Music industry conversations: Sarah El Miniawy
 
 
Courtesy: Nada Elissa
 

Sarah El Miniawy founded and directs Simsara, a pioneering music PR, communications and management agency that works with a small and vital group of musicians, festivals, venues, music projects and organizations in the region. Simsara is currently receiving incubation support within Eka3, a Cairo-based music business incubator set up by musician Tamer Abu Ghazaleh.

How does a music “scene” and a music “industry” interact, and why is it such a fraught topic among those working in music in the Middle East? In this new monthly conversation series, Maha ElNabawi speaks with regional music professionals about what “industry” means in a scene often criticized for either being nonexistent or unsustainable. Maha asks each interlocutor about their own background and work, as well as broader issues about how the field works, from producing the music itself to the economy of distribution, bookings and sponsorship deals.

Born in Algiers to an Algerian mother and an Egyptian father, 36-year-old Miniawy was brought up between the two countries, and is now based in Stockholm, making frequent trips to Cairo and Beirut. She also produces events, residencies and collaborations between Swedish and Arab organizations and artists. For the first in our industry conversation series, Maha ElNabawi sat with Miniawy in Cairo in December to discuss the scene and its challenges, music writing, Simsara’s role and more — as well as get some music recommendations.

Maha ElNabawi: How did you get into music?

Sarah El Miniawy: After I graduated from college in Cairo in 2002 with a business degree, I decided to work in arts management. I’d been dancing in a contemporary dance company at the time and at the school of modern dance at the Opera House. I started working at the Townhouse for one year. That was more visual arts than anything else at the time — they didn’t have the venue for live music. But it was amazing. Professionally you didn’t learn that much, but the exposure to the work of a great generation of contemporary visual artists at the time was excellent. Basim Magdy, Maha Maamoun, Hala ElKoussy, Doa Aly and so on. [Gypsum Gallery’s] Aleya Hamza was curator there at the time. This generation is doing great on a global scale today.

Then I moved to London in 2005. There, I somehow landed a job the Barbican Centre. That was a turning point in my career. It’s the biggest arts center in Europe, with all the art forms under one roof. It houses a concert hall, two galleries, two theaters, three cinemas — and the programming is excellent. So it was an education to say the least. Every night you couldn’t chose, you’d have three amazing things going on in one place. So I lost myself in there for the first five years. I was working within the press office, which had 11 people alone, so it was a well-oiled machine.

ME: Is it state-funded?

SM: It’s owned and partly funded by the local authority [City of London]. The rest you had to generate through ticket sales, sponsorship, patrons, etcetera. There are departments for everything — the fundraising department, the marketing department, art form programming departments. It was an eye opener. Structure within structure within structure — and it’s somehow easy to work there, in comparison to working in Cairo. You get so much done in one day.

ME: I imagine they operate through a great process.

SM: It’s super organized. Everyone has a job description and you don’t stray from it until you become more senior, which is good and bad. The first few years when you’re learning, it’s great. But then you start getting ideas that are outside your job description, and it becomes limiting. Otherwise, you get to focus on your stream of work. Everything else around you is there to help you.

That’s within the place, but arts-PR-wise, working with the UK media was also a huge learning process. Take any given national newspaper for example: you have the culture section, within it art form sections, and even within those, you have journalists that specialize in genres. As a proactive PR person, your art-form knowledge needs to be at the same level as the journalists you’re dealing with. So you’re reading the whole time, be it about the place you work for or the artists coming through it, or about other artists, genres, venues and the industry as a whole. That was a well-rounded learning process — seeing shows the whole time, researching them and reading about them before and after they happen. I worked there for eight years while also finishing a masters degree, which included Arab world studies in media, music and anthropology.

ME: That makes so much sense. What was your focus?

