This is the new $1.4 billion music market

New markets are the holy grail for the music industry. Which is why all eyes are currently turned east towards China where the music market is forecast to reach US$1.05 billion by 2019. And it is also why Simon Rattle is taking the Berlin Philharmonic to China in November 2017 before his contract with the orchestra expires next year. China is a huge opportunity for the music industry, but there is an even bigger opportunity which is overlooked for the wrong reasons.

There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, which is almost 30% more than the population of China. A dearth of data on the Muslim music market reflects the low priority placed on it in the West. But extrapolating the forecast for China gives a potential value of US$1.4 billion dollars for the Muslim music market. As another illustration of the size of the opportunity, the Muslim population of Europe is estimated at 45 million, which is almost exactly the same as the population of Spain.

Two misapprehensions contribute to why the Muslim music market is badly documented and overlooked in the West. The first is the populist stereotyping of the typical Muslim as a jihadist living in a cave in Afghanistan. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Of eleven countries forecast to join the elite club of economic superpowers this century, six have a dominant Muslim majority and two substantial Muslim minorities. The music market is driven by a young demographic and two-thirds of Muslims are under the age of 30. Many of these are on the doorstep of the West. The Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region to the south of the Mediterranean has an estimated Muslim population of 315 million, and at its closest point is just 9 miles from the Spanish border. In 2014 the global halal food and lifestyle market was valued at US$1.8 trillion and is forecast to increase to US$2.6 trillion in 2020. Shelina Janmohamed's book Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World is an invaluable study of this emerging market, and my header graphic is sampled from the book's cover art*.

The second reason why the Muslim market is overlooked is the widespread misapprehension that music is haram - forbidden - in Islam. Again nothing could be further from the truth. Islam has age-old music traditions which range from the qawwali of Pakistan and India, through Egyptian divas such as Oum Kalsoum, to the gnawa of Morocco. In fact music is very big business in Muslim countries. Egypt is home to the Al-Azhar University where Islamic scholars (ulamas) pass down judgements (fatwas) based on Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, and is also the birthplace of the controversial activist group the Muslim Brotherhood. But Egypt also has a great popular music tradition, epitomised by Oum Kalsoum whose records still sell a million copies annually forty years after her death, and who is credited with influencing among others Bob Dylan, Salvador Dalí, Nico, Bono, and Led Zepplin.

Oum Kalsoum may be known in the West, but other popular Muslim musicians are not, despite spectacular record sales. They include Lebanese/Swedish R&B singer, songwriter & music producer Maher Zain who has 10 million Facebook followers and 100 million YouTube views, the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram who is described as 'the Britney Spears of the Middle East' and has endorsement deals with Coca-Cola, Sony Ericsson, and Damas Jewelry, and Samira Said from Morocco who has sold more than 50 million records worldwide and sung for Pope John Paul II outside St. Peter's Basilica in 1996. There are major music festivals in the Muslim world, with the three in Morocco each attracting audiences larger that that for the famed Glastonbury Festival. The thriving heavy metal scene has been documented by academic and guitarist Mark LeVine in his recommended book Heavy Metal Islam, and qawwali has spawned Sufi rock pioneered by Pakistan's biggest rock band Junoon.

Identifying the potential of the Muslim music market is one thing, but breaking into it is quite another. Which in fairness to the Western music industry, is why this market has been viewed as a low priority. However the default strategy of sending celebrity acts on tours to to the Muslim world runs the very real danger of being seen as yet another form of globalisation and Westernisation, a perception that is a trigger for deplorable reactionary violence by Islamic extremists. The alternative strategy of token integration of non-Western music traditions into fusion projects, whether rock, jazz or classical, is all too often disastrous both musically and culturally.

There have been a few laudable grass roots projects. These include in the classical world French conductor Olivier Holt's work with the l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc which I have been privileged to sample first hand, and Paul MacAlindin experience with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq which he documented in his book Upbeat. But there is no easy way for the West to exploit the Muslim music market. Which is good news: because, if there was, it would simply result in self-interested exploitation. Until we discover a new 'Fourth world music' that is independent of commercial and cultural allegiances, that US$1.4 billion will remain no more than a potentiality. But note that I deliberately use the word 'discover'. The new 'Fourth world music' may already be written by Beethoven or Bjork and others, or it may not yet be written. In conclusion I suggest it is attitudes and not music that needs to change. As the young U.S. based Muslim architect Maryam Eskandari explains in Generation M:
I am you. I am not defined solely by where I am from, my traditions, heritage, rules, and culture. I believe in the best from everybody, everywhere, and everything; morphing it into a modern culture. We all should be global citizens where we learn from each other and import the best things from others into our own lives. We should be open and yearning to change; push for new things and be unique.

Sources include:
~ Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World by Shelina Janmohamed
~ Heavy Metal Islam by Mark leVine
~ Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture by Hisham D. Aidi
...and lots of CDs.

* Header artwork is by Arianna Osti. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


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