Ali Obaid has been working on a few compositions and plans to record them and launch his debut album. Image Credit: Supplied

It is not true that music is the food of life. Those who want to forge a career in music will have to find a way to earn a living and keep body and soul together. Three musicians from the UAE share their experiences and some tips about how to make it in the music industry. But remember, for every person who makes in the industry, thousands don’t.

WHO: Ali Obaid

PROFESSION: School teacher and oud soloist

CLAIM TO FAME: UAE’s leading oud soloist and the first graduate from Bait Al Oud Al Arabi. Also founder of a band called Takht Al Emarat, which has played in Womad Abu Dhabi and Womad UK.

OBAID’S STORY: Ali Obaid was 12 when he started playing the oud after a friend showed him the basics of how to play the traditional Arabic instrument. He was a fast learner who recalls being passionate about learning music — not just traditional Emirati tunes but all Arabic music.

Obaid says his dreams pushed him. “I dreamt about music every night.”
His family was against him taking up music as a career initially. “But when they saw that I was serious, they did not stop me.”

Obaid begs to differ from the view that music is not permitted under Islam. “There is nothing like that” in the religion, he says. “It is allowed as long as the aim is good.”
He also has a mild grouse against the government for being slow to recognise music as an area deserving of support and encouraging local musicians.

Obaid says it has been his dream to spread Emirati music across the globe from the time he started learning music. Obaid has been doing that for the past few years. His band, Takht Al Emarat composed of members playing different instruments, has performed at the Womad Festival in Abu Dhabi and the UK, besides at a small concert in Seoul and in Montreal, Canada. There are plans to visit the US and Canada later this year.

“Turkey has its music and bands, Egypt has so many bands, Iraq has its music. People all around the world should know our music,” Obaid says. Originally from Fujairah, he enrolled himself in the newly founded Bait Al Oud Al Arabi, the UAE’s first music institute, in Abu Dhabi. After four years of training Obaid became the institution’s first graduate in 2009.

Obaid’s success has however not translated into him becoming a full-time professional musician. That may be in the future, but the 31-year old is employed as a teacher at the Vocational Education Development Centre (VEDC) at Abu Dhabi.

He has been working on a few compositions — all new — and when he’s done eight or nine pieces, he plans to record them and launch his debut album.

“It’s not about making money from music,” says Obaid. “It’s about playing local music and taking pride in spreading local music to people all over the globe.”

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WHO: Greg Stainer

PROFESSION: DJ, music producer and radio presenter at Radio1

CLAIM TO FAME: Currently the resident DJ at the Zinc Night Club in Dubai’s Crowne Plaza hotel, he is also frequently spotted at places around town such as the Armani hotel at Burj Khalifa as well as corporate gigs. Stainer also hosts two radio shows a week on Radio 1, and runs his own digital record label.

STAINER’S STORY: Greg Stainer realised he was good at DJ-ing when he was 14. One of his friends had some cheap turntables in his loft, and every night a bunch of them used to hang out after school and mess around pretending to be DJs. Before long Greg was left playing the tunes every night.

He actually got his first gig when he was 15. After Greg finished school he got a job in road construction and used to DJ part time at the weekends.

At 22, he took “the plunge” — he gave up his real job and became a full-time DJ and producer. “I believed I could become a pro DJ ever since I was 15 when I first performed in a club,” says Stainer, now 35, and who has been in Dubai on and off for the past nine years.

In Dubai, he says, it has become a lot harder for overseas DJs, especially after the recession, but easier for the local DJs. “[For] those who had their feet firmly in the industry here, those of us who stayed, it seems to have got better. We are getting more inquiries from different venues and new venues have also opened and they want people that know the industry. They don’t want to take so many risks now.”

There are also DJs who have regular jobs during the week but go DJ-ing on weekends. And the pay per gig ranges from Dh500 for the beginners to Dh5,000 for the more established names. One could earn more money for corporate gigs, says Stainer.

How does he promote himself? “I work with two hats: one as a DJ and other as a music producer.” The production side is lot more a globally connected. Blogs give music away for free, but Stainer says “you want to be on them even though you have given your music away for free.” The Internet is a big tool to promote oneself, he says.

Stainer has released his own album and he does his own remixes as well.

“It’s so easy to start your own record label but for DJs producing music, it’s hard to make money,” he says.