SM: Anthropology, which was the main discipline of my MA, gives you a lot of research tools and methods, but it’s tricky territory, because you have the whole orientalist and colonial canon suddenly confronting you, and you spend a great deal of time being critical of that discourse before you can actually start exploring new territories in your research and thinking. So it was frustrating as a discipline, of course. I preferred the music and media courses.

ME: It’s always been very apparent in your writing. The press information you send out about the musicians you work with is some of the best writing on music from and about the region. I think you’re way beyond the rest of us, who are trying to wing it without that technical, historical or academic background. I always learn something about how to describe music, or what the music is, in your press pieces.

SE: Thank you! I always take my cues from the artists I work with. We sit together before a campaign and we talk extensively about the process of creating that particular work, a bit like an in-depth interview. I listen to the work over and over of course, and do a lot of research beforehand about the artist and his/her influences. I wouldn’t say arts PR is the same as arts journalism, but the process is very similar.

With the artists, we identify where they are in the way audiences and media engage with their work. Often it’s a case of revealing more layers about the work for the reader and listener to become aware of. This is especially important in the Arab region, because arts journalism is not specialized enough, except for very few outlets such as Ma3azef. You try to help with providing insight into the work. Equally, with most western media, when it comes to writing about Arabic music, the contextualizing often happens in the realms of politics, culture or gender, for example, leaving very little room for serious engagement with the music itself.

ME: There is context in your pieces, but it’s minimal compared to how you communicate the actual music of your artists. How did this all lead into Simsara? What made you have the idea that you could make this into a professional path?

SM: Once I was done at the Barbican and learned everything I thought I could learn there, and after having seen so much live work, I felt saturated and wanted to see what was happening back in the region since I left. I wanted to go back but couldn’t for personal reasons, so Simsara was my way of keeping this connection that’s very important to me.

ME: What year?

SM: After I started my masters in 2009, and after I had my first son in 2010. I had to find a totally different working pattern for myself. So it was either going back to my old job part-time, clocking in and out but not really progressing much, or taking the leap and going freelance.

“We’re better off facing that it will always be like this, not expecting that it will ever become an industry but instead looking at what models and dynamics we’ve been functioning on and how they can be more sustainable.”

It so happened that the Nile Project was preparing for its first residency and launch in Cairo [in 2012] and a friend introduced me to the project’s founder, Mina Girgis. So in some way, the Nile Project encouraged me to take that leap. I worked on the Nile Project and that was the first time I started looking at the media landscape in the region, or more specifically in Egypt. That was obviously a reality check in terms of arts coverage. Developing my work into an agency was a natural evolution — I kept on getting more work. At that time, I was still interested in the arts in general. Then Khyam Allami found me, and I heard Maurice Louca’s Salute the Parrot album for the first time. It was a clear realization then that I mostly wanted to work with music. So working closely with Maurice and Khyam was a special moment for me.

ME: So the Nile Project, then [Allami’s record label] Nawa Recordings? Did you also have the forward vision then that Simsara could turn into music management? You went pretty rapidly and progressively from PR to management.

SM: It always seems to happen organically for me. When you start working on the PR for an artist, you rely on the manager providing you with the right material in good time so you can build a campaign. With some artists I worked closely with, I had to do more than PR anyway because there was no management. And there were a few artists I got to know really well and whose work I really love, so I wanted to do more for them, instead of waiting until they had an album or tour coming up to do the PR for it. And they felt the same and wanted to continue working with me.

At the heart of it, it’s a special relationship with the artists and an appreciation and excitement for what they produce. For now, Simsara is still [mainly] music PR, and the management is only with a couple of artists — until I find someone with good PR experience to join me, so that I can focus more on management. It’s actually difficult to find qualified people in the region. That’s one of the biggest challenges we face in my view. The educational and professional environment is not conducive to a specialized workforce. Most people in the scene end up jumping from one line of work to another, never quite mastering skill before moving to the next.

ME: I think you could say the same about writing. I’m always encouraging people at Mada to specialize in something.

