hen 34-year-old House DJ Dion Mavath put pen to paper in a lucrative six-figure deal with Sony earlier this year it signalled the first time a Dubai-based artist had broken out of the UAE.
With Mavath hailing his breakthrough as "just the tip of the iceberg for local DJs" and heralding Dubai as "the region's next DJing capital," it begged the question; what do local DJ's have that all other musicians here don't and what's the reason behind Dubai's electronic rise?
Put simply, "culture nowadays looks at electronic music in the same way they looked at rock in the 1970s and 1980s," says Costas Papa, head of Audio at Dubai's SAE Institute. Many nationalities and cultures in Dubai have indirectly affected the import of electronic music into the region. "Dubai's not necessarily becoming a DJing hotbed it's just following global trends," says Andreas Constantinides, product manager at local music distributing and production company Daxar Multimedia.
The scene's been helped along by Dubai's location, with many DJs basing themselves here to be equidistant to both the Asian and European markets.
In turn all this has spurred the rise in local talent says Papa who estimates a 20 to 30 per cent (year on year) influx in applications to study DJing, electronic music production and audio production.
Sony obviously think Mavath's music is marketable and of widespread commercial value. So therein lies your answer. Mavath is supposedly the first product in a chain of events, playing the right stuff at the right place at the right time. But it's not just that, say local musicians from other genres who suggest local conditions have always inadvertently favoured DJs.
GOOD FOR BUSINESS
"Electronic music is far easier to succeed in than live band music locally," says Rami Lakkis, the bassist from soul/funk infused four-piece Abri.
Why? Well in Dubai live performances require 30 days prior permission from the Department of Tourism Commerce and Marketing (DTCM). This costs around Dh1,500 per performer per night paid for by the venue hosting the act. So as a venue will you front a four-piece band at roughly Dh6,000 or a lone DJ at just Dh1,500? It's a no-brainer.
Of course it's not as though a club won't have more than one DJ per night. And you're unlikely to see alternative music themed venues switch to host a DJ.
"But closing time twinned with the fact that people come out late is inhibitive of the quantity of DJs needed," says Mavath.
And within the last decade there has been an explosion of lounge over bar type establishments cropping up to attract the (seemingly) more affluent, western expat crowd. Mavath adds, "This trend went hand in hand with the economic boom but we're not sure how it will continue."
On top of this, with every event's ticket taxed 10 per cent by the DTCM whether sold or not, venues are under increasing pressure to cover their overheads with a firm crowd pleaser. And who pulls a crowd?
"DJs get a much bigger turnout than any other genre locally," confirmed local promoter Elias Lahoud of Thrust Entertainment.
Lahoud also added that the market was increasingly turning to local DJs for live events because international DJs were a rip-off. "They think Dubai is a goldmine. David Guetta was asking for ¤110,000 (about Dh500,000) to perform here, when in Europe you can get him for ¤30,000 to ¤60,000 (Dh135,000 to ¤270,000)."
"Other promoters will pay this because it's about competition and pride but no-one's making money out of these acts. It's not as though we're getting crowds of 30,000 to 40,000 people," says Lahoud.
What you get is a 1,000 plus attendance depending on the venue. "Electric music does well here because of the consumer age. The average is 23 to 35. That's more a club than a band-going age," Lahoud adds.
SUITS THE MOOD
In a diverse and multi-cultural society like Dubai, where not everyone's musical education is the same, mainstream tastes rule. You can tell this from the local radio stations. At peak times and on weekdays stations stick to international mainstream pop, RnB and Hip Hop. They try to reach as broad an audience as possible in order to attract advertisers. "As a free public service the bills must be paid somehow," said DJ Greg Stainer of Radio One.
If a local act do manage to get on air, all it earns them is publicity. With no such thing as royalties for radio airplay locally, performers must focus on traditional sources of revenue such as record sales (hampered by illegal downloads) and live performances - an aspect which clearly better suits the DJ in Dubai. As a result a lot of other local musicians attempt to market themselves outside the UAE.
Mavath has no qualms in admitting he found a very mainstream commercial sound and ran with it. Something more alternative local musicians won't always bow to.
Lead singer of The Fairplay Project, Rachael Calladine says, "If you really want to survive full-time in this market, like it or not you have to appeal to the masses. Even if you try something new you may not get booked again. Most of the experimental or niche acts need day jobs."
Mavath's sound is: "beat, bass, melody and vocals mixed together to create a happy, fast, and active type of environment. It's easy for people to listen to," says Constantinides of Daxar. Dubai's constant state of summer is more than conducive to this type of music.
