Listening to music is an everyday experience for most people. However, aspiring and early-career musicians face various barriers to entry in the music industry, especially in Egypt.
Imagine the scenarios.
In one, Ahmed El-Sedfy, 26, has just finished performing a gig with his friends. He feels an exhilarating sense of fulfillment. When he returns home and recalls his day, he remembers that his performance was unpaid. Yet, he still deems good because it brings him exposure. El-Sedfy wonders if there are other ways to help him gain recognition, from both professionals in the industry as well as his own family. Then, he remembers how challenging it will be to convince his parents that being a musician is a real job.
In the second scenario, Joudi Nox, 26, enjoys posting videos of herself singing on social media. An event organizer offers her a two-song performance slot as the opening act of another artist, at a concert. She is overwhelmed with happiness, but then she worries that her parents will deem her less moral because of it. She agonizes over her choice of outfit, and meticulously constructs her on-stage persona in order to appear more appropriate by her family’s standards.
Both scenarios, narrated to Egyptian Streets by real-life aspiring musicians, present the preliminary and varying challenges that artists have to face at the early stages of their careers.
“It is not only about the external struggles we, as musicians, face. The bigger part for me is internal,” explains Tasnim Hisham, 25, classical pianist, “As a pianist, it might not be that difficult to land performing gigs in events and hotels, but you are put in a situation where you have to choose good money and become a lobby art by covering well-known tracks or not getting hired for wanting to play a classical piece,”
For Hisham, performing in high-profile events and hotels made her feel like a “broken record” played in the background. Hisham also added that as a female pianist, her attire was always a part of the deal when performing.
“I felt like a prop each time I planned an outfit: is it decent enough? Am I pretty enough? I felt like my job is to not only play well but rather play well while being pretty. When my other male colleagues can literally put on a suit and people will care less about the suit and pay more attention to the performance,”
This is just a glimpse into the thoughts and concerns that keep aspiring Egyptian musicians tossing and turning at night. Usually, in Egypt, pursuing a career in music is perceived as either a hobby or a phase, especially by families who hope their children will move on to more lucrative and socially-approved careers.
Those who decide to professionally pursue music face various hardships. Commonly, there are two approaches young artists resort to in their attempts to achieve their musical dream. They either decide to study music at a university level or gain work experience beyond their choice of academic major. Either way, the decision to choose this career is often riddled with stereotypes.
Nox, who studied Music Technology at the American University in Cairo, explains that the struggles musicians usually face are two-fold: personal and professional. Professionally, she believes the job market for musicians depends exclusively on networking, with a high chance of undertaking administrative tasks rather than creating music. While personally, musicians are usually not taken seriously, which is particularly evident during family gatherings and conversations.
As for Hisham, after succeeding in pursuing a career as a pianist, it cost her most valuable possession: her love for piano. “I got to a point where I was about to put my piano for sale and it terrified me, because I have always defined who I am through playing my piano and nothing else,” adds Hisham.
She also highlighted that becoming a good pianist already requires more than 12 hours a day dedicated to practicing, performing, and working as a music teacher to ensure an additional income on the side. “I would perform for nine hours knowing for a fact that I am not feeling the piece I am performing and people are not listening, I am background music,” expresses Hisham.
Hardships in the job market
According to Nox, her desire to work as a sound engineer usually comes as a surprise to many in her field since it is more expected that female musicians sing rather than produce music.
“The job market of sound engineers in Egypt is always surprised that a woman is behind the mixer and the man is the one who is singing, not the other way around. I’m usually not referred to gigs or projects because my job requires late working hours and some employers do not want to be responsible for making a woman work this late,” explains Nox.
El-Sedfy, who is an aspiring musician, majoring in business at Egypt’s Future University, adds that it is not enough to have the work experience required to find employment opportunities, nor is it enough to work on yourself on a daily basis to be considered a viable option when it comes to getting contracted to paid gigs.
Opportunities in the job market are passed on through word-of-mouth, from networks and acquaintances; it is a privilege not bestowed to all. According to El-Sedfy, unlike other work fields, one cannot apply to a studio or for a performance by sending in their resume. Additionally, when musicians are given the opportunity to perform, remuneration is usually substituted by rationalizing that they are given a platform and exposure.
