News Column

Mashrou' Leila's campaign raises questions about crowd funding

July 20, 2013

YellowBrix

July 20--BEIRUT -- As the amount of journalism on the subject will attest, crowd funding is acquiring a cult status. Industry researchers Massolution project it will raise $5.1 billion in capital over 2013, an 81-percent increase in volume.

While U.S. platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo host thousands of campaigns each month -- many started by independent musicians seeking funding -- crowd funding is still in its infancy in the Middle East.

Lebanese indie band Mashrou' Leila's decision to finance the release of their third album, "Raasuk" (which the band members translated as "We made them dance"), via Zoomaal -- one of several recently launched Arab crowdsourcing platforms -- raises interesting questions about the future role of crowd funding on the indie scene.

Launched on July 4, the band's online campaign calls for fans to help raise a total of $66,000 to fund the release of the album, which they've spent two years preparing. They recorded the album over the course of a month last autumn, funding it with earnings from their gigs.

"We recorded the album in Montreal, in Hotel2Tango studio with a producer and an engineer," says guitarist Firas Abou-Fakher. "It's the first time we've actually done a proper recording -- [not] just a home recording in bathrooms or bedrooms.

"We've been trying to release it, asking around labels, distributors. Nobody's really willing to help out a band at this time. Beirut's not very stable right now, nobody wants to take a risk or invest large amounts of money. We really want to do a proper release, have it distributed throughout the Arab world, [as well as] online."

The group's first two albums were available for free download, he explains. Now the band -- whose members quit their jobs to work as full-time musicians before their Baalbek festival concert last summer -- are making an unprecedented attempt to remain independent while competing with mainstream Arab pop stars.

"Zoomaal ... wanted us to be one of their launch projects," he explains. "We thought crowd funding could skip all the bureaucracy. ... It makes it a direct transition between fans -- people who care about the work -- to the artist themselves."

In a video accompanying the campaign, the five musicians discuss the difficulties facing Lebanese indie bands, calling on fans to help them "occupy Arab pop."

"The first thing we said was, 'We need to target it on a much more global scale than just 'Help Mashrou' Leila out,'" Abou-Fakher recalls. "We need to call for a change, which we have been calling for in our music. ... People aren't used to the fact that you can be a band, write your own music, perform your own songs, promote yourself -- have an identity that's particular to yourself.

"We've made enough of a buzz to get the attention of certain people in the music industry," he adds. "... It's always the same thing. 'Let's make a video with you guys in cars, and have you driving along the Corniche and people dancing.' It's not what we want to do."

Two weeks after the campaign launch, the band had raised just over $21,000 -- almost a third of their total. While crowd funding may prove a viable tool for a popular band like Mashrou' Leila, its implications for Lebanon's indie scene as a whole are being hotly debated. It's uncertain whether crowd funding is viable for groups with a less-developed fan base, or even if it's really necessary to retain artistic control.

While Lebanon's other indie musicians are largely supportive, they acknowledge Mashrou' Leila occupy a unique position on the scene.

"If Mashrou' Leila didn't have ... regional recognition already," observes veteran underground musician and producer Zeid Hamdan, "then they would not dare to do a crowd funding for $66,000. They know that through the Internet they already have a reach of over 50,000 people, or more. ... I would not do it because I don't have that popularity. On the underground scene they are the most popular, so only they can try this kind of initiative."

Anthony Khoury, vocalist of up-and-coming alternative band Adonis, acknowledges Mashrou' Leila's wide fan base, but doesn't believe it is essential for success. "Of course a fan base would help initially spread it," he says, "and give a faster pace of collecting, but word of mouth works, especially in a small community like ours."

The funds Mashrou' Leila aim to raise -- an astronomical sum compared with what most local indie bands spend on production and promotion -- is necessary, Hamdan says, if they want to compete with mainstream regional artists.

Having a song played on Arab TV or radio costs about $8,000 a week per outlet, he says, while billboard campaigns cost around $20,000.

"If they want [this type of] promotion," he clarifies, "they would have to go to an Arab label and compromise their art, which they don't want to do. So they ask us to produce them. I encourage them in that, because they're going to attack a market where usually ... we do not exist. Maybe through them, people will discover the underground scene, so they're doing work that will benefit all of us."

Khoury agrees with the group's call to "occupy Arab pop," saying that in order for local groups to retain their individuality it is important to remain independent. "Production companies are all about reshaping bands to the mainstream, and that obviously doesn't fit alternative bands."

In spite of the challenges Arab indie acts face, DJ, radio host, manager and producer Ziad Nawfal feels that crowd funding is not the answer.

"Honestly," he says, "I find it weird to try and appeal to people's sympathies in order to produce a music project. ... Let's say you're a fan of my label ... I don't think it's your problem if I can't get enough money to produce my album.

"I don't see how Mashrou' Leila can ... appeal to their fans to produce their album, which their fans afterwards, in turn, will have to buy. ... Maybe I'm old-fashioned this way, more attached to the old method of producing music.

"I'm not upset," he avers. "I invited Mashrou' Leila to come on my show, I've organized concerts with them, I've plugged their album immensely on my radio programs and I love these guys and their music. But for me this was one step too far."

Elie Zarka, guitarist of indie rock band Near Surface, sees crowd funding as a last resort but he believes fans will enjoy being able to help the group achieve their goals. "People are going to feel good about donating," he says. "It's natural when you love a band and you believe they can make it. ... It makes you feel as though you're part of the process."

Regardless, local musicians will be watching the group's seminal campaign. "I'm very excited about what they're doing," says Hamdan. "If they succeed, it will give me ideas for my next album."

"I'm looking at this as a sort of experiment," says Khoury, "and I'm really interested in seeing where it will lead and how people will respond to alternative music being promoted like mainstream music."

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(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

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