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Mena music transcending borders at rapid rate, new Spotify data shows

About two-thirds of new Mena artist discoveries are taking place outside the artists' home countries
From left: Saeed Saeed of The National, UAE-based Syrian artist Ghaliaa,  A&R and Marketing Director at Sony Music Entertainment Middle East Karima Damir, and Mark Abou Jaoude, Head of Music for MENA and South Asia (excluding India) at Spotify. (Photo/Spotify)
Left to right: Saeed Saeed of The National; UAE-based Syrian artist Ghaliaa; Karima Damir for Sony Music Entertainment Middle East; and Mark Abou Jaoude, head of music for Mena and South Asia at Spotify (Photo courtesy of Spotify)

Mena music is crossing regional boundaries, and artists from the area are gaining steady international momentum, around two-thirds of new discoveries happening outside of the region, according to a new report.

Spotify’s regional “Fan Study”, a series of reports analysing artist and listener performance metrics, highlights new findings respective to artists in the Middle East and North Africa that could change the future of regional music.

In a panel this month, Spotify presented six points from a report it called a “data-driven exploration of fandom”, exploring the quantitative success of artists based in the region.

According to the report, the top five markets for Mena music comprise listeners from the US, France, Germany, Canada, and Turkey - in that order. The UK, Spain, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Italy follow in streaming artists from the Mena region.

The panel, moderated by journalist Saeed Saeed, featured Mark Abou Jaoude, Spotify’s head of music in the Mena region and South Asia (excluding India); rising Syrian artist Ghaliaa; and Karima Damir, A&R and marketing director at Sony Music Entertainment Middle East. According to the platform, the study explores “fan behaviour from around the Middle East and North Africa”. 

Since 2017, the proportion of tracks from outside North America and Europe reaching Spotify’s global chart has more than doubled. 

Collaborations with international artists yield heavy global traffic. The platform found that 96 percent of streams on international collaborations come from outside the main artist’s country, compared with 52 percent for domestic and cross-regional collaborations, Spotify said. 

About two-thirds of new Mena artist discoveries happen outside the artist’s home country, at a reported 66 percent. 

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Abou Jaoude said in a statement: “It is great to see how fans are making it possible for artists to break into new territories.” 

One artist crossing that threshold is Ghaliaa, a Syrian multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter based in the UAE. Her music, which she describes as alternative and indie-pop, features both English and Arabic lyrics. She said data like these help her understand what resonates with her audience and, in turn, shapes her work.

“I started realising, ‘Okay, people are enjoying my English music more than Arabic. And then some people out in the West are enjoying Arabic more than English,” she told Middle East Eye over the phone. “It was a bit confusing in the beginning, but then the numbers were very helpful.”

Data points serve as a conversation piece as much as they do metrics, according to Ghaliaa, who says she and other artists often “pick up the phone” and compare notes.

“We actually message each other, every now and then we check in…and I'm like, ‘What's next for you? What's your data doing?’ she said. “It doesn't really feel like an industry at this point. It just feels like a community.”

On the flip side, artists in the diaspora find similar value in data, despite their location outside the region itself. 

Yasmeen, a US-based Assyrian singer-songwriter whose music has landed on Spotify’s ArabX playlist, featuring artists with ties to the Mena region, is known for her full-bodied, soulful ballads. Although she’s located outside of Mena, she says knowing her own music’s reach reinforces a sense of community. 

“Everything feels so big,” she told Middle East Eye. “But when you're on these playlists…you start to discover so many other Middle Eastern artists from all around the world, and then when you get grouped into that, it just feels so much smaller.”

Songs local to the Mena region are topping the platform’s global charts - which are becoming increasingly populated by artists from outside North America and Europe - and international collaborations with Arab artists are on the rise, in what Abou Jaoude called an “exciting” shift.

“There’s never been more representation from more places on Spotify charts,” the report said. “In just the last five years, the proportion of tracks reaching our global weekly top songs chart from outside North America and Europe has more than doubled.”

The report nodded to regional artist Inkonnu's album Arabi, which came in at 7th place on the platform’s “global top debut albums'' chart, upon its release in 2021.

Spotify also found that Egyptians share Mena tracks from Spotify the most, listening to over 2,700 percent more than average, according to the report. And on a larger scale, Iraq and Egypt keep their favourite artists on repeat the most, compared to the global average. 

“Arabic music is certainly receiving more international recognition than ever and we are excited about what’s to come,” he said. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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