Spek is the Founder/ President of PopArabia, the leading music publishing company in the UAE, and the Executive Vice President, International & Emerging Markets at Reservoir.
(Please note – Spek now lives in Dubai but prior to that he was neighbors with Joel for many years.)
How did you get into the industry?
I had a rap group in highschool when I was about 14 in Montreal, where I’m from. We were fans of Dream Warriors, who were the first Canadian hip hop group to have success out of Canada. I skipped school one day with my buddies and went to meet them at an autograph session. We told them about our group and that we had intended to open up for them but were told we couldn’t because we were underage and the venue was 18 and over, so the band told us that if we showed up to the venue around soundcheck they would sneak us in. So we did just that and ended up spending a few hours with them freestyling and just talking about the scene in Canada. By the end of the night they gave me their numbers and suggested that if we ever made it out to Toronto, they’d produce our demos, so I spent the next few years in the studio with them, developing as a writer and artist. By the time I got to about the age of 17, the highschool group I was in had split up and the Dream Warriors asked me to join them as they were recording their second album. I was just out of highschool and spent the next few years touring and living the dream as a recording artist.
When the group split up, around 1997, I relocated to the U.K and immersed myself in the London scene, where we historically had most of our success. I toured with British Jazz-Rap crew Us3 as they embarked on a big European tour, worked on solo material and moved in with my buddy Nitin Sawhney for a period, who was just working on what would become his breakthrough album Beyond Skin, which I featured on. After spending the best part of a decade in London, I was offered my first job in publishing at Ole (now Anthem), looking after their UK and European relationships in 2005. That opened up a whole new understanding of the inner workings of the copyright business for me and I became curious as to how copyright was being treated in emerging markets. I eventually relocated to Dubai to set up the first music publisher in the UAE, and that’s where many of my peers in publishing first got to know me.
What does your current job entail?
It’s pretty varied, which is what I like, constant new challenges with no easy answers. As the Founder and President of PopArabia, I run the leading music publisher in the Middle East and North Africa. We sub publish much of the publishing industry in the MENA markets, licensing music in a market where the recognition of our rights is still relatively new. We are also now signing regional artists as both a label and publisher through our joint venture with Reservoir, so I’m liaising with our artists and songwriters, producers, studios and the like as we prep our first releases. I also look after international and emerging markets for Reservoir, exploring opportunities for Reservoir in new markets in Asia and Africa.
What does a typical day look like for you?
At the moment, my mornings involve a degree of homeschooling with my kids. During the day I’m liaising with my PopArabia team members on everything from synchs to new initiatives we might be working on to open up licensing in the region. It really runs the gamut of everything from advertising campaigns, to opportunities to license production music we represent, to working with our newly signed artists who are developing records as well as much bigger industry wide initiatives. We are focused on being at the forefront of moving the rights industry forward in this region, and believe we are the best placed to do so. There’s also a healthy dose of sending out legal notices on infringements too unfortunately! My late nights tend to be zoom calls these days with the West. I’m a late sleeper so that schedule works nicely for me.
We are focused on being at the forefront of moving the rights industry forward in this region, and believe we are the best placed to do so.
What do you think are the most interesting developments in your area of the industry?
Despite the setbacks involved with the Covid pandemic, I think it’s a really exciting time for the near to long term international outlook on the music industry. Music streaming services entering Asia, Africa and Middle East will lead to a creative renaissance of sorts for local music in these markets. The streaming business is directly correlated to population sizes, and there’s just so many more people in these markets than the developed markets of the West. There’s also a much bigger upside in terms of growth – because these were markets that have been historically plagued by physical piracy finally coming into monetization around streaming.
We’re still early in the curve on subscriber adoption, but we know where this is going, and the demographics of mobile use, broadband penetration in places like Gulf, and social media usage I think point to a vibrant digital streaming market once they have enough time to penetrate and grow subscribers. We’re still early in that journey. This will invariably lead to a focus on local music, which will travel in ways that wasn’t possible before. It’s really the reason I relocated back to the Middle East after nearly 5 years in New York. It’s an exciting time despite the challenges we face with the lockdown. Repression leads to expression, so I’m interested to see where this leads musically for artists in this corner of the world.
Repression leads to expression, so I’m interested to see where this leads musically for artists in this corner of the world.
What’s been the most unexpected thing about the job?
In emerging markets, everything is unexpected! That’s part of what makes it fun… It’s the whole experience of working in an opaque environment that keeps it challenging, exciting and rewarding.
What’s the coolest project you’ve ever done?
I don’t know that I can say one thing, my years in NYC at Reservoir signing and working with our writers and our incredible team has had a lot of that for me. On the other hand in the UAE, about 6 or 7 years ago I was the music supervisor on a TV series produced around Ramadan. Once the project was done successfully on a very tight schedule I got a call from the series producer saying the Crown Princess of Abu Dhabi was going to be having a private pre-screening and they wanted the core team to meet with her at the palace to show her a few episodes. That was a pretty surreal experience rolling up to the palace, and watching a few episodes with them. It was a small group of 4 or 5 of us with the Princess, her daughter and an advisor. At the end she and her daughter’s first comments were on how much they loved the music, which was a cool moment.
I still rap, I still produce beats and make music (you can check out some of it here), and get to work with Reservoir writer Nitin Sawhney who has been a close friend of mine for over 20 years. Last year he asked me to play the 20thanniversary concert for his seminal album Beyond Skin (which I featured on) at The Royal Albert Hall with him, and ended up being sold out. Paul Mcartney came to the gig… that was pretty cool to be both his collaborator and now his publisher. He’s working on a new album and we’re writing some stuff together which we’re both excited about. Anything Nitin and I do together is a cool project for me, because he really is just so talented and a close friend…and ultimately I’m also still just a big fan of his music.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
I was given great advice by my manager Tim Parry at Big Life when I was working on a solo record in the UK around 2000. I was always coming up with ideas about a million things around what we should do, could do, etc. His advice was beautiful in its simplicity: “focus on getting the music right, everything else will follow”. He was 100% right. Once we did that, all the interest of labels, or press or anything else did. It’s easy to get lost in all the hype around our business, but that truth applies in everything I do. I still use it.
What’s on your playlist at the moment?
Da Baby, Black Thought, Radiohead, Beastie Boys, an Indian rapper named Divine who’s really broken open the hip hop scene in India… and a lot of Bashar Murad & Xriss, who we’ve recently signed at PopArabia as they’re both making records right now.
What’s getting you through lockdown?
Money Heist on Netflix and lotsa takeaway food!
“The next decade is going to convert MENA, Asia and Africa into dominant A&R hubs for the music industry.”
Do you have any predictions or hopes for the future of the industry?
The next decade is going to convert MENA, Asia and Africa into dominant A&R hubs for the music industry. I’ve seen this movie before, I was a rapper in Toronto in the 90’s before that was a thing. It took 20 years before Drake, The Weeknd, Belly and numerous others came along and turned the promise of a market into an actual reality. That’s a consequence of many factors from talent to infrastructure, but the same sort of metamorphosis is happening in the emerging markets as we speak.
Check out some of Spek’s music here:
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