ESMAA founder shares thoughts on regional music rights body’s first year in business

ESMAA founder shares thoughts on regional music rights body’s first year in business

DUBAI: In August 2021, the Abu Dhabi-based independent music company PopArabia announced the launch of ESMAA, a music rights management organization.

ESMAA, which takes its name from the Arabic word for “listen,” works with global rights holders and regional businesses to facilitate the licensing of music in the Gulf. In the year since its launch, it has signed agreements to represent global royalties-collection agencies, including the UK’s Performing Right Society for Music and the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada.

It has also signed agreements to license music from the library of British record label Chrysalis Music and Global Master Rights, a neighboring rights company that represents more than 300 record labels and 2,500 performers including Rihanna, Billie Eilish, Metallica and David Guetta. Neighboring rights royalties are paid to performers who record a song, typically when it is played on the radio or in a public venue.

Hussain Yoosuf

ESMAA also operates as a client rights management entity of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers, marking the first and, to date, only time an organization from the Gulf region has been able to benefit from CISAC’s technical tools and solutions for the administration of creators’ rights.

In addition, it was the sole music-licensing partner for the Expo 2020 Dubai and is distributing royalties around the world generated by the event. This year, ESMAA announced a licensing agreement with Saudi entertainment company MDLBEAST that will ensure composers and rights holders are paid any time their work is performed at a MDLBEAST event.

Most recently, ESMAA signed an agreement to represent US-based performing rights organization the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers and its affiliate, Harry Fox Agency, a US mechanical rights organization.

“As ESMAA continues to fulfill its mission to provide a comprehensive music licensing solution in the Gulf, it is crucial that we continue to grow our representation of global music rights,” said Hussain Yoosuf, better known by his stage name “Spek,” the founder of ESMAA and its parent company PopArabia.

ESMAA has achieved a lot in just one year, yet Spek told Arab News that when he began his crusade in the region’s music industry people thought he was “crazy.” Although the UAE and other Gulf countries had laws in place relating to intellectual property rights and licensing “they didn’t really have any infrastructure of enforcement unless you wanted to sue everybody that you met” and piracy levels were at almost 90 percent across the region in the days when music was a physical, CD-based business, he explained.

“People thought I was crazy, because there was no reason to invest in the music industry in the Middle East at the time because you knew that whatever you invested in was going to get pirated,” said Spek.

His biggest challenge, he added, was the inability to “cultivate a healthy and varied ecosystem around music” because “you couldn’t have any monetization around the asset that you created.”

While he was an aspiring artist in Canada, Spek said he would work odd jobs to save up the thousands of dollars he needed to record his music in a studio. Now, with the advent of digital technology and music-streaming companies, old-style recording studios and distribution are almost obsolete. Anyone can record music in their home now and upload it immediately.

“All of the traditional gatekeepers have been eliminated; it’s the best time ever to be an independent music artist,” he said.

Music streaming has not only altered the way music is recorded and distributed but also how people listen to it.

“The way we consume music has changed based on the way we receive the music,” said Spek. “Moreover, it’s about the creation of domestic content.

In the US, old songs now represent 70 percent of the music market, according to research by MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. The Middle East region is bigger geographically than the US, Spek said, and so the audience here is more connected.

“Repression leads to expression, so you have a lot of people with a lot of things to say,” which means there are more independent artists coming out of the region, he explained.

Even before the launch of ESMAA, PopArabia was already supervising music licensing. Over the past 10 years it has represented all of the major music publishers, Spek said, and currently represents about 60 percent of all global music.

“When people are looking for a broad license, we’re often the first conversation because so much of the rights sit in one place,” he added.

“We ended up doing things that a traditional publisher doesn’t generally do, which is trying to solve industry problems. And I’m all for that — but how do you keep the lights on as a business if all your time is spent trying to fix the industry?”

And so, ESMAA was born. Despite initial challenges and difficulties, Spek said he has not really faced much “pushback.” Saudi Arabia, for instance, has made a “conscious decision to invest heavily in entertainment and make a lot of progressive moves that change the social fabric of the Kingdom.”

A few years ago, Saudi Arabia was not even “in the conversation” when it came to music and entertainment but now “there is so much excitement and they are looking at these issues at the very highest levels of the government in Saudi and are very committed to opening it up,” he said.

Through its work with governments and artists, ESMAA is committed to making a difference in the industry.

“Nobody can deny that we have been the loudest voice in the region with respect to these (licensing) issues and moving the market forward,” Spek said.

“When the history books are written, we have got some section in there for having begun a process to open up royalties and distribute royalties when music is put in public, which I think is an essential step to developing a healthy ecosystem.”