How do we build the future of the music industry in the Middle East and Africa? A few years ago, that was the question Claudius Boller was asking himself. He had moved to Dubai from Germany in 2007 on behalf of Arvato-Bertelsmann to begin to build up the first digital music services in the region.
Later, Claudius joined Universal Music to set up their operation in the Middle East and North Africa and started digging into the puzzle of digital music. Along the way, he gleaned the expertise needed to promote and advance artists in the unique and vibrant region. From there, he joined Spotify, and for the past two and a half years he has served as Spotify’s Managing Director for MEA, covering the Middle East, North Africa and South Africa.
Now a year into Spotify’s launch in 13 new markets in the region, Claudius is continuing to build the Middle Eastern and African market. And he’s as excited as ever. “We bring new things to people and at a scale that is unheard of. The Middle East and Africa have some of the youngest, fastest-growing populations in the world. It’s truly fascinating where the journey can take us.”
Read on for more of our conversation.
About a year ago, Spotify launched in 13 markets in the Middle East and North Africa. Only a few months prior to that was Spotify’s launch in South Africa. What are some of the unique factors that went into the launch, and some of the things that you brought in with your knowledge from being in the region for over a decade?
When it comes to launching a music service, there’s thousands of factors that play a role. I think it was instrumental to have the background of working at a label, since we have licensed and learned from other music services prior to Spotify entering the markets. We had to be overly creative to develop the much-needed digital monetization for creators in a region that had not developed it yet.
Spotify’s ambition is really to bring music to everyone, and we need to be 100% locally relevant with our consumer offering. So we also made Spotify available in Arabic. This was quite tricky since we had to mirror the interfaces and Arabic language right to left.
But what’s also unique in the region is that we are facing a highly diverse landscape. Though the Arabic language unites some of the countries, we have lots of very different dialects, cultures, and habits. And then in countries like Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, French is one of the major languages.
What are some markers of success you’ve already seen across your markets in the Middle East and Africa?
We created the Arab Hub and Afro Hub and made them available globally—kind of the gateway for local music to be discovered by our truly global audience on Spotify. Today we have about 248 million active users around the world, and that is changing the game for a lot of artists and labels as they reach new audiences.
Additionally, the introduction of Spotify Lite to the market ensures that music fans can access music in regions where connections, expensive data plans, and a wider penetration of older mobile phones are more common. Spotify Lite demonstrates our dedication to localizing technology and innovation for each region, including the Middle East and Africa.
The big game changer is also the increase in use of Spotify for Artists, where artists can see and learn about their audience for the first time. And, they’re surprised that they have huge fan bases already, maybe in the Americas or in Europe that they naturally wouldn’t be aware of—last month, for example, we put Amr Diab on a billboard in Times Square, the first-ever Arabic music artist to be featured there. We’re elevating local artists to the world stage.
What are some other ways Spotify is helping artists in the region?
We offer educational classes where we bring in between five and 100 artists, distributors, managers, producers, and songwriters to talk about digital music distribution. How can they reach a global audience? How can they use Spotify’s data to do partnerships, negotiate with labels? We see firsthand how this is changing lives and careers. There is such a big difference here of what we can do with the creative community and so much potential.
What international music is being streamed in the region? And what are the hottest trends or genres coming out of your market?
Users in Saudi Arabia are exploring music from all across the world, like K-Pop. When BTS came to Saudi Arabia, it was a massive success.
But it also works the other way around. Egyptian Mahraganat is being played elsewhere, Maghreb (northern African) hip-hop is big in France—and trap is booming in both MENA and Latin America. We have music coming from the Levant and Egypt trending in Brazil. We have AmaPiano, the most relevant house music genre in South Africa—something I’m really excited about—getting big outside the country and being played in other regions across the world.
What were some surprising occurrences that came about after launch in the Middle Eastern and North African market?
The Gulf countries love technology. So they’re using their smart speakers. They’re using our in-car integrations day in and day out. Usage on smartphones, smart watches is extremely high. This is really what Spotify stands for, right? For true ubiquity.
One big success story in particular is our PlayStation partnership, which we rolled out globally. The gaming community in the Gulf countries, especially in Saudi Arabia, is one of the biggest. Our PlayStation integration adds to the experience as they can listen to our playlists—especially those with traditional Khaleeji music—as well as Iraqi music. They also create their own playlists to match their gaming experience.
Finally, if we were to take a look at your “recently played,” what would we see?
Tons of kid songs, because my daughter figured out how to use the smart speakers, but it’s so much fun. Personally, I’m very much into ’90s rock and hip-hop. But what I really love at the moment is AmaPiano. It’s so fascinating. Everything about AmaPiano is new, it’s edgy. It’s engaging. It’s crisp, and it has a lot of energy. So I love the AmaPiano trend, and I think we can all stay tuned to see what it does globally.
Take a listen to Yalla for more of the sounds coming out of the Middle East and North Africa.