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RIYADH: If the number of events held at the Riyadh Season entertainment festival is any measure of success, then Saudi Arabia’s live music industry is poised to become the biggest driver of the national entertainment sector.
Organized by the General Entertainment Authority, Riyadh’s 2021 season ran between October 2021 and March 2022. It witnessed 7,500 diverse entertainment events, including concerts, exhibitions and theatrical, Arab and international performances.
The festival brought together Egyptian singers Mohamed Ramadan and Tamer Hosny, Bollywood actor Salman Khan and American rapper Pitbull, which attracted 750,000 spectators.
Other Saudi-based music events include Riyadh’s annual SoundStorm, now literally the world’s largest electronic dance music festival, in December 2021, and a succession of concerts alongside Jeddah’s recent Formula 1 races. featuring American supergroup Black Eyed Peas and R&B star Chris Brown, among others. Additionally, Mariah Carey, Enrique Iglesias and One Republic have all performed in Saudi Arabia.
As the focal point of the Vision 2030 reform program, the Kingdom’s entertainment sector benefits from over $64 billion in investment, with the live music industry being one of the main beneficiaries.
According to the Saudi Music Commission, a department of the Saudi Ministry of Culture, the Kingdom will create around 65,000 music-related jobs over the next eight years. Additionally, it strives to enable the music sector to contribute 1% to the Kingdom’s economy by 2030.
Calm after the storm
A key driver of this burgeoning industry is Jeddah-based concert producer SoundStorm and Formula One concert producer MDLBeast. The company describes itself as “a global music and new media platform with music culture at its heart and a home for creators and music lovers”.
One such creator is Michael “Curly” Jobson, a legendary figure in the global live music industry. As a youth, a guitarist for British indie band Echo & the Bunnymen, Jobson served as a music tour manager for decades, and in February 2020 was named Executive Events Director of MDLBeast.
“We organize events of all kinds – musical, corporate, sporting – from concept, to the field, to design, operations and realization,” Jobson told Arab News.
This approach relies on a multitude of contractors to provide solutions ranging from plumbing and drainage to laying asphalt and electrical installations.
SoundStorm, for example, involved Saudi construction firm Al Arrab, Lebanese event services provider Fiesta, and Riyadh-based architecture firm Key Design, among many other local and regional firms.
And from Los Angeles came Silent House, a production design firm that designs and builds stage sets for global headliners such as Harry Styles, Rihanna and Bruno Mars and handled the overall design for SoundStorm 2021.
“In 30 years, I’ve never worked on a project of this magnitude,” Silent House creative director Alex Reardon told Arab News. “MDL Beast has a vision of global excellence, backed by the effort and determination to achieve it.”
Jobson sees the Kingdom’s music events business in historical terms with reference to its future and past.
“2030 is the date presented for a particular level of growth in Saudi Arabia, but I see something a little different, which is that tourism becomes the lifeblood of the Kingdom, and with tourism comes the demand for entertainment,” did he declare.
“The Red Sea coastline runs from the Egyptian border to Yemen, which is akin to the Florida Keys in Canada. And think of what has happened over the last 300 years on this coast!
“I’m not sure it’s any different here with the growing population and growing number of young people with an equally huge appetite for entertainment.
“We must strive to make Saudi Arabia a regular touring destination – rather than a one-stop stop – so that artists go from Athens to Alexandria, from Jeddah to Riyadh, then on to Asia, Australia and California. .”
Raising the bar
Saudi Deputy Tourism Minister Princess Haifa bint Mohammed Al-Saud also sees music and tourism as two complementary sources of income for the Kingdom in its transition from oil dependence to a more diverse and creative economy.
“You’re talking about 25% of the UK and US population traveling to attend at least one music festival a year,” Princess Haifa said at the XP Music Conference, held in Riyadh in December 2021 .
“It tells you where the world is moving. After hosting 101 concerts in Saudi Arabia in 2019, we plan to increase this number by 500 or 600% from 2022,” she added.
Clearly, this exponential growth cannot happen without nurturing local talent and expertise. Jobson believes knowledge transfer and a permanent ecosystem of niche businesses — as opposed to temporarily hiring foreign contractors and equipment — is the only way forward for the Kingdom.
“The Western music industry began as a modern business model in the 1950s with recording, publishing and venue management. With that came sound systems, lighting designers, designers of sets and sound engineers,” said Jobson.
“This is all a whole new thing in Saudi Arabia. It’s only been a few years since the very avant-garde crown prince opened it up to us.
Reardon is optimistic about the advent of a fully-fledged music events industry in Saudi Arabia.
“I think the basic commitment to excellence will not change,” he said. “There has been a huge learning curve for those of us who come from our side of the planet and those from the Kingdom.
“We learn from each other and from each other in a very collaborative way, which means the ground for growth is very fertile.
“We can bring our decades of experience and work very well with the people of the Kingdom to create hits in live entertainment that would be nearly impossible in Western Europe and North America.”