Abu Dhabi // Every morning, Eddie Kasparian puts on a suit and heads into a shiny glass and concrete building in downtown Abu Dhabi, where he works in the human resources department of an engineering company. If only his thousands of fans could see him now.
Kasparian, 26, who records under the name Kaz Money, has a management deal and a video on MTV Arabia. In December, he performed in front of 10,000 people at Dubai Media City as the warm-up act for the American rapper 50 Cent. But last month, he returned to his day job because he could not get his CD on enough record shop shelves. He is just one of a number of UAE-based artists struggling because of restrictions in music distribution and a lack of independent retail outlets to showcase local talent.
"There is no money in music making in the UAE," says Kasparian, who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. "People think that as soon as you get signed and make a video that you will be rich and famous but it just doesn't work like that." Kasparian was signed last year by Creative Kingdom Records, an international label with studios in Dubai, and went on to record his debut album Timezup. Earlier this year, he also appeared with Karl Wolf, a Canadian hip-hop artist who has enjoyed much success in the Middle East.
But Kasparian, like other artists, has had trouble overcoming the limited distribution channels in the region. There are relatively few outlets for Western music, and content is subject to strict regulations. The strong language common to rap and hip-hop means that it can be found only in one shop chain, Virgin Megastores, with other stores unwilling to stock it. "Labels and distributors are not willing to put money behind people like me," Kasparian says.
"They would rather support mainstream established artists because there is no financial risk. "When we played before 50 Cent it was a huge step for us. After all, he is one of the most successful hip-hop and pop artists of our time. "But the reality is unless we have someone willing to market our music, we will never be able to rival his success. It is very different in the UAE compared to other countries."
Mauricio Tavares, the general manager of Creative Kingdom Records, says Kaz Money faces a difficult problem. "I believe in Kaz Money 100 per cent," he says. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have signed him. But the truth is there is only one place his CD will end up once it is distributed. In Virgin Megastores next to Jay-Z's latest album and other established artists. "The only way the consumer will be persuaded to choose Eddie's music over the rest is with a major amount of air play on local radios and a marketing campaign. That costs money and, of course, there is still no guarantee of return so investors simply shy away.
"It is a frustrating vicious circle, especially when you know the artist has talent." Kasparian began making music in 2001. Within a few months of recording tracks in his bedroom, he put his work online and generated an instant fan base. "It started off as a hobby because I loved creating my own music," he says. "I worked out of my own space with my friends. It didn't matter to me to get a record deal or anything like that. But when we made the website and were getting hits from Saudi Arabia, Palestine and all over the region we began to think we had something popular."
Kasparian and his team - a chorus of R & B singers, a producer and his brother, who works on the graphics and design - made an effort to establish Kaz Money as an artist. They played shows in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and sent demo CDs to radio stations, agents and record labels. In mid-2007, Creative Kingdom offered Kaz Money a deal and invested Dh500,000 (US$136,130) in producing the album. That year, as well as performing at shows with 50 Cent, Kaz Money supported Massari, a popular R & B singer from Lebanon, and Lloyd Banks, an American rapper who is part of the rap group G-Unit and has recorded with big names such as Dr Dre.
All that was missing, it seemed, was a distribution deal that would enable his fans to get their hands on his music rather always watching him perform live. He had some offers, but none led to a contract. Mr Tavares says if more people do not begin to support home-grown talent, artists such as Kaz Money will simply never be heard. "Nowadays, an artist is the product of marketing more than anything else," he says. "They can be as fresh or as original as they come but unless they have radio play, merchandise and lots of exposure they will never be the next Madonna or Justin Timberlake.
"It is happening all over the world; we hardly ever hear of new artists, just new music from the same people. "Add this to the restricted distribution channels and 'making it' in the UAE is even more difficult. "At Creative Kingdom, we believe that eventually there will be a legitimate music scene in Dubai and the UAE but it will take more concerted efforts from radio and TV channels to give local bands exposure before we can change the existing pattern."
Kasparian's songs are often about growing up in the UAE or social issues he feels strongly about, although some of his lyrics merely make general observations. He says he is more interested in displaying his "ability to come up with metaphors, rhymes and catchy lines" than courting controversy. "I'm very easy-going," he says. "I try to avoid the politics of the music industry as much as I avoid the politics of the country. Music is my passion and I love making it. When I know people enjoy listening to it, it is really frustrating that I don't have a platform to work from. Until I do, I guess I'm back in the office and music is back as my hobby, not my job."