the Arab world. In both cases, there is no financial cycle, because there is no substantial revenue coming from concerts or product sales. That is the catalyst for production. There are some advantages, however, like freedom of expression, artistic control and experimentation. Many artists also lack musical culture and training, as in all other fields in Egypt. Most continue to work despite the rough and discouraging work environment. I believe that life is made of choices, not between mainstream and underground, but between struggling to continue and giving up.
This article was originally published in Arabic on Ma3azef. All numbers from YouTube and Facebook are from the time of writing, in May 2014.