Another question. I get annoyed with the criticism of 100Copies founder Mahmoud Refat focusing heavily on mahraganat now. 100Copies is not an NGO. It’s a record label — it’s always been a record label. Maybe it’s a classic model that some people don’t like, but he’s playing the quintessential producer-record label role and has become successful. For all those years, he was working on developing his infrastructure and the alternative music scene. He finally found something that’s profitable and marketable abroad, so why shouldn’t he promote it? That’s the business.

What do you think a record label should offer and what a manager should offer. What is the difference between them? Explain to us the difference between what Simsara offers versus Eka3 and its umbrella of services?

SM: Since earlier this year, I’ve been working within Eka3. Simsara is getting some support from Eka3 so it can grow in a certain direction. It’s like having a partner and someone to consult with. Within Eka3, you have a booking agency (Almoharek), a record label (Mostakell), music licensing (Awyav), and an online music magazine (Ma3azef.com). With the exception of Ma3azef, since it’s editorial, these agencies are most of what a musician needs as management.

Ideally, the manager deals with all these entities for the artist. Once an artist is done recording and mixing an album, the label takes care of mastering, artwork, sourcing manufacturing and distribution (physical and digital), releasing the album and the marketing and PR needed. Then you have the live performances — one-off gigs and touring. Some labels are involved in that since it feeds into album and merchandise sales, but usually the manager hires a booking agent to work on it with the manager’s connections and contacts. Outside of these cycles (album release, gigs and touring), you have a baseline that needs to be nurtured, which the manager is in charge of. Elements such as making sure artists can sustain themselves financially without having to get day jobs, for example, through fundraising, residencies and commissions to create music for film or theater. Making sure their online profile and all the material is always up-to-date, even if it’s a quiet period. Ideally, the manager becomes like a best friend to the artist, and that’s why at the core it’s the relationship that counts.

With Alif during a rehearsal in Cairo, April 2016. Photo: Nada Elissa

ME: Do you help them make artistic decisions? If an artist has a new body of work but wants a slightly different sound direction or to collaborate with a producer, would you help in that artistic capacity?

SM: I might help with researching and finding a producer, but I don’t usually get involved artistically. The artists I manage don’t need that from me. We might have a conversation as friends, they might be interested in hearing what I think of the music, but it’s totally a subjective conversation. And it’s certainly never about what the market wants. Most of the artists I work with don’t have producers. They are their own producers.

The parts I get excited about, which are not artistic, are finding opportunities for artists to develop their tools and their work, such as residencies, or finding ways for them to inhabit certain environments and meet certain people. That’s where being based in Sweden is very inspiring. The environment for artists is totally the opposite of how things are for artists in the Arab world. Of course DIY, alternative and independent artists are constantly trying to make ends meet even in Sweden, but there are way more resources there and no extreme competition over them, which creates a certain trust and peacefulness. But then artists in Sweden, I think, also miss the informality, tension and chaos we have in the Arab world.

ME: These days, what sort of benefit do artists find with a record label? I feel the model of the record label is falling apart, globally.

SM: I can’t speak for the commercial or mainstream world — I only keep up with it in small doses. In independent and alternative: Yes, you can self-release, but it’s so much work for the artist and his or her manager. It’s a steep learning curve and you’ll likely get it wrong on a few counts before getting it right. So labels are still indispensable, and there are many out there that are artist-friendly. In the region, we have a few — Mostakell, Nawa, Annihaya, Nashazphone, 100Copies, Ruptured, etcetera. And more and more international labels are interested in alternative Arabic music. So with a manager, you ideally try to find a label that’s interested in you, with a roster that you feel comfortable being placed within, knowing that they will represent you with loyalty and respect. Only if you don’t have that option do you go for self-release and try and find your own mastering, manufacturing, distribution and so on.

“With most western media writing about Arabic music, the contextualizing often happens in the realms of politics, culture or gender, leaving very little room for serious engagement with the music itself.”

