"Rise of the Underground Scene in the UAE" | Full Interview by The 264 Cru
Following on from a great article by The National a few weeks ago, we felt it would be interesting for us to share our detailed thoughts with the community on UAE’s alternative music scene. Like any good journalist, Adam Workman asked us some great questions, but in order to keep the article concise and well balanced amongst all the alternative scene promoters, he could not possibly include all our answers.
As this weekend Dubai will be host to the inaugural Dance Music Conference and DJ MoCity will be discussing this topic on a panel alongside Mehdi Ansari (Analog Room) and James Locksmith (Jembe Music), we decided to share the Q&A (in detail) with you all. We welcome all your thoughts & ideas, and are open to discussion regarding the current and future state of the UAE’s small, but hopeful, cultural movement.
1. You mentioned that you’re trying to mould Velocity into a “culture venue” - do you think that the UAE needs more venues like this? And is there an extra challenge trying to bring a grimier nightlife scene into a five-star hotel?
The 264 Cru: The availability of quality, accommodating venues is one of the biggest challenges all Dubai promoters face today, especially when trying to run a smaller, more niche scene in opulent 5 star hotels. This scarcity, along with the fact that promoters & artists are limited in the amount of creativity they can pour into a venue, creates a struggle in the music community. Where simpler, moderately priced venues, built with promoters and artists in mind is the way forward, we continue to see a rise in 'New Dubai' lounge/sport bars that target the upper middle class. These venues and hotels are usually purely profit driven, which means the more mainstream, bottle service nights are preferred and niche promoters trying to push the alternative scene, are usually strong armed or squeezed out. So yes, trying to push a grimier nightlife scene in a market where venues are scarce with several barriers to entry, is definitely a challenge, and the struggle is real.
In our eyes, Dubai is ready to have programmed venues, cultural hubs and places where people can meet, let loose and enjoy quality, diverse music under one roof. We are lucky enough to be given the opportunity to explore this idea at Velocity, and have done so by inviting Deep Crates Cartel and DUST to host a monthly night there alongside our bi-weekly Karak Beats nights. All of us have a deep history in promotion and music (in and outside Dubai), and to try and help the growth of our community, we thought it would be best if we involved other promoters - this not only adds diversity to the venue's offerings, but also helps break the barriers of fear and insecurity within the community. If everyone moved in this direction, it would definitely lead to a healthier scene.
2. What was the catalyst for setting up your nights? What did you initially set out to achieve?
The 264 Cru: It was the slow burn up and eventual amalgamation of several things; a relatively saturated electronic music scene, the chance to occupy a well located venue and the opportunity to expose people to a greater variety of music and sounds, that we felt were being largely overlooked by the ‘alternative scene'. We wanted to push something different to the status quo, something you can't quite put your finger on - sounds some might say, are ‘weird’. House and Techno already have strong representation in the city, and while we do love that music, the music we play lies somewhere in between and far beyond those frequencies - there is just so much good music which breaks out of this 4/4 groove that also works very well on the dancefloor, and it would be a shame for those sounds to go unheard.
Our initial goal wasn't just to throw a party, it was to give the music we love a home in Dubai, while creating this environment, where exploration, experience and fun could all coexist with each other.
3. Do you think that there is a growing alternative scene in Dubai/the UAE as a whole? How has it developed in the past year or two?
The 264 Cru: Leaving the alternative live music scene aside , we've noticed the growth and progression of the alternative electronic music scene to be cyclical, and this is probably linked to the transient nature of Dubai. The scene has grown in the last couple of years, which could be due to; the post 2008 crisis influx of immigrants from places and demographics that were under-represented prior to this, increased connectivity we have to the rest of the world and the exposure it brings, and the determination of more and more musically minded and educated Dubai residents to seek out new music beyond what they are fed via traditional sources.
Although there have been great advances, with bigger (and better) acts coming to Dubai, we are wary of the 'start-stop' pattern we have previously witnessed with Dubai's alternative scene. As communities are driven by people and it takes time to build them, it’s difficult to maintain growth and interest when the community leaders and members alike are constantly changing. With more and more people taking a longer term vision and investment in Dubai, it makes us optimistic that this start-stop trend may be slowly fading.
4. Who else in Dubai do you think is on a similar mission to what you're trying to achieve? Is there a camaraderie between “rival” promoters?
