From the Beatles to Lady Gaga, more than a million songs from the "big four" record labels have been made available for people across the Middle East to download legally, many for the first time.
Launched yesterday, the website www.music-master.com charges users Dh30 to download an album and Dh3 for a single track. The site's owners expect the number of songs available to rise to almost three million within weeks and hope to sign-up about 15,000 regular users within a year.
"Our aim is to become the comprehensive music downloading service in the region," says Saeed Elajou, the managing director of Music Master in Dubai. Founded in 1982, the Saudi-owned company is the Middle East's biggest international music distributor. "We still think there's a huge market for new customers. Some people who have grown up here won't be able to get on iTunes because of the credit card issue."
Those with bank cards issued in the UAE and some other Middle Eastern countries are currently unable to access the full selection of songs in the iTunes store - the world's most popular legal downloading platform. While a number of regional download sites have been launched before (including Getmo Arabia, a joint venture between Arvato Middle East and ADMC), Music Master is the first to offer the back catalogues of all four industry giants: Universal, Sony Music, Warner and EMI.
"We're not aiming to be a direct competitor to iTunes," says Elajou. "Our website will give more of an experience; things like loyalty programmes, concert tickets and merchandise."
But although the site offers a wider selection than any of its regional competitors, its range of music by independent and Arabic-language artists is still severely limited. Fans of indie rock or electronic music for example will notice that many of their favourite artists are absent from the site because no regional distribution deal has been set-up with the smaller labels.
Arabic stars who are signed to the Saudi entertainment powerhouse, Rotana, are also missing for the time being. There is some access to Arabic pop however: the agreement with EMI includes the company's EMI Arabia subdivision.
Despite the website's regional focus, it currently offers no platform for emerging artists within the Middle East to sell their music.
"The big problem is that if people are downloading stuff for free these days or just listening to it online, there's no revenue stream," says James Sinclair, drummer of the UAE-based rock band Juliana Down, who supported Guns N' Roses last year. "It would be useful for a band like us, who are not signed to one of the big four, to have a way of getting our music out there on a download site which people are able to pay for."
The band's new single, Empires, is playlisted on several UAE radio stations, as well as others as far away as Lebanon and Sri Lanka. However, the band's fans cannot buy the song anywhere.
"You can listen to it for free on our website," he says, "but if there was some way that [a download site] could do a kind-of profit share with the artist, that would be great. I know it's possible to get on iTunes, but you have to sign a deal that is not exactly advantageous to the artist."
Elajou says Music Master does plan eventually to pursue smaller labels and even unsigned artists. "We want to get a lot of labels to come on-board," he says. "But our aim from the beginning was to start with the four majors because that's where you get your credibility. It's an ongoing process."
With the site now live, Music Master's marketing drive is based around the increasingly common "QR bar code" technology. Originating in Japan and resembling a black-and-white matrix of tiny squares, users who scan the bar codes with a smartphone will be shown a "secret" webpage and offered five free downloads. The company also plans to introduce Music Master scratch-card vouchers, similar to those offered by iTunes. The website will include message boards and forums.
"Music is an international language and we'd love to see a real multicultural mix of people visiting the site," says Edward Bagnall, marketing and communications manager at Music Master. "We'd like the people who haven't heard much western music find something new and hope the people who haven't heard much Middle Eastern music will do the same."
Music Master is now available in the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Lebanon and Egypt. There are plans to introduce it in Jordan and Syria at a later date.