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

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.”

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