“Tracks that sell are very small and we make more money out of compilations. At the moment I am working with a company that makes downloads for fitness instructors and they have included loads of our stuff. They will pay you more than the whole profit you make out of a single.

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WHO: S1 (his real name is Sher Dayani)

PROFESSION: Singer (Pop & R&B)

CLAIM TO FAME: Apart from releasing his debut album Takin Off earlier this year — on which he collaborated with the likes of well-known rappers Flo Rida and Lumidee — a profile of S1 appeared in last month’s Rolling Stone Middle East. The 18-year-old rapper has just launched his company, Young Millionaire Entertainment, which plans to foray into event management, celebrity booking, local artist promotion and management. All this, while he pursues his undergraduate studies at the American University of Dubai.

DAYANI’S STORY: S1 says he decided music would be his career when he was 14. But the path to where he is today wasn’t easy. “When I was 15 or 16, I thought it would be easy. I could come out with a good song and I will be on the radio,” he says. But the radio stations were not willing to take chances with a local talent, “and no label was there to provide support and promote a local name”, he says.

Undeterred, he went ahead and recorded his first single, called Desert Dream and also shot a video and sent it to MTV, who instantly liked it. It became number 1 on several charts. He has made steady progress since then. “We had huge campaigns to make my presence felt,” S1 says. “My media presence is very big — magazines, profiles on TV, even radio stations — they wouldn’t play me, but they interviewed me. Never logical, is it?”

Initially he was supported by his parents — his father is a businessman — but as he made a splash on the music scene, he has been receiving sponsorships on his videos for wearing their brands. “We are at the point where we are making money,” S1 says, whose album is being distributed in the UAE by Music Master.

S1 has performed at concerts in Germany, Amsterdam, Miami, though not yet in Dubai. He has several ongoing projects, including a number of singles, while collaborating with a number of well-known international artists.

Variety of skills useful

Dubai: There are several careers in the music industry: record producers; recording engineers; marketing/promotions jobs; sales; administration; finance; and artists and repertoire (A&R), that is those who scout talent.

Stacy Taylor, 27, who is promotions manager for EMI Arabia, had a background in radio before joining the record label. But she says one could come from a pure marketing background with a degree in business administration. “We are in the business of selling music and promoting artists,” she says.

The recording industry has witnessed declining sales with increasing competition from digital music (sales of which also fell last year). Taylor’s job entails trying to get songs on the radio, coverage of artists in media, which includes planning promotional tours for artists.“When artists are here, it can be 18-hour days,” says Taylor. “It can be high-pressure, highly demanding job and for that you need to be highly organised and get to know the media contacts well.” But she adds, there is a huge variety in her job. “One project is completely different from another.”

Salary ranges:

  • Recording Producer: From Dh13K-17K per month depending on the contract 
  • Recording Engineer: $15-$100 an hour; again depends on the contract n Marketing: From Dh15K per month (depending on level)

Tuning in

  • Determine the vision: What do you want to achieve in music? Where do you want to go with your music — is it a passion for you to be one of the best in the country and region?
  • Achieve the vision: Once you have set music as something you want to pursue, explore ways to achieve the vision. Now there are avenues where you can learn Arabic music like Bait Al Oud.
  • Continuity: To succeed in music, you just have to persevere and that means practice, practice and practice, despite objections, hurdles and even self-doubt.
  • Patience: It takes years to succeed in music and that means you got to have patience. 
  • Finish college: Music as a full-time profession in the UAE is still not an option for many: so continue your studies and finish college so that you have something to fall back upon.
  •  Start young and stay focused. It is not easy, it is not hard — it is somewhere in the middle.
  • If you have support financially, get yourself good producers and record an album. Record as many songs as you can. If you have ideas for a melody — put it on your phone or iPad. Production should be high quality.
  •  If you don’t have financial support, go find it because there’s a lot of people who have money. Keep the songs commercial if you want to make it; Write on topics that people can relate to and are easy to remember.
  • It is a slow curve to make your career as a DJ, but once you get a foot in the door and get something to back you up, slowly work your way up.
  •  Somebody wanting to start as a DJ (from overseas) should have a residency and “two to three nights gig a week to put “food on the table at the end of the week”. With a mixed crowd in Dubai, DJs have to be flexible with music.