RIYADH: An electronic musical festival billed as one of the largest in the world, and a sign of Saudi Arabia’s rapidly expanding entertainment landscape, has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to a remote desert area outside Riyadh over the past three days.
Rave-goers at the third edition of Soundstorm crowded the stages, dressed in an eclectic mix of local Bedouin attire, Saudi national dress, and streetwear in the form of colorful hoodies and jackets with the addition of glitter make-up.
MDL Beast, the Saudi entertainment company that launched the festival in 2019, is one of the most high-profile examples of the rapid social changes that have swept the Kingdom since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan was launched in 2016.
Last year more than 730,000 people attended the festival over the course of four days, and this year organizers expect the number to increase for the three-day festival, which ended on Dec. 3.
Soundstorm shows the power of music to bring people together for moments of shared joy.
“This is about love,” shouted American record producer and rapper DJ Khaled from the Big Beast stage on Friday during his first performance in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
With MDL Beast introducing rap and hip-hop to this year’s line-up, rap legends Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, Future, Rick Ross and T.I joined DJ Khaled on stage in “DJ Khaled & Friends.”
The inclusion of hip-hop stars also underlines Soundstorm’s increasing variety of music genres, mixing top Saudi and Arabic performers with international acts — a sign of an increasing desire by global artists to perform in the Kingdom.
“The feedback from the international talent has been incredible, and we’re seeing more and more artists from abroad looking to come out to our festival to perform, which aligns with our mission to provide fans with the best possible experience,” said Talal Al-Bahiti, MDL Beast chief operating officer, and head of talent bookings and events, in a statement.
Headlining global superstars playing for the first time included Bruno Mars, Marshmello and Post Malone. Returning DJs, such as Carl Cox, DJ Snake and David Guetta, lit up the stage, while a strong contingent of female Saudi DJs, such as Biirdperson, DJ Cosmicat, Dorar, Kayan and Solskin joined their peers Dish Dash, Vinylmode and regional star DJ Aseel, making this year’s line-up the most diverse to date.
“We have such strong women Saudi DJs now,” Danah, 27, a Saudi DJ playing in Soundstorm at VIB, told Arab News.
The Saudi music scene, previously underground, has become “a beautiful culture of shared encouragement,” she said.
“One DJ would offer me her equipment; we all shared and encouraged each other,” she said. “It was such a beautiful dynamic where women were empowering women to play music, men were empowering women to play music, and it wasn’t just to fill the gap in the market. We continue to spread this love today.”
“The event represents our great unveiling,” said Ahmad Alammary, chief creative officer at MDL Beast and a DJ who goes by the name Baloo.
“If Soundstorm had a middle name, it would be upgrade,” he added. “We love to upgrade by the way we design the event. From last year, we have learned more about people’s behavior, their preferences. And there is a lot of growth need that comes with this quick shift and lifestyle.”
This year’s festival experience was enhanced for Premium and VIB — Very Important Beast or VIP — who moved from stage to stage to exclusive view areas via a connected network of elevated walkways akin to several large loops.
Soundstorm’s enhanced structure also included open seating spaces in the form of park-like areas aligned with food and beverage stations, and parking on site for all general admission ticket holders.
The festival, which follows the three-day XP Music Conference in the JAX district of Diriyah, signals Saudi Arabia’s rapidly expanding entertainment sector.
“Heading into our third edition of Soundstorm, we do so now knowing the substantial impact the festival has on helping inspire, amalgamate and grow the Kingdom’s and wider region’s music scene and industry,” MDL Beast CEO Ramadan Al-Haratani told Arab News.
After the debut Soundstorm in 2019, “the economic and social impact was nothing any of us had expected,” he said.
Soundstorm is fostering the growth of soft power in Saudi Arabia after years of closure. The festival offers young Saudis newfound pride in their country through the creative expression and enjoyment of music on a personal and collective level, he said.
“It gave a platform for so many talents in the region and allowed Saudis to be aware of these unexpected talents.”
According to MDL Beast, 83 percent of Saudi youth believe that Soundstorm increases opportunities for local musicians and creatives in the country, with 86 percent of young Saudis saying that their pride in the creativity and culture in Saudi Arabia has grown because of the first festival.
MDL Beast said that there was a 36.5 percent increase in demand for global artists for 12 months after the first Soundstorm in 2019, according to the IMS Business Report 2021.
According to Al-Haratani, the festival demonstrates how “the ambitious expansion of the music ecosystem can be fundamental to the Kingdom’s social transformation, including connecting Saudi fans with the global artists they love, and the establishment of new venues and record labels and the continued growth of our burgeoning music ecosystem.”
Among the challenges MDL Beast has faced is how to handle unprecedented large crowds of men and women dancing all night long in a country where this was unheard of a few years ago.
After several harassment claims during the first and second editions, MDL Beast launched the “Respect and Reset” anti-harassment campaign, and said it would take action against anyone who is abusive or offensive.
Signs with “Respect & Reset” and “Visit our R&R spaces for help with harassment” were publicized throughout the venues. A designated white tent to help those who had experienced harassment was set up next to a medical tent.
Al-Haratani said that security was increased this year to over 3,800 personnel on site, with an estimated one guard for every 35 guests. Additionally, the festival was monitored by more than 300 CCTV cameras. Free water was available throughout the night in all venues.
Baloo said that the festival set-up included “safe dancing zones.”
“If anyone is feeling insecure or unsafe or just wants to dance alone or in a couple, then we have created zones within the big stages where women and couples can go dancing comfortably,” he told Arab News. “Everyone is welcome to come.”
“In the last three years things have changed from zero to 100 here,” Lana Alshareef, 23, social media coordinator for XP Music Futures, told Arab News.
“It’s so beautiful to see this for the music industry. Everything is happening now. There’s a lot of opportunities and everyone wants to find talent. We want to build connections with everyone from here in Saudi, encourage local talent and bring international artists. We want to become a new benchmark for the music industry.”