El-Sedfy started his career by performing with his university’s choir at the Cairo Opera House. He then joined other student activities that taught him the technical side of performing.
After performing at big events such as the Sha’abi Musical Festival at the American University of Cairo, in front of 4,000 people, he realized he did not want to work elsewhere.
When it comes to musical performances, Youssef Moustafa, 26, explains that as a classical music violinist, the chance to perform is significantly limited since the genre itself is not popular in Egypt.
In his experience, the only institution that gives room for classical music performance is the Cairo Opera House. Moustafa explains that despite playing alongside musicians from the Cairo Conservatoire, one of seven institutes of the Academy of Arts, being an English speaker with no understanding of Arabic, did not allow him to socialize with them.
“Performing in my university was easy since they already knew me. However, when I get recommended for other off-campus projects, the language barrier makes me unable to communicate and network with other musicians since I can’t understand them,” said Moustafa.
This, then, hinders any chances of networking with other musicians who could help him in the future since performance opportunities require referrals.
For Hisham, her constant “tasteless” performances as piano covers during events pushed her to “kill the joy of practicing her craft”, which made her quit performing and her teaching job because she lost meaning in what she does. She explains that though it is an internal struggle for her, it was initially triggered by the inability of Egypt’s music industry to provide musicians, especially pianists, a sustainable economy.
“I quit teaching when I quit performing because I can’t, in good conscience, teach what I can’t feel,” stressed Hisham.
How musicians are socially perceived
According to a group of graduates and aspiring musicians who spoke to Egyptian Streets, society automatically molds ‘musicians’ into two boxes: one that considers music as a passing phase and the other portrays them as people who are just having “fun”.
El-Sedfy highlighted the social burden of proving himself as a financially dependable individual or one eligible enough to start a family one day.
“If I decided to propose to someone, her family would most likely condition me to take a ‘more serious’ job, and to have a steady income, since being a musician is not socially appreciated,” he explained.
On multiple family occasions, Mousafa’s family requested that he state that he works as a banker instead of a musician, as to avoid “awkward” conversations.
“My cousin once asked me what I do for a living and I told him I am a musician. He asked: really? Are you still hung up on that? It is as if it’s a phase rather than an actual career,” Moustafa explains.
The hardships that aspiring musicians face do not only impact them on an external level but also affect the way they perceive themselves and their work.
El-Sedfy explains that this social undermining of musicians has a massive impact on their productivity. In 2018, he went through an unproductive episode where he kept wondering why he insisted on performing since his efforts seemed to be in vain.
Other musicians, like Nox, highlighted that being a woman in Egypt who aspires to work in music, automatically adds another layer of struggle to making it. According to Nox, aside from it being unsafe for women, since it usually requires late working hours, having studied sound engineering at university, industry professionals deem her a better fit for administrative rather than technical work.
“When I first told my mother I wanted to study music and be a sound engineer, her reaction was “you’re definitely going to wind up in the streets,” Joudi added.
Definition of “success”: what could be done better?
According to Nox, success is defined as having a steady income; the instability of income, for her, undermines the validity of her work in general. She hopes one day she can confidently answer the question “what do you do for a living?”
El-Sedfy defined success as not having to compromise his work in order to produce “popular” songs. In other words, he would not have to change the genre of his songs in order to sell. He also believed success is being able to approach labels and getting signed to produce his album, along with a positive reaction from listeners.
Succeeding in this industry can look differently, according to El-Sedfy. One is by fostering a fanbase in order to be approached by record labels, as was the case for Tasneem El-Aidy, a popular Egyptian singer. Or one works on proving themselves a label from the beginning and works from scratch on building a community.
As for Hisham, her definition of success is making terms with working a job aside from her main passion and field of study if that means she gets to find her way back to playing the piano with songs that made her fall in love with classical music in the first place. She also added that maybe with time, Egypt is on her way to nurture a culture of listening to performances of live music, and this is when she can resume her career as a pianist to pay due respect to her craft.
There is, then, a significant gap between how people choose to study and learn music, how the job market in this industry works, and how the field itself is perceived by society.
To think of the difficulties aspiring musicians face, it begs the question of how society values music and the future of Egyptian musical culture. It also makes one wonder if these challenges hide future, groundbreaking talents.