El Morabba3, for example, self-released their most recent album after crowd-funding very well for it, and they got a distribution deal with Universal Music MENA. Emel Mathlouhti is doing something similar with her new album. But both these artists are known to a certain extent, so they have something to capitalize on.

ME: What are the distribution channels?

SM: You have digital distribution, which includes streaming and downloading, then physical distribution for CDs and vinyl. There’s a demand for all those. Of course it’s more about digital these days, but globally many people still buy CDs. You won’t get reviews in most media outlets if you don’t send review CDs. And there’s a growing demand for vinyl. Regionally, unless you strike a deal like El Morabba3 have, physical distribution is more limited to specialty shops — but it’s still there.

ME: It’s funny, this re-popularization of vinyl.

SM: That’s a decent source of income. Because you’re tapping into a different demographic — people who are dedicated to spending regularly on music and who are willing to collect and pay more. You press a smaller number, but your profit margin is bigger.

ME: What’s the optimal vinyl print run for an alternative artist?

SM: You’d need to ask Khyam! But I know that Maurice’s vinyl sales did really well, and the same happened with the Dwarfs of East Agouza album.

I think the ultimate source of revenue is performance. I don’t know about making an entire album available for free online though — there are pros and cons to every approach. An incredible amount of work, time and investment goes into composing, recording and producing an album, so audiences expecting it for free is unreasonable in my view. If you like this music, you should support it. You pay for beer, cigarettes, pot and then you come to this creation where someone’s heart and soul was poured into producing it, and you don’t want to pay? It’s unfair and I don’t support it. Just as I don’t support free concerts, although many artist friends would disagree with me. There’s a difference between a new artist trying things out in their bedroom and dishing them out on SoundCloud — and it’s great that such a space and stepping stone exists — and an artist deciding to do this professionally and give their music the respect and investment it needs by recording properly and so on.

For me, the product stands to gain when you appreciate what goes into making it. When you write an article on Mada Masr, it’s not about how long it took you to write that particular article, it’s about the years of learning and training to get to a stage where you write an article that I can trust, and if you don’t get paid decently to do that, eventually you will stop writing.

So this whole thing about adapting to the way people expect to consume knowledge or music over the internet is a bit romantic and unsustainable for me. We’re going with the flow, but I don’t know — maybe we should be resisting.

ME: I know you’re very entrenched in the Egyptian alt-music scene, but you also do some work with musicians from Amman and Beirut. Locally, you hear from musicians and critics alike that Egypt has no alternative music scene. I tend to disagree, because there are musicians and there is an audience — it might be small, but it exists. It lacks an infrastructure and economy. I think there is an audience, but not one that is growing or that interested. Is there a scene here?

SM: Of course there’s a scene! We can discuss whether it amounts to an industry yet, but there is an increasingly interconnected alternative music scene from Rabat all the way to Beirut via Cairo. There are albums, EPs and tracks being released, more and more artists from the region touring internationally, new bands, solo artists and collaborations popping up. What we discussed earlier, about the lack of specialized entities and professionals, is the hurdle to the breakthrough into a fully fledged industry, which is what the regional labels and agencies I’ve mentioned have been trying to do.

But it’s also important to be critical of age-old notions such as industry. Is such a thing still valid? Is it more realistic to look at this scene as an informal economy? We have absence of governments in the region and when they are there, it’s usually to stifle you. So it’s not as if you would ever get the benefits of being in industry where it’s fairly regulated by policies or where you can belong to a union for creatives or musicians. You’re completely on your own. We’re better off facing that it will always be like this, not expecting that it will ever become an industry but instead looking at what models and dynamics we’ve been functioning on and how they can be more sustainable.

There are also some very important layers in this scene that would probably disappear if it became an industry. Not just in music, but in independent arts in general. I find that it’s the only sphere where you get people from different classes working together and becoming friends, where it’s about what you produce not about your degree or how much money and connections you have or your accent when you speak a foreign language. There’s still some tension of course, but it’s worked through. It’s especially important in a country like Egypt, where there is such a clear distinction and hierarchy between the classes.