Mavath adds, "vocal funky house goes hand in hand with the beach culture in its feel good nature and appeal to women. Being Dubai and having three times as many men as women it's always been important to attract that female clientele and playing this style of music helps."
You can look at all the factors but the truth is, in Dubai especially, "people follow people not the artist," says local DJ Pierre Ravan. He suggests people want to dress up, be chic and be seen, the DJ could even be tertiary to proceedings.
VJ Chris Pean Tully even suggests "Those who don't fit into any other genre go to watch a DJ. There's not a great amount of knowledge of what they're listening to like there is in Europe." So although the scene is growing it can never be considered a cultural hotbed in the sense of cultivating an informed audience.
THE IT CROWD
It's also easier for DJs thanks to the development and accessibility of technology. "All you need is a good media interface and some decent inexpensive computer software and you can upload your tracks straight on to the internet for exposure," says Mavath. Never mind Dubai's live performance fees and Under 21 age restrictions in clubs, the next generation have found ways around it.
"Indeed every other person can be a bedroom DJ or a producer nowadays with the software available," says Papa of the SAE institute.
DJ Amin Golestan adds, "With 200 songs coming out every day in electronic music it's much easier for the DJ to change his set and keep up to date."
So with Dubai being a major gadgets and IT software market, coupled with higher disposable incomes than other parts of the region, might we just be on the fringes of a new music wave afterall?
It's not that easy, says Stainer. "If a DJ is making his/her own music it takes as much time and effort to master the computer musically speaking as it would take to learn an instrument."
And while accessibility is one of electronic music's biggest allies, it's also its biggest threat reckons Ravan.
"Kids can download tracks way before old school DJ's can receive them on vinyl. But you can't compare the sound quality of an MP3 file to more traditional mediums. The quality has gone."
"Go to Lisbon, Ibiza now, it's over. People aren't into the same quality we were playing two years ago. It's all ‘noise house' now. But Dubai is fresh territory, there's still potential here."
He believes kids using the latest technologies have affected the industry here to a lesser extent so far, hence the reason for an influx of old-school DJs. Whereas in Europe they can no longer get booked. Amid hard times club owners in Europe are favouring cheaper talent over quality. "We have to make sure this doesn't happen in Dubai," says Ravan.
Ravan adds that Beirut, also largely unaffected by the trend remains the region's DJing capital in terms of attracting crowds five times larger than Dubai, but Dubai attracts the bigger names because here a DJ can guarantee payment.
Nelson Moreiria aka DJ Afroboogie agrees that in order to sustain the current vibe, clubs in Dubai need to protect the brand. "A lot of clubs can't tell the difference between quality and just want to make a fast buck. That's a short-term aim. We should give kids here a chance, but a chance alongside the more experienced resident DJs, otherwise the brand will suffer in the long-term."
Papa of the SAE institute says, "there are so many tools out there but this is only acting as a creative stumbling block as kids try to master everything at once. What we have are flat repetitive sounds coming out of Dubai, nothing on what was being created two years ago."
Far from becoming a DJing hub he suggests it's where the 1990s has come to die. "As far as a fresh young and upcoming sound, we haven't had anyone come into Dubai for over six years. And club owners are in danger of taking the whole situation for granted. If we had what we have here in my hometown in Cyprus, we would have ruled the world."
On top of this Ravan even suggests Mavath's ‘first breakthrough artist' claim is a case of amnesia on behalf of his PR. Ravan's album Spiritual Brothers was brought out by EMI/Virgin in 2003 and Greg Stainer has tracks out in Europe at the moment from his album 6mil 2headphones. It may not be Sony or six-figure but it's a breakthrough nonetheless.
It's therefore debatable as to whether Dubai is (or perhaps was) on the verge of something big, but the likelihood of further successes in this music and medium locally does seem far likelier than in other genres thanks to conditions as they stand.
That said with five years in the making at an expense of $300,000 to $500,000 (Dh1.3m to Dh2.5m) from his own pocket, Mavath's debut album Warrior proves it's not just luck and favourable circumstances alone that have guided him this far. And that's a message all upcoming musicians can take inspiration from.
After Sony Middle East turned him down he put out the album and it hit the UAE top ten albums billboard in its first week of release and sold out twice. A Sony International rep heard one of his tracks playing on a car stereo in Paris and the half Australian, half Malaysian of Indian descent is now signed up for two singles, two albums and possible further two album releases.