If ever there was a defining national sound, it is the imposing voice of Umm Kulthum blaring through Egypt’s cacophonous soundscape, setting the tone for the country’s socio-cultural evolution and political life throughout its modern history. Thanks to her inimitable voice and impressive vocal range, the late singer transcended in the 40s and the 50s the very social and gender barriers that continue to face Egyptian women decades later.
Spotify’s 2019 Wrapped Lists for Egypt, released last week, reflect the most listened to artists and songs by Egyptians and were not chosen by Spotify itself. Not unpredictably, Egyptian singer Amr Diab leads the pack as the country’s most streamed artist of 2019, followed by American pop star Billie Eilish in an otherwise all-male top 10 list. Similarly, the country’s top 10 most streamed female artists list only features one Egyptian singer, Sherine.
“We work with thousands of artists and labels and it is true that the industry is kind of male-dominated. We are, literally, [listing] the music that we are receiving and then we are looking at what is moving very well. There might be an unconscious bias there—that people might listen to more male singers, but maybe it is just simply the fact [of the matter] because it is more produced,” Claudius Boller, Spotify’s Managing Director for the Middle East and Africa tells Egyptian Streets.
“We have internal mechanisms and tools, we want to support all artists equally, and it is very tricky to do that at scale, so we are using technology to help us [close the gender gap] because there are thousands of new releases happening all the time across the world.”
Spotify’s Impact in Egypt
Since its launch in the Middle East and North Africa last year, Spotify has held its own against regional favorite Anghami, becoming the fastest growing music streaming service in the Arab world, Boller asserts, and with that comes considerable cultural clout in terms of redefining the industry’s ethical standards.
Spotify’s 2019 Wrapped findings serve as an index of the music industry’s overall health, its most prevalent sounds and genres, but in Egypt, they paint a dark picture where the voices of Egyptian women are virtually mute. One could argue that there is a dearth of female talent or that the economic realities of the industry have taken their toll on all Egyptian music artists, but the more likely explanation is that record labels and producers no longer view women musicians as a viable investment. Boller believes the streaming giant can help level the playing field across the regional soundscape.
Not only does the company provide music artists and labels with market data and insights into audiences’ listening habits and preferences—which it claims to collect in compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, Spotify also educates consumers and musicians on copyright laws and regulations.
“[Artists] see the demographics of their audience[s]—where they are coming from, and based on that, they can optimize their work so much better…so this is how we work with artists, equally,” Boller explains.
“We did more than 70 [educational sessions across the MENA region] in just one year, where we help[ed] artists to understand how [to] protect [their] rights, how digital streaming work[s], how [to] leverage the global scale of Spotify with 248 million active users across the world—because there’s more than 100 million Arabs outside of the region and they are great fans, and this is why the likes of, not just Amr Diab and Nancy Ajram, but also [up-and-coming artists] are working with us directly.”
Another potential equalizer, according to Boller, is SoundBetter, a music production marketplace recently acquired by Spotify. The service allows singers, songwriters, producers, sound engineers and other industry professionals to showcase and copyright their work and connect and collaborate with other musicians.
So far, the platform features music artists and industry insiders from over 180 countries. “There is a lot of [Arab] artists already on there, so this is what we can do actually to make the creation—and for people to discover their talents—more seamless,” he explains.
With a $US 26 billion valuation, Spotify is en route to becoming the Netflix (or Disney Plus, depending on your allegiance) of music streaming, and with that comes enough clout to shape the industry’s culture in each of the 79 markets the service is currently live in. This is a role the music conglomerate has historically been hesitant to play.
Consumer Bias and Listening Habits Raise Concerns
Last year, following public outrage after the release of Surviving R Kelly, a documentary series that featured firsthand accounts of statutory rape by the R&B singer, Spotify decided to remove R Kelly’s songs from the playlists the company curates, operates, and promotes, citing its Hate Content and Hateful Conduct policy. “When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator,” a Spotify representative commented at the time.
Less than a month later, the company repealed the Hateful Conduct clause, limiting the policy to banning content that promotes hate speech. “We created concern that an allegation might affect artists’ chances of landing on a Spotify playlist and negatively impact their future,” Spotify clarified, according to Time Magazine. “Some artists even worried that mistakes made in their youth would be used against them.”
The rollback dealt a massive blow to the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, with activists and critics questioning Spotify’s business ethics — especially in light of subsequent allegations of equal pay violations. But mostly, it revealed a much more unpleasant truth: we, as cultural consumers, have created a global soundscape in our own image.
Spotify’s AI and machine learning-based algorithms and the data it generates every year are damning evidence of consumer complicity. A complicity that allowed R Kelly’s streaming numbers to grow from 6,584,000 to 6,676,000 following Spotify’s initial announcement, and continues to uphold the late XXXTentacion’s status as a music genius despite being a confessed woman beater.
In the Arab and Muslim world, where female entertainers are routinely and publicly shamed for the slightest perceived missteps and where alleged rapists like Saad Lamjarred face virtually no legal or social ramifications, can Spotify succeed where legislators, cultural authorities and thought leaders failed? Can this digital sexism be reverse engineered to empower women in music, and therefore all aspects of their public and private lives?
The answer, according to Boller, is both complicated and infinitely simple. As the world grows more disillusioned with tech evangelism, the judgment is once again ours to make. Millennials and Gen Zers who constitute the bulk of the platform’s users in the MENA, thanks to Spotify’s deep integration with social media, can, through their choices and consumption habits, make problematic musicians and their content unprofitable.
“It is not for us [Spotify] to judge and to make these judgment calls…we have a code of conduct for our suppliers that they [are required to comply with], so we are trying to keep our network of partners in a great balance when it comes to this responsibility,” he says.
“The great thing is that we are taking feedback in on social media. We are very, very open to that. We always want to learn and we are literally growing together, with our audiences and our user base.”