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Earlier this week, the inaugural edition of Saudi Arabia’s XP Music Conference took place over three days and nights in Riyadh, drawing hundreds of music industry professionals and artists from around the Persian Gulf and beyond.

The event was sponsored by the Saudi government as it seeks to open itself up to more opportunities in the music industry — such as Justin Bieber’s recent concert in the country — amid both international criticism over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and a tough time for privately held annual music conferences, such as France’s Midem (which on Wednesday announced it will not hold an event next year). Riyadh is ramping up, with a splashy, brand-new built-for-the occasion festival site that seems inspired by Miami’s Wynwood district; the XP festival took place in Riyadh’s Jax district and was held in and around multiple stylish warehouses.

While some suggest the initiative is all for show, a cynical attempt to whitewash the Kingdom’s abysmal human-rights record (Human Rights Watch called state-funded promoter MDLBeast’s massive Soundstorm music festival, which was tangentially attached to the conference, “yet another one of Saudi Arabia’s reputation-laundering schemes”), it seems likely that their motivation is more based in economic reasons, in light of the success of neighboring countries such as the United Arab Emirates — where Dubai has emerged as the area’s music capital by default — not to mention the billions of dollars music brings into the economies of nations such as the United States, the U.K. and Japan.

For attendees of the tightly executed conference, which featured numerous panels with relevant-to-the-region discussions on music copyright issues, streaming success stories, and the live sector in Saudi Arabia, XP proved a useful jumping-off point for a domestic music market that is growing, and quickly.

“We’re very excited about the opening up of Saudi Arabia as a music market,” says Moe Hamzeh, Managing Director, Warner Music Middle East, a panelist at the event. “Festivals such as Soundstorm are showing how much enthusiasm there is here for live music, and we already see huge volumes of recorded music consumption [from Saudi Arabia] on platforms such as YouTube and Spotify,” he adds.

Hamzeh also thinks the conference is “an invaluable tool to help us start building a true music ecosystem here, including educating the market about the value of music.”

For artists and aspiring Saudi music executives attending XP conference, the feeling was hopeful that Riyadh is truly at the beginning of what may become a scene to rival other cities in the years to come.

“In Saudi, I’ve never seen anything like this happen before,” says singer/songwriter Tam Tam, who splits her time between Riyadh and Los Angeles. “This is such an important first step so that Saudi artists and creatives can get a chance to understand the industry more, I’m so excited and so proud that it is finally happening here,” she said before her showcase at the conference.

Jeddah-based DJ Ahmad Almalki was similarly upbeat about the musical awakening happening in his country at the moment.

“I feel something like shock, it just happened so quick,” he gushes of his burgeoning DJ career and the electronic scene that is suddenly blossoming in Saudi Arabia. The DJ/producer, who goes by the artist name Malkin, is exactly the kind of success story MDLBeast (who in addition to being the producer/promoter of the XP conference also puts on the annual EDM event Soundstorm) hopes to replicate in the future, as he attended the 2019 edition of the festival as a fan, went home, got inspired, and began making music. DJ Malkin is playing Soundstorm, alongside some of his heroes such as David Guetta and Afrojack.

“After I went to Soundstorm, I said to myself, ‘OK, I can do what they do’ and during the pandemic I just worked really hard to learn electronic music,” the 28-year-old says.

For aspiring Saudi executives such as Talal Alshehail from Riyadh-based entertainment company Capital Entertainment, XP offered mixed results, yet still held some valuable insights.

“I’m more into the cut-and-dried business talk — I don’t really like the sappy ‘you can do it’ speeches,” he says. “I wanna find out about policy and data and hard numbers more.”

For context, it’s important to note that just five or so years ago, it would have been unthinkable for Saudi Arabia to host a music conference such as XP — let alone a music festival such as Soundstorm, where hundreds of thousands of men and women are dancing next to each other at a massive rave in the still deeply religious country.

But ever since Saudi Arabia launched its Vision 2030 “strategic framework to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation, and tourism,” the country has seen some sweeping social changes that have given rise to new opportunities to musicians and those seeking careers in the music industry.

Still, it’s an open question as to whether or not Riyadh can replace Beirut, Tel Aviv or Dubai anytime soon as the region’s hotspot for music, as so much physical and intellectual infrastructure is still being built in the music space (although Saudi Arabia is spending millions to try and make that happen this coming decade), and alcohol is still forbidden in the Kingdom.

Yet UAE-based music executive Hussain “Spek” Yoosuf, who recently left America for the Gulf to focus on his rights-consultancy and independent music company PopArabia, is bullish on the country’s future.

“I think part of this will depend on how actively and quickly the Saudi authorities roll out and implement their music strategy,” he says. “However, the creation of a music commission is very encouraging and broadly speaking I believe the next 5-7 years will see a seismic shift in the region. The growth of streaming subscribers and of digital services will serve as a tipping point, leading to investment in new talent and an A&R economy.”

“Saudi Arabia has always had an outsize influence on the Middle East because of its population size, and the country in the midst of one of the most significant socio-cultural changes that we’ve seen happen in our lifetime in one place,” he continues. “I don’t think many people fully appreciate how much progress is happening in Saudi.”

Another Gulf-based panelist at XP, Alex Andarakis, founder of the management consultancy and creative agency that bears his name, echoed the sentiment that Saudi Arabia will emerge as a vital market in the years to come for the music business.

“The recipe is there in Saudi Arabia: a youthful, dynamic and creative talent pool, a clear statement of intent from the leadership of the country for cultural and social enrichment, and a commitment to build the ‘right fit’ music ecosystem of education, production, performance, distribution, advocacy and  licensing, with specific focus on the intellectual property rights for businesses and artists for the music industry to announce itself to the world.”