Universal Music Group’s Republic Records and The Weeknd manager Wassim “Sal” Slaiby are joining forces to launch a Middle Eastern music record label.
The new label, to be named Universal Arabic Music, will focus on discovering and championing artists and sounds from the Middle East and North Africa, a region with vast potential as a music market, based on its population of about 500 million, that has traditionally been plagued by rampant piracy.
Slaiby, who has been pushing on other fronts to boost the profile of Middle Eastern music, founded the new label and will serve as CEO. “It’s been my dream to highlight the talent and culture of Arabic music on a global level with partners that I trust and admire,” he said in a press release.
The label, unveiled on Tuesday by Slaiby, UMG Chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge and Republic Records founder and CEO Monte Lipman, will seek to give Middle Eastern music — both from the region and from the diaspora around the world — a more global platform to reach the widest possible audience.
Slaiby, a refugee or the Lebanese Civil War who immigrated to Canada at 15, has dramatically raised his profile in the music industry in the past few years. In addition to managing The Weeknd, who had the top song on the Billboard Hot 100 last year with “Blinding Lights,” he also manages Moroccan-born French Montana, Doja Cat and several other artists, producers and songwriters.
The new label is building a team of experts who speak Arabic and have a deep understanding of Arabic music and culture, the partners say. The team will work alongside UMG’s labels in the U.S., U.K., Brazil, France, Germany, Australia, Mexico — as well as with UMG’s existing operations in the MENA region.
The global audience for Arabic music is growing rapidly, in part due to its rising popularity across social media channels and among the large Arabic diasporas around the world.
Social media is helping to build awareness of new Arabic artists and songs in the U.S., Brazil, France, Turkey and across Latin America, where there are large Arabic communities, Universal says. Brazil, for example, has the highest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East, with an estimated 15 million Brazilians of Arab ancestry, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.
“The cultural importance of music from the MENA region crossing boundaries and reaching all corners of the world is long overdue,” Republic’s Lipman said in a press release.
The Middle East and North Africa region, ranked 29th in the world, grew by 38% last year in total recorded music revenues, to $63.4 million, according to IFPI. Of that, streaming represented 93% of the total.
The new label could also help address a supply and demand issue that industry executives in the Middle East have recently highlighted. While consumers in the region have shown a strong preference for consuming Arabic-language music, only a tiny percentage of songs on music streaming platforms like Anghami, which recently went public on the Nasdaq, are actually Arab music.
Anghami co-founder Eddy Maroun told Billboard last month that of the streamer’s 57 million songs, only 1% is Arab music, even though 50% of the music consumed on the platform is Arabic-language music. “We need to create more content,” Maroun said.
As part of its launch on Tuesday, Universal Arab Music said it had signed 17-year-old Jordanian singer-songwriter Issam Alnajjar, whose debut single “Hadel Ahbek” drew over 3 billion views on TikTok and peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart. The song has also topped Spotify’s Viral Global and U.S. Charts and Shazam’s Top 200 Global Chart, Universal says.
Slaiby also discovered and developed 19-year-old Palestinian-Chilean singer/songwriter Elyanna, who first gained traction after posting covers on Soundcloud. Last year, the now California-based singer released her self-titled debut EP and breakout hit “Ana Lahale” featuring Canadian-Lebanese artist Massari. (Elyanna signed to indie label Empire last year.)
Slaiby, who lives in Los Angeles, also serves as head of international partnerships for Anghami, which is based in Abu Dhabi. The new Arab label’s music will be available on all the streaming services available to other UMG labels, a Universal spokesperson says.
Like other major labels, Universal has been pushing deeper into the MENA region in the past few years. Universal’s regional headquarters is in Dubai, and the label opened an office in Morocco last year to expand its North African footprint.