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
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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.”


Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy

Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy
Updated 22 February 2024
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Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy

Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy
  • New committee for press freedoms established
  • 100-day plan endorsed, several proposals to start immediately

RIYADH: The Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board approved on Wednesday an executive strategy which will see several new committees established and a number of proposals fast tracked over the next 100 days.

The move came during the board’s second meeting, led by Adhwan Al-Ahmari, the association’s chairman, which took place on the sidelines of the Saudi Media Forum, held at the Riyadh Hilton Hotel.

Newly established dedicated committees will oversee the implementation of the association’s approved plan. These include an Executive Committee, responsible for setting interim targets and addressing urgent issues, and the Review and Performance Committee, tasked with monitoring performance, assessing committee effectiveness, and ensuring target fulfillment.

The Press Freedoms Committee will establish frameworks, implement plans, and collaborate with international media organizations to safeguard press freedoms.

In order to provide the association with a more robust foundation for its operations, the board has also decided to form a Committee for Developing Financial Resources, which will explore methods to generate income and ensure sustainability.

The Members and Relations Committee will manage the members’ affairs, while the Training Committee is tasked with crafting short-term and long-term training programs, as well as fostering partnerships with local and international universities and training centers.

The Events Committee will create executive plans for the association’s events and will develop a standardized criteria for internal and external activities, while the Content Committee is responsible for establishing a comprehensive editorial policy for all postings, as well as overseeing and improving the association’s website.

The board of directors endorsed a 100-day plan for the implementation of all proposals. The plan will be revised during the board’s next meeting.

The meeting of the board also discussed forming a club for journalists, which will be headquartered in Riyadh and operated by the association.

The board examined legal protection for media workers who are members of the association, in line with its regulations.

The board members emphasized the significance of expanding membership to include media students and trainees, providing them with a special membership to learn from professional journalists.

The meeting also discussed securing funding sources and establishing governance for the association’s fund for supporting journalists.


Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC

Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC
Updated 22 February 2024
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Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC

Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC
  • Hasan will be regular commentator with first column Wednesday urging US president to end Gaza ‘genocide’
  • MSNBC cancelled ‘The Mehdi Hasan Show’ in January amid widespread criticisms

LONDON: Former MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan is moving to The Guardian US following his sudden exit from the network last month.

The British-American writer and broadcaster, known for his award-winning work, will be a regular columnist for the American online presence of the British newspaper.

Its US editor, Betsy Reed, said Hasan’s addition would enhance the publication’s political commentary, advocacy for human rights and free speech, and accountability for those in power.

Hasan’s debut column, published on Wednesday, urged American President Joe Biden to pressure the Israeli government to end what he described as the “genocide” of Palestinians in Gaza.

Hasan said: “I have been poring over columns in The Guardian since I was a teenager. Now I get to write some of my own, in what is perhaps one of the busiest and biggest news years of my lifetime. It’s a huge honor and a privilege.”

The move came after Hasan’s MSNBC “The Mehdi Hasan Show” was abruptly cancelled by the network. While his programs did not always draw large audiences on MSNBC, his passionate monologues and incisive interviews earned him a significant online following, often leading to viral clips.

The timing of the show’s cancellation raised eyebrows, coinciding with Hasan’s criticism of Israel’s actions during its conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

Media analysts and fellow journalists have raised concerns that ending Hasan’s show had left American audiences without a crucial voice in the corporate news landscape during times of ongoing conflict.

The Guardian US has been expanding its team, adding prominent columnists and an investigative unit, reflecting the growing interest in British media among American audiences.


‘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
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‘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
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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.

STRIKE GERMANY
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
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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.