ME: Is there another country in the region that has a more developed alternative music industry than Egypt?

SM: In Beirut, there are more venues. In Egypt, it’s so hard to open a place that has alcohol and/or live music. It’s not as policed as Cairo.

ME: Do they have to deal with officials levying charges and giving them a hard time?

SM: They probably do. Lebanon is also a messed-up country. It’s not heaven, but there is a certain degree of freedom that you don’t have in Cairo. From how you look, how you dress, how you drink and what time you go back home, to what kind of music you play. Beirut is a more liberal environment — it’s probably the most liberal city in the Arab world. That obviously has its impact. You have more spaces, considering how small Beirut is in comparison to Cairo, and I think you have more shows and more work for musicians. I don’t know any venues like Beirut’s Metro al-Madina elsewhere in the Middle East. This place produces work all the time. Every night they have a show. They produce musical theater and cabaret-type pieces. Their artistic director had Maryam Saleh performing [71-year-old Egyptian shaabi singer Ahmed] Adaweya songs, and they recently had a full-on production that reinterprets [late Egyptian composer] Sayed Darwish’s life and work. And you can go perform there as a band as well.

“Independent arts is the only sphere where you get people from different classes working together and becoming friends.”

ME: How many people does it fit?

SM: When it’s seated, maybe 150, standing room maybe upwards of 200. They’re under so much pressure and work around the clock, but they’re still there.

ME: What about Morocco? Have you engaged much with their music scene? It’s been blowing up for a while!

SM: Mainly Rabat, while attending Visa For Music — a really big showcase organized heroically by Brahim El Mazned and a team he puts together every year. But Morocco is a totally different model. The Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Tourism are more present and it has the most music festivals in the region. I also managed to visit Casablanca this year finally, mainly to check out a venue called Boultek. Its team also organizes an annual festival called L’Boulevard. Those two for me are the most exciting models. They’re quite underground and DIY, so they don’t get much support from ministries, but I don’t think the ministries get in their way either — while in Egypt, when you produce shows or run a venue or festival, you live with the constant risk of last-minute cancellation or closing down. It’s practically impossible to build something in such an environment.

So Boultek and L’Boulevard, having been there for many years, have become such legendary institutions with their support of emerging local acts and the rap, punk and metal scenes that have such a big following in Morocco. I asked one of the founders whether it’s such a good environment for artists in Morocco with so many festivals around, and he said that it’s great of course, but outside of festival seasons, there’s still a need for permanent venues. Boultek also offer rehearsal spaces within the venue, and they produce great design, live photography and videos, they’ve even ventured into producing street art in Casablanca.

ME: Speaking of regional festivals, Beirut and Beyond has a unique model of working in partnership with the very established Oslo World Music Festival.

SM: That strong partnership is an unusual set-up. Oslo World’s director opens many doors and is extremely supportive, but Beirut and Beyond still faces the challenges that other festivals in the region face — fundraising, sponsorship and making enough income from ticket sales. It’s an annual challenge you deal with all over again every year.

It’s the same for [Egypt’s] Oshtoora for example. I have so much respect for the team putting together that festival — I find them quite radical actually. They’re trying to strike the right financial model where it’s local and it pays for itself, and it will probably take them a few years before they get there. I hope they continue to persevere. Because within this scene we’re in, the ones carrying it are individuals and organizations that militantly focus on what they do and are in it for the long run.

ME: Let’s end with a quick chat about audience. [Musician and writer] Rami Abadir and I talk about this a lot — the millennial skip culture. At any given time, I have Spotify, Soundcloud, iTunes and YouTube open and I’m constantly switching between platforms, artists and genres. I’m listening to one artist on Soundcloud and halfway through the album it leads me to something else, which reminds me of something else, which I find on Spotify, and so on. My listening behavior with vinyl is very different — unless you’re a DJ, you’re not going to go pick up the needle every time your mind wanders.

