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A manifesto of change: 5 takeaways from XP Music Conference

The inaugural 3-day conference brought conversations around sustainability, gender parity & music culture to Saudi Arabia

  • Mixmag Asia
  • 7 January 2022

The inaugural XP Music Conference by MDLBEAST unfolded in Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh in December to empower youths and music fans from around with region with answers to their needs, ambitions, and desires in the music industry. Following three days of talks, workshops, activations and NITE XPeriences — all designed to amplify music futures in the region and explore the social, economic and cultural impact of nightlife — the first-ever dedicated electronic music conference in the region wrapped up with an astounding effect on the local community, which itself is still getting used to the country’s rapid social changes where just a few years ago, religious police would punish restaurants that played music.

Change is catapulting across the Kingdom, to be sure. The event was held within the same month that Saudi Arabia held a Formula One race alongside two art biennials, and David Guetta announced a residency in Riyadh. Following XP Music Conference, SANDSTORM took place, unfolding as a surreal music festival experience for having drawn more than 700,000 attendees over four days of DJs and live musicians who thudded out electronic beats from the West. Despite being the first such festival experience for many people in the region, it wasn’t weird; it felt like any other festival in the world, except for the absence of alcohol and the occasional operational pause for the Islamic call to prayer. While the conference was a far more intimate affair, it was perhaps more pivotal to paving the road ahead for Saudi Arabia’s music scene and how it interacts with the rest of the world.

Here are some of the takeaways we learned about at XP Music Conference:

1. Saudi isn’t just a bank. There are people there who want to play music & build a community.

With talks of cash flow and funding (amongst other things) having been a heated topic in the lead up to the event, once on the ground, it was blazingly clear that there are people in the region who simply want to play music and build a community — and this was their first chance at it. The end goal of the conference was abundantly clear after spending several days amongst DJs, producers, promoters, event organizers, music fans and a general population who were vehemently vocal about the opportunity provided to them just by having conversations about playing music, and we haven't even gotten to actually playing music yet.

We sat in on several healthy talks that banded together industry leaders from Saudi Arabia and its neighbours. Their sentiment was the same: dance floors are about belonging, identity and creating a new form of citizenship that exists beyond borders, politics and languages. They discussed everything from copyright issues to recording contracts to bettering the nightlife economy via panels, workshops, Q&As, keynotes, fishbowl discussions and screenings.

On the final day of the conference, we spoke to a pioneering DJ from Saudi Arabia who teared up mid-conversation when discussing what the change in the region meant to him as a musician. "It means I get to get heard by my people, I get to interact with them, and I get to dream," says Baloo, a DJ who has been at the forefront of Saudi Arabia's underground music scene for decades (yes, decades), and recently undertook the role of Chief Creative Officer at MDLBeast. "I get to dream about having a music career finally at 43."

"And a mentor and a movement leader, it also means I get to help open doors that I didn't have growing up. I want to help open doors that I couldn't even dream of when I was young — and that's more important than anything. I also get to watch people dancing without shame and without fear and without the worry of being judged for having a good time."

However one feels about the Kingdom's rapid progression, there is no taking away what it actually means to someone living through it, and it's stifling to them to think we can. Actually, we had a lot of conversations that went a lot like this...

2. Women, but also men, want to see gender parity in the music industry.

The floor was opened to shesaid.so, a global community of women, gender minorities and allies in music who are guided by intersectionality, on several occasions across all three days of the conference. Their mission as a community is to empower the music industry with a like-minded and inclusive mindset, and that mantra carried over to Saudi Arabia where they both led and participated in the conversation surrounding the role of women in the music industry. We attended all activations that featured shesaid.so and our first observation was that the audience was equally split between genders. And not only were men and women mixing and mingling in ways that just years ago was unthinkable, but men were actively engaged in a conversation designed to find ways that the music industry and its actors can be more inclusive of their female counterparts.

There were a total number of 150 speakers at XP, and 40% were female. Guests at the conference saw a similar split, and women were dressed in anything from jeans and hoodies to all black, wearing an Abaya or Niqab. In a country where women have only legally been able to drive and obtain licenses since 2017 and allowed into sports stadiums since 2018, gender parity played out heavily across XP and SOUNDSTORM in both the curation of the line-up and attendance, signalling that change is not just happening but is hugely welcome in Saudi Arabia.

