For growth in the music production sector, look beyond your doorstep.
Three decades ago, China began to lift the veils surrounding its music industry, allowing in more Western artists and their recordings. It was still a dribble by our standards, but given the country’s deeply entrenched Maoist tendencies back then, even a Billy Joel concert was a big deal. Since then, China’s own media industry, especially cinema, has gained momentum. Hollywood has also seen the demise of some of its best-known audio post houses, like Todd-AO and Soundelux, in part because as more shoots moved to China as the country made itself more accommodating as a production destination, more of the post work on those films is also staying in the region. And there are more than a few professionals from the US and the UK who now work in the Chinese film industry, as technical professionals such as audio engineers. Australian post companies like SoundFirm now have outposts in Beijing and Shanghai. Chairman-for-life Xi may be turning the screws a bit tighter at the moment as he solidifies his powerbase, but he still knows creative businesses like music production can be worth cultivating.
China’s a bit far. How about some place closer, that has also liberalised its business and creative environment (relatively speaking, of course)? A place that has a deeply embedded music culture though virtually no recording studios, but that may be about to need a sizable number of them. Like, maybe, Saudi Arabia?
It’s not a country that comes readily to mind when one thinks about the music business, or pro audio in general. But this oil-drenched kingdom is poised to begin a massive overhaul of how it views entertainment, including music. It’s part of a restructuring undertaken by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old heir to the throne, who is seeking to reorient the economy away from oil while making life less strict and more enjoyable for Saudis.
It’s unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s renaissance will be anything in the order of China’s, but it’s worth noting how China’s entertainment shift contributed to creating a middle class there — one that buys music, among other consumer goods. Getting a production infrastructure in place is part of the next chapter in that. As the New York Times pointed out earlier this year (with typical understatement), “A lack of studios has hampered music production in Saudi Arabia.” But music is making inroads there already. Rapper Nelly did what’s considered the first live hip-hop show there in December (reportedly to an all-male audience), under the auspices of the recently established General Entertainment Authority (GEA), which oversaw more than 2000 entertainment events last year, a number it hopes to more than double this year. Along with centralised scheduling and facilitating permissions, the authority also gives entertainment companies grants in hopes they will become self-sufficient. Some of that capital — the GEA has a 64-billion-dollar budget to work with for the next 10 years — will inevitably find its way into recording studios.
Saudi Arabia will be able to look for inspiration from a nascent studio business that’s been recently growing up around it. For instance, Katara Studios, in Doha, Qatar, was designed by John Storyk’s firm, WSDG, as a 6000-square-metre complex that accommodates music and cinema sound. The 40-plus room facility has an orchestral studio with a 5.1 control room and a 96-fader Neve 88RS, and a second band-sized studio equipped with an 80-channel API Vision desk, part of technology packages that were assembled by London’s Metropolis Studios, which also coordinated the systems integration there. As in China, a burgeoning industry looks to expertise from developed markets, something the US and UK studio industries have in great supply.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to the big-money centres of the Middle East. Beirut, a place once considered the Monte Carlo of the Middle East, has seen new studios sprout in recent years, as has Palestinian Gaza. The studio facilities in these parts of the Middle East, closer to the region’s violence, are often true DIY, but so were the studios in places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, before they and the artists they attracted moved in and revitalised their neighbourhoods. A description of one home studio in Gaza in a local publication made it sound remarkably like the grungy Bushwick studio where the Daptones recorded the tracks for most of Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough LP a decade ago. But there are also more affluent models, as well, in places like Dubai, which is also home to an outpost of SAE, the pro-audio college.
Saudi Arabia has a way to go to catch up even amongst its regional neighbours, but it’s not like it doesn’t have the money. And it has the incentive: as the Times pointed out, Saudis who have spent billions of dollars each year on entertainment abroad, ever since a wave of religious conservatism shut down Saudi Arabian entertainment companies after 1979, can instead stay in the kingdom to have their fun, in the process creating much-needed jobs.
Saudi Arabia opening its doors to Western-style music is, in and of itself, pretty small potatoes. There are some firms and individuals that could benefit, such as studio designers and builders, as well as engineers who will provide their ability to make records sound like western hits, just as a few gaijin engineers helped Japan build its pop productions in the 1980s. Bigger benefits will accrue to pro audio manufacturers, who will sell the recording and live-sound components the country’s burgeoning entertainment business will need.
I’m not suggesting that anyone pick up and move to Beijing or Riyadh anytime soon. But I am suggesting that it’s a good time for those invested in music production to be thinking about looking beyond current boundaries. Recording studios are no longer restricted to just their geographical locations, as collaboration has moved online and into the cloud. Technical and creative expertise can travel easily over the same routes. “Where can I go?” is as valid a question as “what can I do?” and one answered perhaps more interestingly than ever before.