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Digitally Famous and Real Life Broke

In Egypt, the high amount of digitalization has not translated into monetization for most musicians. This is not just because most families live at or below the poverty line. So what does this mean for the future of local artists? From the Norient book Seismographic Sounds (see and order here).

Go! Save the Hostages! (GSTH) are a post-rock-meets-experimental-meets-electronica group who have managed to become one of Egypt’s most interesting indie projects without having played a single live gig. Their songs on SoundCloud get anywhere from ten thousand to seventy thousand plays depending on the track - a large enough impact when you factor in that their music is generally considered niche and is built around instruments rather than words. In a country where most of the music industry is monopolized by commercial labels, GSTH use social media sites like SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and as an alternative way to link with others and promote their music.

Nour Khan, another online-to-offline hit in Egypt, boasts plays from the low tens of thousands to somewhere nearing two million and she’s using nothing but an email and a SoundCloud account. Neither Nour Khan nor GSTH have actually made any real money from their music, a situation not unusual in Egypt, which begs the question: why has Egypt not made the leap from digitalization to monetization?

Online and Unable to Pay

In Egypt, the natural transition from Internet access to increased use of social media and moneymaking in the digital world has not been an easy one. Egypt has been one of the fastest growing internet-using countries in the Arab region, with an increase from 450,000 users in 2000 to approximately 46 million users, or 53.2 percent of its nearly 90 million population in 2014 (see Internet World Stats). On the social media side, Egypt has been very active, boasting, for example, twelve million Facebook users in 2013. And, while a variety of social media sites are being used, most users are online for social reasons like chatting and connecting with others. Thus, the high Internet usage in the country has not translated into monetization.

Two of the main obstacles are the median level of yearly earnings and the inability to purchase online. In general, the financial and social structures in Egypt are not conducive to online buying. Specifically, the average household income is 2,187 US dollars per year (see country report «Egypt from MasterCard»), which barely covers the necessary expenses, including food, shelter, education, and health. With average family sizes of at least five people, most families in Egypt live at or below the poverty line. For online purchasing and an e-commerce economy, a variety of elements need to be present:

1) a credit card, which most Egyptians can’t afford to have because most don’t have bank accounts. According to MasterCard, the credit card circulation within Egypt is at approximately one percent;
2) a secure online payment system like PayPal, which only began operating in Egypt in May 2015;
3) a secure mailing option for physical purchases, which exist in Egypt, but not at affordable prices;
4) better distribution platforms supporting locally produced music that focuses on local audiences;
5) publishing and distribution companies based locally who can focus regionally and internationally to promote music products and protect artist rights;
6) a general public awareness to support the legal purchase of music rather than illegally obtain it through piracy.

From Piracy to Live Shows

Of all these elements, none exist, which both makes e-commerce very low in Egypt and results in two key trends. First, Egypt is plagued with music piracy due to both a lack of purchasing ability and to the high costs of products necessary to music-making. For example, the software piracy rate in Egypt in 2011 was at 61 percent or 172 million US dollars in unlicensed software (see «Special Report on Copyright Protection and Enforcement» of the International Intellectual Property Alliance IIPA, 2013).

Even when musicians have enough to produce albums, money is made from the physical copies sold in stores; generally once the new music is made available it is often quickly uploaded online through P2P sharing sites and pirated. This leads to the second key trend in Egypt: namely, that most musicians are dependent on live shows and, to a smaller extent, international touring for income. Unfortunately, of the approximate two hundred bands in Egypt, less than fifteen percent will be able to live off of shows and less than five percent will ever get the opportunity to travel outside of Egypt.

The conclusion to the cycle is that for most musicians in Egypt, the digital world is not a place to make money; instead, they will upload music for free online in hopes of building a large enough audience base to get offers for live shows and, possibly, touring offers. Without the proper infrastructure for a local industry supporting the alternative music scene, the majority of musicians will only ever have a voluntary presence in the digital sphere, as event managers and cultural programmers chase the same fifteen percent of the local Egyptian music scene. On the other hand, the digital world did allow the rest of us access to music produced by great musicians like GSTH and Nour Khan – albeit unpaid access and unsupported product.

This text was published first in the second Norient book Seismographic Sounds.

Published on November 06, 2018

Last updated on January 16, 2020


Angie Balata is a manager at VIBE Studio in Cairo, one of the largest studios serving the independent music scene in the Middle East. When she’s not at the studio, she’s writing about music for various magazines.

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