3. Two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 34

Attendees at XP Music Conference were presented with the MDLBEAST Culture Report 2021, a summary booklet taken from a greater 99-page report that was authored by David Boyle and Jenny Howard from Audience Strategies, which deep-dives into the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) music market and offers a definitive account of music and culture. From the first page, the book stunned us with facts — namely, its analysis of the youth population. The report found that of MENA’s 525 million-strong population, there was a “progressive population of 253 million under 25s who are passionate about music, optimistic about the future and open to trying new things.” It also found that UAE and Saudi Arabia lead the world in several social media platforms when it comes to active users. In one example, it found that 89-92% of people use YouTube in the region versus 79% in the US. Another example saw 21%-45% of the population were active on Twitter vs 6% worldwide. According to a separate study, two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 34 — giving some crucial context to not just the sweeping social changes happening in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but also offering a feel into just how powerful the future of the region can be and its huge potential…and that includes kick-starting the MENA Music Flywheel.

Download the full report here

4. Sustainability: “If you cut it from the show, no one will notice.”

Change started happening about five years ago when Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, announced the KSA's Vision 2030 project, an ambitious plan that looks to lessen the Kingdom's dependence on oil while shaping a new society around the country's younger population. And with that, Saudi Arabia began opening up to the world. With the country investing heavily in the tourism, entertainment and sports sectors, alongside this came the expansion of industries like music and culture…and sustainability. By 2030, the Kingdom hopes that its contribution of renewable energy to the overall energy mix will reach up to 50%.

With policymaking on greener practices and creating a circular carbon economy becoming a critical talking point across many/most sectors, naturally, the conversation has carried over to the music industry. We watched a talk called Green Events, Green Planet, on which sat Princess Mashael Alshalan alongside Tara Benney of Strawberry Fields and Linnea Svensson, a sustainability events consultant and producer, who together discussed ways to merge Saudi Arabia's approach to climate and environmental stewardship with its growing music culture. It was noted that in the US, it's estimated that 1 in 10 people are regular festivals goers. If you apply that to Saudi Arabia's current future-forward trajectory and its youth population, its music industry has the opportunity to do it right from the get-go when it comes to sustainability — and it sounds like they are listening.

Lawrence Millar and Paul Schurink also delivered a powerful keynote in which they unravelled Coldplay's 2021 eco-tour in a case study, examining different technologies the band use to reduce their carbon footprint and divulging on-stage tips and tricks to lessening impact. Key takeaway here, generally speaking: "If you cut it from the show, no one will notice."

5. We really know nothing about Saudi Arabia

Only since 2019 have visas become widely available to tourists looking for leisure in Saudi Arabia. We still have a lot to learn and explore about a complex and deeply religious culture. Critics have said that the pair of events are an attempt to “whitewash” and conceal the Kingdom’s human rights issues. We’re not here to address that, but we are here to give artists in Saudi Arabia a voice. What we found was the very early beginnings of a long-suppressed music community finally being given an opportunity and a platform to thrive, who are longing (begging, even) to be a part of and accepted by the international music community. We found a ground team operated by long-standing DJs, artists and other members of a music community that has existed on the fringes for years. We stood in the desert for hours and had impassioned conversations with them, asked them questions and listened to their stories. The overall mood across both events was one of unthinkable joy, relief and gratitude — a movement that we as outsiders will never understand — and is symbolic of the future of Saudi Arabia, which its youths want and deserve.

A subculture doesn’t have to be born on the fringes to be validated. The circumstances might be different in Saudi Arabia to how rave culture was born in other parts of the world, but the reason is the same: there is a generation of outré and everyday youths in the KSA who want to play, listen and dance to music — and if there a lesson here, it's to let the music play.

“It’s unfair that we are being singled out this way,” added Baloo. “We continue to be deprived, but by different people now. We were deprived here before, and now other people don’t want us to have our favourite talents come and play.”

With all the change that has arrived in Saudi Arabia, so has an extremely fertile bricolage of creativity, friendships, movements and music, and MDLBeast are just there to push the boundaries of a changing kingdom — who are we to judge?

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