Interview: Spotify MENA’s managing director on company celebrating 5 years in Mideast

Interview: Spotify MENA’s managing director on company celebrating 5 years in Mideast
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Updated 17 November 2023

Interview: Spotify MENA’s managing director on company celebrating 5 years in Mideast

Interview: Spotify MENA’s managing director on company celebrating 5 years in Mideast
  • Streaming giant has transformed from a global service to a more local one now, says Akshat Harbola

DUBAI: Global streaming platform Spotify is celebrating its five-year anniversary in the Middle East and North Africa region this month.

Akshat Harbola, Spotify’s managing director for MENA and South Asia, recently took the reins, replacing Claudius Boller, who left earlier this year.

Having previously worked at consultancy and tech firms such as McKinsey and Google, Harbola was Spotify’s first employee when the company launched in India in 2019, and has since worked in multiple roles within Spotify, with the most recent being head of strategy for Africa, Middle East and South Asia.

During the last five years, there are three key developments that have defined the company’s foothold in the regional market, he told Arab News.

Firstly, Spotify has transformed from a global service to “essentially a local music streaming service now,” which means that content consumption patterns in each market reflect the local demographics, he added.

In Egypt, for example, 70 to 80 percent of Spotify’s top charts are made up of Egyptian music, with Egyptian pop being the most popular genre in the country.

Secondly, the MENA region has “excellent funnel health,” which is based on how users engage with the platform and considers factors such as sharing activity, time spent and playlist creation.

For example, user-generated playlists increased by more than 240 percent, and time spent on the platform increased by 652 percent in Egypt, 205 percent in the UAE, and 187 percent in Saudi Arabia, between 2019 and 2023.

Lastly, overall growth metrics are strong, with streaming of regional music growing by 170 percent between 2019-22 and podcast streaming growing by 224 percent between 2021 and 2023, Harbola said.

“We fundamentally believe that this market overall has very strong structural markers,” such as youth forming a high share of the overall population and high digital penetration in key markets like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, he added.

Moreover, the MENA region’s burgeoning music industry fueled by efforts from local governments “gives us continued confidence that the next five years will be as exciting as the last five years,” he said.

The region had the fastest-growing music industry in 2021, and third-fastest growing in 2022, representing the highest share for streaming of any region globally at 95.5 percent, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

As the company becomes more local, it has invested to not only support the growth of users, but also artists. Programs like RADAR Arabia, EQUAL Arabia and the Fresh Finds playlist are dedicated to supporting the growth of fresh artists and music, from across genders and age groups.

While RADAR Arabia supports emerging artists, EQUAL Arabia spotlights women artists through global partnerships, activations and more.

The latest initiative is the Fresh Finds playlist, which was launched in August, to find and encourage people at the start of their careers, such as Lebanese-Ukrainian artist Maro, as well as Leil, FL EX and Tageel.

Through these programs, Spotify aims to provide “an equal platform and launch pad depending on who you are” by providing editorial support — which helps artists to be discovered on the platform — as well as marketing, Harbola said.

Most recently, Spotify announced Saudi artist Zena Emad as its EQUAL Arabia Ambassador for September and promoted her work on a billboard in Times Square, New York City, ahead of Saudi National Day.

These programs are part of Spotify’s investment in the region, which also includes marketing campaigns in Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the last six months as well as partnerships with key events and organizations like the Gamers8 festival in Riyadh.

The company is also continuing to invest in localization efforts, Harbola said, which includes factors like choosing the right dialect and pricing model, as well as constantly improving algorithms.

Spotify is also rapidly expanding its partnerships, having gone from 200 partner integrations to 2,500 in the last four years, including with the likes of PlayStation, Google Home and Alexa, he added.

And that is paying off, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where 30 percent of gamers stream music while playing — significantly more than in any other market.

Spotify thinks of its platform as having three key differentiators: The freemium model, personalization and ubiquity.

While subscriptions are the “biggest revenue generator, advertising is a very significant contributor” globally, Harbola said.

“Most users want to use Spotify because we are personalized, and so we need to make sure that our back end is well trained on the content that is coming out of the region and we continue to make investments in that direction,” he added.

The last one, ubiquity, is perhaps more crucial now than ever as Spotify looks to the future, because what it means, Harbola said, is that “we want to be available at any touchpoint that a user might consume music at.”

‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments

‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments
Updated 21 February 2024

‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments

‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments
  • Words ‘indicate US complicity’ in suffering, experts warn
  • Controversial video emerged as US vetoed UN ceasefire resolution for 3rd time

LONDON: A US congressman has sparked outrage after claiming “we should kill them all” in reference to Palestinians in Gaza.

