All Music is Legally Free in the Arab World

Online piracy remains a serious issue for many industries worldwide due to the difficulties of enforcement and the lack of reasonable online legal alternatives to piracy. Services such as Mawaly and Yala prove that the Arabic music industry is willing to do whatever it takes to survive: Let everyone download all the music they want free of charge.
Mawaly, a website affiliated with Rotana (the biggest record label in the Arab world) allows anyone to download music from all of Rotana’s signed artists, as well as artists from other labels, directly free of charge and with no strings attached. Yala is music a streaming service similar to Spotify that works on a freemium model, but unlike Spotify, it does not require users to register to listen to music on its website and also allows users to legally download complete mp3 files of the music free of charge.

The arguments against the damage that piracy causes to the music industry have been going on for years, but can the Arab music industry prove that it is possible for the industry to survive even when the all of the actual music is given away free of charge?

Like the rest of the world, actual music sales make only a small percentage of the profits made by a Arab musicians nowadays. Money is made from concert tickets, media licensing, merchandising, sponsorship deals, tv show appearances, and fashion lines and perfumes.

Music sales have been dropping for years in the Arab world. Ten years ago, the price of a music CD by an Arab singer was priced at about USD 13 in the Gulf, today the latest album by an Arab singer is officially sold for USD 5 (more than 50% price drop), yet still no one is buying, because everyone is consuming music on the internet and can’t be bothered to go and buy something from a physical store.

The Arab world has some unique attributes that make it difficult to try to sell music digitally. Some huge consumer markets, like Egypt, continue to go through serious political and economic unrest since the Arab spring and very few people there have the means to acquire credit cards or online payment cards. Copyright enforcement in the Arab world is also not taken seriously, especially on the internet. This problem is not exclusive to poor Arab countries. Kuwait, which is classified as a high-income economy by the World Bank and is a member of the GCC, has joined the Berne Convention (the treaty that requires the protection of copyright works of foreigners) only in 2014, which is coincidentally the same year in which the US added Kuwait the list of major intellectual property offenders. Yet, contrary to presumption of the impact of copyright on creativity, even with the lack of proper copyright protection, Kuwait music and TV industries have traditionally been seen as one of the richest most innovative in the Gulf region.

Unlike the US and Europe, it is also extremely difficult to take down a website that violates a law in a specific Arab countries because very few websites are hosted in the Arab world and the infrastructure that supports them (domain name, advertisements, payment platform, etc) has no direct link to the country. It is also practically difficult for a national of an Arab state to take legal action against a person physically located in another Arab state as each country has its own court and legal system.

With all that being said, it is no wonder that the Arab music industry has decided to finally share the music with everyone free of charge. The biggest website in this field is Mawaly – a simple website that lets you search for artists and play their music directly on the web. Registered users can download the mp3 file of any song and then copy it to a music or mobile device if they want to. The website is very user friendly and displays the lyrics of the song below each song. Mawaly is meant to operate as a complete resource for a music fan and has a dedicated page for each artist with his bio and latest news updates. Amazingly, Mawaly is available with no geographical restrictions and can be accessed from anywhere in the world.

Mawaly’s killer feature is its official affiliation with Rotana – the biggest record label and music distributor in the Arab world that is owned jointly by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (80%) and 21st Century Fox (19%). Mawaly also distributes music from other labels. This enables Mawaly to have an extremely comprehensive catalogue that includes  all the albums of current artists likes of Elissa and Nancy Ajram, and old artists like Abdul Halim and Um Kulthum.

Mawaly does not have an app or mobile interface though. If you want to listen to the music on a mobile device you must download songs individually and copy them to your device. This is where Yala comes in.

Yala is a web service and mobile app that lets you listen to Arabic music legally for free. It is not directly affiliated with Rotana or any other label, and works with labels and artists individually. Yala is similar to Spotify on a high level, but does not require you to register to listen to music on the web, and provides its app with all of its features (including offline playback) free of charge. It is possible to pay for a premium account if you want to remove the advertisements, but that will not provide you with any core feature not found in the free version of the service.

Like Mawaly, Yala allows you to directly download music from the website, but with two differences: Yala does not require you to register to download music, and it’s collection of music available for download (as opposed to streaming) is limited. Yala is also an official YouTube partner, this allows Yala to stream content from YouTube when Yala does not have an actual song in its own catalogue and this provide its users with a seamless listening experience. Like Mawaly, Yala also has no geographical restrictions on its use.

Even though Yala allows the users to pay for a premium service, it is only one of the few ways in which Yala makes money. Understanding that people now consume content over their mobile phones, Yala has struck deals with telecom operators in certain countries so that the telecom pays for the availability of the service to its customers as a value added feature on the network. Yala also provides artists with an end-to-end solution for web marketing which involves creating dedicated websites and apps for artists.

Between Mawaly and Yala, practically all mainstream Arabic pop music is available for streaming and download free of charge.

It is difficult to assess how wealthy or poor are artists in the Arab world, but from a consumer perspective, it seems to me that an Arabic music superstar, say like Elissa, enjoys the same wealth and fame in the Arab world as a music superstar in Europe or the USA does. Elissa sells out concert shows all over the world, she is a judge on Arab X Factor, has her own perfume, and made a Pepsi commercial featuring her and Christina Aguilera. It is extremely unlikely that she needs to charge money for any of her new (or old) albums to remain successful.

This is not a hypothetical case, she, and all other artists in the Arab world, do not charge money for their digital music anymore.