MDLBEAST’s Talal Albahiti Looks To SOUNDSTORM’s Future 

Up until recently, Saudi Arabia and music festivals haven’t really mixed. The conservative values of the Middle Eastern kingdom ran counter to hedonism and...

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Up until recently, Saudi Arabia and music festivals haven’t really mixed. The conservative values of the Middle Eastern kingdom ran counter to hedonism and raving, but under Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud’s Vision 2030 strategy, certain policies are starting to become relaxed and a more liberal view is being taken towards the modern world. 

One of the first to take advantage of this is events company MDLBEAST, whose SOUNDSTORM festival is now in its second year. They held the first edition in 2019, but due to the coronavirus weren’t able to follow up until 2021, but that went off without a hitch, bringing in over 730,000 festival-goers from across the world for a mixture of local, homegrown talent and international stars like David Guetta, Afrojack, Jeff Mills and more.

We caught up with Talal Albahiti, MDLBEAST Chief Operating Officer and Head of Talent Booking & Events, to get his perspective on the Vision 2030 strategy, the difficulty of putting a festival on during the pandemic, and what the future holds for the festival scene in Saudi Arabia. 

“I’d love to get to the stage of introducing myself, like: ‘Hi, I’m Talal from Saudi Arabia’, and they reply: ‘Oh, you have the coolest festivals in the world!’”

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COMPLEX: Talk us through the history of MDLBEAST and how the festival came to be.
Talal Albahiti:
It all started back in 2019 when Ramadan Alharatani, now CEO of MDLBEAST, and I became aware of the authorisation of music, concerts and entertainment in Saudi Arabia as part of the country’s Vision 2030. We started witnessing the different musical events taking place in the Kingdom and, given that we are well-connected within the underground music scene in Saudi, we decided to come up with a brand that the youth could affiliate themselves with and relate to. 

I called DJ Baloo—who is now Chief Creative Officer of MDLBEAST—as he is someone who has been playing music in Saudi and the region for decades, and we fleshed out the concept further. Then we started planning the region’s biggest music festival and, from there, other components came along, such as MDLBEAST Records—our record label arm, which produces and distributes music by local, regional and international artists. Once we were comfortable with the concept, we presented it to the relevant authority and the feedback was quite positive. They gave their blessing to proceed with one condition: to have the first edition of the music festival [in Saudi Arabia]. The challenge was accepted, and ultimately achieved. 

How was it putting on a festival during Covid compared to previous years? What sort of challenges did you face?
Oh, there was a long list of challenges. 2019 was tough, but with Covid, 2021 was something else. We realised that the only way to make this happen was to be as flexible as possible. So many artists and their teams contracted Covid before travelling to the event, which meant they had to cancel their performances. We had to be smart and agile to ensure crowds were happy and stages busy. Also, some countries had lockdowns, and some had quarantine protocols, which was a challenge as we had performers and teams coming from 107 different countries. Moreover, from a logistics side, we faced a lot of challenges with shipments and the introduction of safety protocols on the ground. The list goes on and on. We were always on the tip of our toes because, with Covid, every day there is something new. Thankfully, all was well managed and the learning was about flexibility, agility and forward planning—we really tried to be three steps ahead. 

Besides those challenges, how else did this year’s festival differ from previous years?
Top line, we had more time to focus on the crowd experience this year. We extended the festival with an additional day, and simply made it a much bigger edition in comparison to our first year in 2019 with over 200 artists across 8 stages. Our Big Beast stage—which is the main stage—was much wider and taller, securing us a new Guinness World Record for the tallest stage in the world. We also had the opportunity to focus on and plan for the other stages this year. For instance, we created the hip-hop music program and gave hip-hop artists play-time from sunset till midnight for all four days of the festival, at the Down Beast Stage. This was very successful, and I’m personally very proud of having the local and regional hip-hop scene rise to the stage and celebrate their music.