US representative for Tennessee’s fifth congressional district Andy Ogles was approached by a group of pro-Palestine activists in Washington on Tuesday.

He was told by one activist: “I’ve seen the footage of shredded children’s bodies. That’s my taxpayer dollars that are going to bomb those kids.”

Ogles responded: “You know what? So, I think we should kill them all, if that makes you feel better. Hamas and the Palestinians have been attacking Israel for 20 years. It’s time to pay the piper.”

The shocking video of the Republican congressman has sparked widespread condemnation across social media, with experts warning that Ogles’s words are indicative of Washington’s complicity in suffering in Gaza.

“For those of you wondering how the Nazis, Daesh, etc. can kill people indiscriminately, now you are witnessing leaders and prominent people in the so-called enlightened democratic societies demonstrating that blind adherence to any ideology can make ordinary people into evil monsters,” lawyer, author and human rights activists Faisal Kutty said X.

“These people have all sold their souls to the highest bidder,” he added.

Ogles, known for his staunch, unconditional support for Israel, previously voted to censure congresswoman member Rashida Tlaib over allegations she had supported the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel. Ogles has also proposed legislation preventing Palestinians from entering the US.

The outrage over Ogles’s comments comes as the Biden administration faces growing criticism over its vetoing of a ceasefire resolution at the UN Security Council. It marked the third veto by the US since Oct. 7.

UNICEF has warned of a potential surge in preventable child deaths in Gaza due to malnutrition and disease. Save the Children’s Jason Lee described the situation as “astronomical” and warned that words cannot capture the scale of death and destruction in the enclave.

Israeli forces have reportedly killed more than 12,400 children in Gaza since Oct. 7, with more than 600,000 children now trapped in Rafah. Save the Children highlighted the alarming rate of amputations, with more than 10 children per day in Gaza, on average, losing one or both of their legs since October.

From Berlinale to Eurovision, anger over Gaza clouds Europe’s cultural events

From Berlinale to Eurovision, anger over Gaza clouds Europe’s cultural events
Updated 21 February 2024

From Berlinale to Eurovision, anger over Gaza clouds Europe’s cultural events

From Berlinale to Eurovision, anger over Gaza clouds Europe’s cultural events
  • Gaza war has casted shadow over European cultural life after anger at Israel offensive flares in France, Italy, Britain
  • Artists have chosen to boycott the Berlin Film Festival in protest against Germany's alleged suppression of pro-Palestinian voices

BERLIN: Indian-American filmmaker Suneil Sanzgiri was set to showcase his film about anti-colonial resistance against the Portuguese empire at this month’s Berlinale film festival but dropped out.
Announcing his boycott on Instagram, Sanzgiri accused the German authorities of silencing voices speaking out for Palestinians in the war in Gaza. “I will not be complicit. We all have blood on our hands,” he wrote.
Sanzgiri’s is one of at least three films that were withdrawn by their creators, while other events at the festival also saw artists pulling out.
The withdrawals showed the tricky waters Germany’s cultural institutions are navigating, caught between protecting artistic freedoms while recognizing what many Germans see as a historic responsibility for Israel after the Nazi Holocaust.
Such disputes have also flared elsewhere in Europe since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas militants. The European Broadcasting Union has resisted calls for Israel to be excluded from the Eurovision Song Contest.
Protests erupted in the Italian city of Naples in February after state broadcaster RAI distanced itself from an appeal made by rapper Ghali to “stop the genocide” during the closing night of the popular Sanremo Music Festival.
In Britain, a network of artists has been documenting events that were axed over artists’ pro-Palestinian views. The Arnolfini art gallery in Bristol also sparked a backlash after canceling two Palestinian film events, fearing they could “stray into political activity.”
In France, a group of artists in November organized a “silent march” where they held a white banner with no slogans.