The 264 Cru: We don't want to get into a name game here, as we know plenty of friends who are all pushing to represent what they stand for in music. That being said, there are only a handful of promoters really trying to push the scene forward, by booking ‘riskier’ acts, using venues that may not be as easily accessible, and trying something new in general. Outside our brothers in arms, there are a plethora of promoters that are operating within that ‘comfort’ zone - giving the people what they want and playing it safe, with little room for failure, and usually profit driven - this does not benefit the progression of the scene.
We believe there is a base level of camaraderie, as we are all trying our best to bring kick ass music to the city, that we all enjoy and attend! However, they are also our competition, as our limited target audiences are quite similar and can have a huge overlap. So yes, you could call it healthy/positive rivalry, as competition can be stiff at times, but it also pushes us to think outside the box, reach out further, engage with the community in other ways etc - the challenge is great, because it validates what we do so much more when we are successful.
At the end of the day, we want all of us to succeed, because that will benefit the scene as a whole, which in turn, will benefit us.
5. What else is missing/needs to happen before the UAE can truly compete with musical cities such as New York, London, etc?
The 264 Cru: We believe there are several aspects that need a step change before the UAE can truly compete with the likes of New York & London:
1) Venues: We need venues with long term vision, and we need venues that aren't just in 5-star hotels. 5-Star venues need to cover 5-Star expenses, and hence look for immediate results, which isn't always possible when promoters are trying to build a scene and find their footing. Dubai needs venues that are a bit more raw and organic, such as warehouses that will allow promoters to build something from scratch. The model that most venue managers adopt, which is to get quick results that look exemplary on paper and use that as a stepping stone to further their careers, is a model that isn’t conducive to building customer loyalty or longevity. As it’s extremely difficult for someone to set out and open a licensed, viable, stripped back venue, our job is certainly a lot harder than it may seem from the outsider's perspective.
2) Artist licensing: If Dubai really wants to compete on the global scale, it needs to be a hotspot where artists can just ‘plug and play’. The unnecessary red tape involved in getting an artist permission is throttling the scene. If it’s about revenue, we would rather suggest DTCM just increase their cut of the ticket sales, but do away with this archaic requirement. This extends to all performances not just music but visual performances as well.
3) Alcohol licensing: Unable to acquire a liquor license for non-hotel properties is another reason why promoters are unable to use unusual locations for events. Even a slight amendment to this rule could lead to an exponential growth in creativity in the alternative music & arts scene. For instance, allowing art galleries, cafes or warehouses to obtain a liquor license for one night and/or weekend, giving them the opportunity to host gigs and nights as a one-off with the ability to serve alcohol? Now that, would be real change.
4) Radio stations: The quality of music we have on UAE radios is appalling (apart from 87.9). For those that don’t spend time digging for music online, their only introduction to new music is radio. How can we expect the masses to appreciate more cutting edge music when they go out if they are continuously force fed Top 40 on all radio stations? If radio stations allowed for more alternative programming outside of peak hours (run/curated by people in the local alternative music scene), it would help immensely. If we want things to move forward in the right direction, these guys seriously need to pull their weight in terms of music education and accessibility.
5) Live music: We’ve always felt live music in Dubai is always secondary to ‘club’ music, but it really shouldn’t be. In other cities around the world, you can go out and party all night to live rock, blues, jazz, funk, soul, afro, hip hop…but this mentality hasn’t quite reached Dubai just yet, and hence, good, constant live music offerings are rare. It is also surprising what we aren’t constantly exposed to music that comes from this region (i.e: Arabic Classical), and if you do want to learn/experience this side of the region’s culture, you have to hunt for it.
6. What's next for you/anything to add?
The 264 Cru: We’ve got a couple of projects and ideas in the pipeline, as our aspirations lie far beyond just being event promoters. Our goal is to help grow a credible and vibrant music scene, and raise it to a level where people around the world come to Dubai to experience great music, and even better, have Dubai grown talent represented at major events globally. We also want to be involved with whatever facets of music, art and community initiatives we think will benefit Dubai as a whole, and want to be synonymous with ‘Dubai’s Cultural Movement’. This could be in the form of a record label, a creative/artist agency, 264 Sessions (educational workshops), turn key curation of other events, tie up with bigger cultural organizations, radio/tv show, and maybe even a festival… most of these are pretty nascent, but in time, we hope to realize some, if not all of them.
Let’s see how we get on.