They say “there’s a singer for each Syrian citizen”. The large number of Syrian artists, however, exceeds the production and marketing facilities available in the country.
Moreover, the artistic scene, not only in Syria, but in the Arab world, is dominated by a few large-scale production companies which only promote commercial art, leaving serious music lovers on the shelf.
Determined to change this situation, Lebanese entrepreneur Tony Sfeir decided to take matters into his own hands. Driven by his success as the founder and co-owner of La CD-theque, a Lebanese independent music shop that produces alternative Lebanese cultural products such as DVDs and books, Sfeir founded a new company, Incognito, in 2004.
The company handles his growing production activity and develops a sustained alternative music scene throughout the Arab world. Incognito produces and distributes original CDs for alternative bands, not only from Lebanon but also from Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt.
“Our aim is to encourage young artists outside the commercial pop scene,” he says. “We work with Arab artists who are not famous yet and who do not have a big label behind them. Our bet is that in the long run, they will get the acclaim and audience they deserve.”
Becoming the agent for several international independent labels, such as ECM and Enja records, who specialise in jazz, is just another feather in Incognito’s cap. The company rapidly moved into movies and books, and extended its distribution network further afield, reaching neighbouring Arab countries, and European countries – mainly France. Effectively, it created the first Pan-Arab distribution network of alternative cultural products.
With eight Syrian titles already produced and more to be released soon, Sfeir realised the importance of having a local distributor in Syria and together with Tahany Sinjab, a young Syrian businesswoman, he founded Majal. “Syrian artists are among the most talented in the region,” Sfeir says. “Add to that the access they have to all kinds of culture and music – this explains why their albums are the most acclaimed in our catalogue.”
Wild goose chase
Distributing original CDs however, isn’t child’s play in Syria, where the market is flooded with pirated versions “We don’t have a culture of original CDs in Syria,” Basel Rajoub, a Syrian trumpet and saxophone player working with Incognito, says. “Introducing original CDs into the Syrian market is a wild goose chase.”
As Majal’s manager, Sinjab sized up the situation. She came up with a plan to contain piracy by reducing prices and making a buy-one-get-one-free offer. “We sell original CDs for SYP 200,” she says. “In addition, Incognito offers a free compilation of the label’s other artists’ work with every original CD. As an average copy costs SYP 100 and Majal’s consumers get two CDs for one, they end up paying the same price.”
Even though piracy means that most of the music shops have copies of Incognito’s albums even before their release, Sinjab has succeeded in convincing many shop owners to sell the originals. “Even if fewer people buy the original CDs, I’m getting double the price of the copy for each,” Saed Ghoufary, a CD shop owner, says. “Therefore, my profit is almost the same – it’s not worth the pain of copying.”
In spite of its efforts, Majal still has a long way to go. Thus Lena Shamamyan, a Syrian vocalist who has distributed two albums through Incognito and Majal, says that 5,000 fake copies of her second album, Shamat, were on the market one day after its release. “Majal is a bit slow in distributing the CDs,” Shamamyan says. “If shops don’t find the amount of CDs they need at Majal, they won’t hesitate for a minute to get copies.”
Shamamyan and Rajoub however agree that the Syrian market is difficult for an original CD distributor. “Producing albums under these circumstances means that you have to wait for a very long time to get your capital back,” Rajoub says. “This shows that Incognito is a cultural establishment whose main concern is spreading culture rather than making money.
CD piracy however, isn’t the only challenge Incognito is facing in Syria. Some of the Syrian artists working with Incognito have reservations about the company’s motto of “alternative music at first hand”.
Ibrahim Suleimany, composer and guitarist for Incognito group Itar Shameh, rejects the idea of being an alternative to commercial music. “Commercial music has its own audience just like any other more serious type of music,” Suleimany says. “Being an alternative means substituting or cancelling the other. I don’t believe in that, and I don’t like to spread my music under this motto!”
Others argue that Incognito’s titles don’t fall into the category of alternative music. “Incognito produces high-quality rock, jazz and rap music among others,” Rajoub says. “These kinds of music can’t be alternative music in Syria because we don’t have commercial rock, jazz or rap music in the first place.” Rajoub believes that only Incognito’s oriental music albums can be considered alternative.
Lena Shamamyan also regrets that Incognito does not have a specific style. Unlike other labels, Incognito produces all kinds of music, so customers never know what to expect next.
Incognito’s biggest drawback, however, is in marketing. According to Shamamyan, if Incognito wants to offer an alternative to the commercial music scene, which is supported by major production companies such as Rotana records, one of the Middle East’s largest labels, it has to pull up its socks.
“Without distributing posters, making video clips and staging regular concerts, Incognito can’t make a name in the music market,” Shamamyan says. Such publicity, however, requires large-scale funding. Besides, producing high-quality music is much more costly than commercial songs which can depend on computerised voices.
In spite of all the problems the label is facing, Syrian artists agree that unlike any other production company, Incognito respects the artists’ musical freedom. “They are very friendly and cooperative,” Shamamyan says. “And most importantly, they don’t monopolise their artists.”
Powerful or not, Incognito is the only choice serious musicians have in Syria. “Without Incognito none of the Syrian albums would exist now.” Rajoub says. “Even though we had our projects, it would have taken at least 10 years for them to see the light.”
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.