In Germany, anger over the Israeli offensive in Gaza, which has killed 29,000 Palestinians, has clashed with sensibilities over supporting Israel. Critics say crackdowns on pro-Palestinian voices confuse criticism with legitimate protest.
As cultural events are often state supported, critics say the government has used its financial power to prevent any criticism of Israel, a charge the government strongly rejects.
“Freedom of art and freedom of expression are among the most important basic principles of democracy in Germany, which are of course also protected by the federal government,” a spokesperson for the culture ministry said.
“The institutions and projects funded at the federal level have curatorial freedom and decide for themselves which artists they work with,” the spokesperson added.
While announcing his Berlinale boycott, filmmaker Sanzgiri voiced support for Strike Germany, an initiative launched by anonymous artists in January calling on filmmakers, musicians, writers and artists to withdraw from cultural events in Germany.
“It is a call to refuse German cultural institutions’ use of McCarthyist policies that suppress freedom of expression, specifically expressions of solidarity with Palestine,” the organizers wrote.
Some 1,600 artists have signed up, according a list on the initiative’s website, including French Nobel prize winner Annie Ernaux. Reuters could not verify the list’s authenticity.
Last month, Berlin’s CTM music festival announced several artists withdrawing in solidarity with Strike Germany.
Strike Germany calls for the adoption of a different definition of anti-Semitism that does not include criticism of the state of Israel.
The Berlinale has not shied away from the Gaza issue. It is hosting a so-called Tiny House initiative, a small space inviting disparate voices to debate the war. One of the films spotlighted Israeli settlers encroaching on land.
It is one of several cultural events in Germany clouded by anger over Gaza.
Hundreds of international writers condemned the Frankfurt Book Fair after a Palestinian writer’s award was postponed in October. In November, the entire selection committee for one of Europe’s most important art exhibitions, “documenta,” resigned after disputes over the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Google releases ‘open’ AI models after Meta

Google releases ‘open’ AI models after Meta
Updated 21 February 2024

Google releases ‘open’ AI models after Meta

Google releases ‘open’ AI models after Meta
  • Individuals and businesses can build AI software based on Google’s new family of “open models” called Gemma, for free

SAN FRANCISCO: Google on Wednesday released new artificial intelligence (AI) models that outside developers potentially can fashion as their own, following a similar move by Meta Platforms and others.
The Alphabet subsidiary said individuals and businesses can build AI software based on its new family of “open models” called Gemma, for free. The company is making key technical data such as what are called model weights publicly available, it said.
The move may attract software engineers to build on Google’s technology and encourage usage of its newly profitable cloud division. The models are “optimized” for Google Cloud, where first-time cloud customers using them get $300 in credits, the company said.
Google stopped short of making Gemma fully “open source,” meaning the company still may have a hand in setting terms of use and ownership. Some experts have said open-source AI was ripe for abuse, while others have championed the approach for widening the set of people who can contribute to and benefit from the technology.
With the announcement, Google did not make its bigger, premier models known as Gemini open, unlike Gemma. It said the Gemma models are sized at two billion or seven billion parameters — or the number of different values that an algorithm takes into account to generate output.
Meta’s Llama 2 models range from seven to 70 billion parameters in size. Google has not disclosed the size of its largest Gemini models. For comparison, OpenAI’s GPT-3 model announced in 2020 had 175 billion parameters.
Chipmaker Nvidia on Wednesday said it has worked with Google to ensure Gemma models run smoothly on its chips. Nvidia also said it will soon make chatbot software, which it is developing to run AI models on Windows PCs, work with Gemma.

Third Saudi Media Forum kicks off in Riyadh, platforms global issues

Third Saudi Media Forum kicks off in Riyadh, platforms global issues
Updated 21 February 2024

Third Saudi Media Forum kicks off in Riyadh, platforms global issues

Third Saudi Media Forum kicks off in Riyadh, platforms global issues

RIYADH: The third Saudi Media Forum kicked off its agenda on Tuesday with panels, workshops and masterclasses in Riyadh under the theme “Media in a World Taking Shape.”

The two-day forum, organized by the Saudi Broadcasting Authority in collaboration with the Saudi Journalists Association, has become the Middle East’s cornerstone event for media gatherings and discussion, bringing together some 2,000 industry specialists and experts from the region and beyond.

“What Saudi is witnessing now is a moment of realization of the reality of its valuable capabilities, investing and refining them for the future,” said SBA CEO Mohammed Al-Harthi.

“Saudis are halfway towards Vision 2030, already reaping its results, and this leaves them with more confidence to achieve large aspirations.

“Media is part of this acceleration and development within the Kingdom’s regulations and legislations.

“Global entities are gravitating towards Riyadh as their base, as it has become a new hub for media industries.”

Its accompanying exhibition FOMEX opened its doors to visitors on Monday, showcasing the latest technologies and innovations from over 200 local and international companies throughout the forum’s duration.

At the SMF’s opening ceremony, Saudi Media Minister Salman Al-Dosari highlighted the Kingdom’s three new media strategies.

The Media Sector Strategy looks to shape a comprehensive media system in the Kingdom while improving governance and efficiency in collaboration with 30 government entities as well as the private and third sectors.