I think the skip culture translates to audience behavior at live shows. In Egypt, a lot of times people are going out to a space for a more social engagement and the music is kind of in their way. Then there’s the people who are genuinely there to hear the music, but then become so distracted they literally skip the song in their mind and behavior. They get on their phone or into a conversation. Do you find this in other regional scenes? What is the audience-performer relationship abroad?

SM: Yeah, it’s a totally different audience-performer dynamic. But I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing. Again, as with the assessing the model of industry, western models should not always be the reference point. There are various ways of engaging with the music, some more formal than others, and we should be careful of defining things to the extent where we start perceiving of ourselves as inferior.

ME: Artist-performer dynamics have changed dramatically over time. I just wrote something about this, after reading Kim Gordon’s 1983 article, “I’m Really Scared When I Kill in My Dreams.”

SM: I’m currently reading her memoir, Girl in a Band. Really enjoying it.

ME: When rock and roll was king, she says, the audience was reacting to the rock star, their motions and their attitude and sexualization, or lack of it. Now we’re dealing with an individual operating light machinery on a stage, who’s not moving so much other than DJ gesticulations. So it’s made the individuals in the audience more self-sufficient to be present in the show. Like when you go to a techno party or a dance music event, your eyes face the ground or a screen.

SM: Exactly. So there is no need to predefine how an audience should behave. It’s the relationship to the music that defines it. I’ve been to concerts here actually where people are completely quiet. For example, the concert a few weeks ago with Tamer Abu Ghazaleh and Random House opening for him at [Cairo’s] Genaina Theater. There was not a single word from the audience, only enthusiastic clapping at the end of each song, and the occasional song request. There were two acts, one after the other an hour each, and it was full maybe about 250. No one was talking. I thought maybe they weren’t happy, but after each song they were really applauding. So it’s really about the music and where you’re playing it.

Setting up with Maurice Louca and Nadah El Shazly

ME: How has Nadah El Shazly’s path been?

SM: It’s going great. She’s in a phase where there is this amazing eagerness to develop, hear more, see more, experiment and get out of comfort zones to try new things. She’s absorbing so much, but she has also produced great work already. She develops very fast through a combination of having a talent that she has really nurtured for a long time and just being really open. For me, Nadah has a future worldwide. I also love the fact that, as a female artist, she is a complete musician: She’s a composer, a singer, an instrumentalist, a producer. With every one of those pieces she tries to take it and push it to its limits. Her standards are high.

Something worth mentioning here, and it might be a bit controversial because it’s not a fully formed idea for me: When it comes to female artists, I think it’s harder to develop this ability to detach yourself from your surrounding so you can focus on such things as learning to play an instrument really well. I think from a young age, us women are bombarded with so many outside messages and dynamics to do with our femininity, and how much attention this femininity gets us (for the wrong reasons). I don’t think men deal with even a fraction of that.

ME: Especially in Egypt.

SM: No, this is a global thing. I’m not talking about the Arab world only. Most musicians are men, and I’ve been wondering why that is. I think it’s partly to do with what it takes to learn to play an instrument, when you’re a musician who has voluntarily picked up an instrument at a young age, and how there is a minimum of solitude and shutting down of the outside world required so you can master it. In classical music you find more female musicians, because they get taught in schools from a young age. But in rock, which is where most artists come from in alternative music, it’s something that you choose to do, to pick up an instrument.

So, if I had a girl, I would teach her to be selfish, but I have two boys. Maybe I’ll teach to be like Maurice Louca. There was a review of Maurice’s work and in it was a line that was very interesting. It said that “he has his ears open.” And I find that the artists that reach new ground with their music are artists that listen to so much music, they have their ears open to everything around them, coming from outside or inside, old and new, and from every genre.

Seven of the best new regional tracks Sarah El Miniawy heard in 2016

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Maha ElNabawi