Dance Beast was quite special; it was an astonishing stage in an enclosed space, always packed with people having a good time and moving to one beat. I’ve had DJs tell me they enjoyed the atmosphere there a lot and compliment the vibe and the crowd. Lastly, we introduced our Respect & Reset initiative this year, which looks at ensuring safety and respect for all festival-goers, and it was received positively by the attendees. Most importantly, we launched a three-day music conference ahead of SOUNDSTORM, which was focused on accelerating the regional music scene with speakers, artists and promoters from all over the world. 

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What were your personal highlights for the festival?
Honestly, there was a moment right after the event where I realised that we truly did something extraordinary. The smiles, the happy crowds, people singing and dancing along and coming together was very special to see. But also, to see the positive sentiment come out of the international community was a highlight. MDLBEAST has received plenty of earned news stories that spoke about SOUNDSTORM for what it is, talking about Saudi Arabia and its people for who they truly are and how they’ve enjoyed being there with us. 

With everything opening up a bit more all over the world, what are your plans/hopes for the next edition?
We’ve already begun planning for SOUNDSTORM 2022. Feedback was so great that we’re already receiving requests from artists’ agents for bookings. We’re constantly evolving, learning and growing, but to feel the excitement from artists is a great drive for us to put on an even better, bigger show year on year. 

Are there plans to take MDLBEAST to other Middle Eastern countries or even beyond the region?
We definitely have plans to take MDLBEAST outside Kingdom’s borders—we already have team members across the region and abroad. However, SOUNDSTORM will remain in Riyadh as it’s our flagship event that was born here. We have some ideas which we’re looking to develop, especially in our neighbouring countries such as the UAE and Egypt. We’re looking at venues, clubs and multipurpose facilities that we can rent or build outside Saudi, so stay tuned!

Do you think people are warming up to the idea of Saudi Arabia as a festival destination?
Yes, I think they are, and I think that’s because of the experience we offer but also the genuine impact this event has had and will continue to have. Just the other day, one of the international outlets was highlighting how MDLBEAST has helped the music industry and impacted local artists positively. Last year, local talent that played at the festival had 36.5% more demand for 12 months following the event—a testament to what a great festival it was and shows that MDLBEAST has opened a new frontier for artists by introducing them to new segments and audiences. It’s really positive data. Also, it’s helping us reach our objectives, one of which is to be the window for the international committee into Saudi, through the lens of creativity and music. 

Has there been an increase in smaller, grassroots music events since Saudi Arabia started allowing festivals? How are things changing on a local level?
I think we ripped the band-aid off and many people have followed suit on many levels. We’ve seen a local record label opening and a lot of local music spots opening across the country. There’s this drive in the country towards change and we’re empowering local talent to take the step and launch their music careers. One of the biggest examples is DJ Malkin, a creative who attended SOUNDSTORM 2019 and got inspired to become a DJ, when the pandemic started and the lockdown took place. He ordered all the needed equipment and started practicing. We connected him with international artists, such as Afrojack, R3hab and David Guetta, they reviewed his music and said that he had potential. He recently collaborated with Afrojack to release a few tracks. I think this is amazing and I cannot think of any other place in the world that this could happen apart from here in Saudi Arabia.

How did the locals respond to the festival?
The response was great! We monitored social media and saw how much people were reminiscing about the festival. I read comments from people saying things like, “These are the best days”; “I wish we were back at the festival”; “I can’t wait for next year”—and so on. We also had a lot of praise from women on the Respect & Reset initiative, which was intended to educate and unite against unwanted festival behaviour and give increased safety. This has helped us gain trust from the community and the people attending by creating a safe and enjoyable festival. 

What do you think all of this means for Saudi Arabia’s future on the world stage?
It means that we are people who also like to dance and party! It means that the youth of this country are similar to all other youth across the world. We enjoy musical festivals in our country, and want more of it. Just like some of our music fans travel to international events, we hope to welcome the world to SOUNDSTORM. This is helping shape the image of the Saudi youth, showing who they really are. I’d love to get to the stage of introducing myself, like: “Hi, I’m Talal from Saudi Arabia”, and they reply: “Oh, you have the coolest festivals in the world!”

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