The Saudi Broadcasting Authority Strategy aims to enable the authority to overcome digital challenges, train talent and create world-class content.

The Saudi Press Agency Strategy aims to up its online, office and correspondent activity worldwide while presenting journalistic content that aligns with modern standard practice.

Al-Dosari announced the launch of the Saudi Academy for Media to empower and train professionals in new and developing skills and technologies. He also announced partnerships with tech giants including Google, Huawei and Alibaba.

A session titled “Gaza in the Media: Between Misrepresentation and Bias” analyzed the discrepancy between global coverage, Western media’s partiality toward Israel, and inaccuracies in portraying the conflict.

In a session titled “Media in the Past and Present,” Waleed bin Ibrahim Al-Ibrahim, founder and chairman of media giant MBC, said: “Enablement comes from both private and public sectors through investment and so on. At MBC, we’re lacking creatives and talents in all spaces, so all the doors are open.”

Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal Abbas took to the stage alongside fellow experts to discuss the role of journalism during times of global crises.

Meanwhile, Okaz Editor-in-Chief Jameel Al-Theyabi gave a workshop on the future of the print press.

A special masterclass by Dick Roberts, an executive vice president at Allen Media Group, gave insights into the entertainment industry.

Another session explored tourism as a global media language while Darryl Von Daniken, director of the International Radio Festival, discussed radio’s influence on consumers and prioritizing quality over quantity.

Prince Fahd bin Mansour, representative of Saudi Arabia in the G20-Startup20 engagement group, gave a workshop on generative artificial intelligence in media.

Joyce Baz, Google’s head of PR and communications in the Middle East and North Africa, discussed AI in a panel on the future of the media.

Saudi Arabia has launched multiple initiatives to grow the media sector across the region, including the Media Zone project that provides a dedicated space to gain knowledge of media arts.

Last week, the Kingdom launched the Hajj and Umrah Mediathon to improve the quality of coverage of the holy practices.

The Hajj Media Hub was also announced, allowing media professionals to enhance their coverage and showcase their work in an immersive exhibition.

The media sector’s contribution to Saudi gross domestic product reached SR14.5 billion ($3.86 billion) in 2023, and is targeting SR16 billion this year.

Last year, there was a record 56,000 jobs in the media in the Kingdom, which is expected to exceed 67,000 this year.

Leaked documents expose Iran’s harassment campaign against British-based journalists

Leaked documents expose Iran’s harassment campaign against British-based journalists
Updated 21 February 2024

Leaked documents expose Iran’s harassment campaign against British-based journalists

Leaked documents expose Iran’s harassment campaign against British-based journalists
  • Hacktivists Edalat-e Ali says documents show Tehran targets Iran International staff with financial bans, threats to family

LONDON: Dozens of British-based journalists have been targeted by Iran in a coordinated harassment campaign aimed at silencing the network, top secret intelligence documents revealed on Wednesday.

The leaked information, obtained by hacktivist group Edalat-e Ali, exposes how Iran International TV staff received financial bans and threats to their families during the 2019 protests.

The London-based network has said it was previously aware of the intimidation tactics but that the documents offered “indisputable proof that Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and judicial officials were coordinating the harassment efforts.”

During nationwide protests in November 2019, sparked by a sudden hike in gasoline prices and met with a violent crackdown by security forces, Iran International persisted in reporting on the situation despite a government internet shutdown.

This drew unwanted attention and scrutiny from the authorities, with the broadcaster facing accusations of disseminating false news to fuel rebellion.

The leaked documents outline the intimidation methods used. A ministry letter addressed to the Tehran Prosecutor General, dated Nov. 30, 2019, disclosed that 15 family members of Iran International employees were summoned and 71 key players faced financial restrictions.

The tactics were designed to have a psychological impact, causing mental distress and insecurity for employees.

The leaked documents also exposed Tehran’s harassment of ordinary citizens who attempted to contact the network. The papers revealed that journalists and their families faced threats, with the government warning that continuing to work with “opposition media” would have legal consequences.

In February 2023, the escalating harassment campaign prompted the channel to relocate temporarily from London to Washington DC due to assassination attempts. However, it resumed operations in the British capital in September under heightened security measures.

Last year, an Iranian plot to assassinate two of the network’s anchors during the 2022 anti-government protests was thwarted by a double agent, resulting in the arrest and conviction of a Chechen national.

The US and UK both announced sanctions against a network involved in assassination plots, including those targeting Iran International journalists.