As we launch the first edition of Midem Africa, the first pan-African digital music event dedicated to the continent’s most vibrant music markets, Midem is proud to celebrate the birth of ESMAA – the first UAE based rights management entity licensing music across the Gulf States – by welcoming an exclusive guest blogpost by its President, Spek.
Read on to get unique insight on the music rights’ ecosystem in the UAE and on the role ESMAA is set to play to support the regions’ creators.
The Birth of ESMAA
When I first moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2006, there was an air of enthusiasm around music rights largely due to the incredible investments in the media and content sector the country was making. Historically, setting up a business in much of the region required a majority-holding local partner. At some point, there was a recognition by decision makers in government that this was potentially discouraging foreign investment, so they decided to do something about it. It wasn’t long before industry-specific free-zones began to crop up across the country. The company I founded, PopArabia, launched as a portfolio investment of the Abu Dhabi media zone, twofour54 in 2011.
Twofour54 is the region’s entertainment hub, with companies like Unity Technologies, CNN; and Ubisoft based out of its campus in the capital. What makes twofour54 different from other zones is their specific mission to bolster a regional content creation industry with a venture capital arm, investing in businesses they feel will be vital to helping them develop their content ecosystem. As an Abu Dhabi initiative, twofour54 and their support for our work has been instrumental in our mission. PopArabia have worked with all the major publishers over the years, with our present market share estimated at 60% of global repertoire through deals to represent companies including Sony Music Publishing, BMG Rights, and Kobalt in the Middle East. More recently, last year we announced a partnership and joint venture with Reservoir, to invest in Arab talent. This was an opportunity to not only rep the international hits but to create some domestic ones of our own. After a decade in the game, it felt like we had found the best possible local (twofour54) and international (Reservoir) partners for an upstart music company like PopArabia, trying to take on big challenges in a difficult market for music rights.
Contrary to many assumptions, the rights of authors (or publishers as their representatives), producers (labels) and performers are all protected under federal copyright law in the UAE and throughout the Gulf region. The law allows rights holders to license their rights, while the recourse to having your rights infringed is pursuing litigation through the judicial system. However, the reality is that going through the court system can be a long, expensive process, which has acted as a deterrent for copyright holders to enforce their rights.
My hope in those early years was that as a music publisher I could facilitate music licensing in accordance with the law. I did whatever I could to make introductions with rights organizations and others to encourage local users to ensure their businesses were fully licensed for all rights they required. However, over time experience taught me that no organization, even with the best intentions, was well placed to make a dent and scale licensing in this market in a meaningful way from outside the market. There was another problem holding things back: since the law prohibits foreign entities from licensing into the market without a local business license, music users who were genuinely looking for a solution were unable to do so by licensing through a foreign entity without being at odds with local law.
So, when we began discussing establishing a rights management entity (RME) subsidiary of PopArabia to help solve this conundrum, it felt clear that we would be better placed to work with global rights holders on moving licensing forward than any of the previous efforts we saw come and go. Besides the obvious legal hurtles, foreign organizations lacked the local relationships, regional expertise and influence that a locally-based organization partnered with an Abu Dhabi entity could achieve; and so ESMAA, our RME, was born to address a broken system.
ESMAA translates to the word “listen” in Arabic. It is relevant in the obvious sense, that we will be able to provide licenses to those who wish to listen to music, but it also works figuratively – we have listened to all sides of this issue and created an entity that can provide a solution.
We received the required trade license to operate as ESMAA in early 2020 and began the dual process of discussing licenses with local users and reaching out to global rights holders to represent their rights. We are now in discussions with a variety of businesses using music in the region, who have been seeking a way to ensure their uses of music are licensed. ESMAA also recently concluded landmark agreements to represent the UK’s PRS for Music and Canada’s SOCAN repertoire, ultimately leading to our recent RME Client status at CISAC – a historic development for the first rights organization in the Gulf.
Given how much incredible development has happened over recent years, it is easy to forget that the UAE is a very young country. There are still wide gaps across sectors that require industry-led solutions, that are compliant with the local regulatory environment. Given no other local company has the advantage of being partnered with an Abu Dhabi entity whose mandate is to develop a local content eco-system, and that we have been in the market for a decade focused on these issues, representing rights holders, I believe it is incumbent on PopArabia to use our platform to move the market forward through ESMAA.
Like any new rights organization, there are no doubt a host of challenges ahead, but I believe ESMAA is the best placed entity to provide the answer.
We are looking forward to engaging with the global music community, as we expect to unlock value for music creators in the UAE and the Gulf region for the first time in the history of the region. These are the first important steps of a long exciting journey, to get the world to sit up and listen. Or to use a pun, ESMAA.