The Hit Maker Taking English-Speaking Arab Artists To Global Stardom
Last year Lynn Hayek won the Middle Eastern reality TV singing competition The Voice Kids by belting out classic Arab ballads.
Shortly afterwards, the 12-year-old Lebanese singer went to collect her award: a record contract presented by Taymoor Marmarchi, the head of Dubai’s Platinum Records, a label owned by MBC, which produces The Voice Kids. However, upon meeting Hayek, Marmarchi found himself perplexed.
“I didn’t really know where to position her,” recalls the 40-year-old. Most young Arab listeners want new pop music, he says, not the time-honored hits that Hayek sang, which appeal to older generations.
As she was leaving Marmarchi’s office, Hayek mentioned in passing that her true passion was actually singing in English—covering Western pop superstars like Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber.
Astonished, he had Hayek take a seat again. She began singing. “She blew me away,” says Marmarchi. “Ariana Grande eat your heart out.” It was just what Marmarchi was looking for. Not only did Hayek get her recording contract, she became a key part of a plan hatched by Marmarchi to transform Platinum Records from a regional music label into a global player.
Although Platinum Records currently has a stable of talented regional artists, such as Emirati singer Ahlam and Iraqi star Kadim Al Sahir, the company has formed a new sub-label for Arab artists who sing entirely in English.
Called Platinum Independent, it’s the first Middle East-based label to target the U.S. market. “The only criteria is the artists selected have to have some sort of regional ties to the Middle East [and] North Africa,” says Marmarchi.
To help these artists get a foothold in the world’s largest music market, Marmarchi is enlisting big names in the recording industry. In the U.S., Platinum Independent will be managed by Randy Jackson, the Grammy Awardwinning producer and former American Idol judge.
“I think this label is going to succeed and I wanted to join because I think Taymoor has done a lot of the groundwork,” says Jackson. “This is about uniting the world through music.” Platinum Independent will officially launch in August 2017, with the release of the song “Really Good,” the debut track of its artist Julian Michel, an Iraqi-American rapper from Detroit.
In addition to Hayek and Julian (who goes by his first name as an artist), Marmarchi has signed a third artist to the label, Dany Neville, a DJ originally from New York, but whose background is Syrian-Lebanese.
Jackson recently came aboard Platinum Independent after he was introduced to Marmarchi through Robb McDaniels, CEO of Los Angeles-based Faction Entertainment, a talent management services company. Platinum is working with Faction Entertainment to help market and develop the new label’s artists.
“The combination of Platinum’s expanding roster of amazing artists, Faction’s service teams and Randy’s industry experience puts us in a great position to be successful with this venture,” says McDaniels.
According to Marmarchi, in the past, Arab pop artists who were massive stars at home have tried to crossover into the U.S. or Europe. “It never worked,” he says. Their local success just didn’t translate into new markets in the same way. With Platinum Independent, Marmarchi wants to try something different.
He’s looking to establish his artists in the U.S. first, singing entirely in English. Although he’ll also market them in the Arab world, the main target is U.S. audiences. He thinks that could be the key to creating mainstream popularity for Arab artists.
It helps that timing is seemingly on Platinum Independent’s side. Currently, musicians and producers with ties to the Arab world are regular fixtures at the top of popular music charts in the U.S. There are huge acts with direct links to the region, such as rapper French Montana, who was born in Morocco.
Then there’s music industry mogul and Snapchat guru DJ Khaled, who’s family is Palestinian by origin. They are behind the scenes too. One of the managers of hip-hop and R&B superstar The Weekend is Lebanese-born Wassim “Sal” Slaiby.
Drake’s manager Oliver El-Khatib is of Lebanese descent too. The list goes on—and Marmarchi wants to add to it. Despite this, it won’t be easy to establish Platinum Independent’s new artists in North America.
Marmarchi concedes that distributing their music will be an issue, and it goes without saying that it’s an extraordinarily competitive market, one littered with talented musicians who never broke through. That’s where he thinks Jackson and McDaniels can help.
“It’s going to be a challenge obviously to launch three artists who’ve never been heard of in this market,” says Marmarchi. “That’s why I say the music speaks for itself.” Marmarchi’s new label is the product of more than a year of work on his part.
These days, when he answers the phone, there’s a good chance he’s far away from Platinum’s offices in Dubai. When he spoke with Forbes Middle East in July, he was in Los Angeles finalizing the launch of Platinum Independent.
“My office is the plane,” he quips. Marmarchi has been in the music industry for nearly 20 years. Born in Baghdad, but raised in London, Marmarchi got his start handling special projects for Michael Jackson’s charitable organization, the Heal the World Foundation.
After working for the King of Pop for five years, in 2001 he founded his own entertainment agency, 11TM Entertainment in London, which represented international artists and Hollywood talent.
11TM Entertainment was soon bought by a Middle Eastern company, after which Marmarchi helped it produce several projects with artists including Majida El Roumi and Amr Diab. That’s how he first got involved in the region’s music industry.
By 2011, he was running an entertainment business in Dubai for American record producer Quincy Jones and Emirati entrepreneur Badr Jafar.
Called Global Gumbo Group, the company was responsible for developing a variety of local music projects, such as creating a charity song featuring Arab artists to help benefit refugee children in Palestine, Jordan and Syria.
It also helped organize the Dubai Music Week in partnership with the Dubai World Trade Center and Dubai Government.
MBC came calling in 2014. By then Marmarchi had built relationships all over the world in the music industry. The broadcasting giant wanted him to take over its music division.
That included running Platinum Records and helping with its reality music programming, which in addition to The Voice includes Arab Idol and X-Factor. Like with Hayek, Platinum Records signs the winners of these programs to record deals. He took MBC’s offer.
From the moment he joined, Marmarchi says his goal was to eventually start an English language label. But there were other matters to take care of first. At that time, the label was underperforming. It had been founded in 2007, but was overshadowed by other regional labels, such as Saudi Arabia’s Rotana Records.
Simultaneously, the global industry was changing, disrupted by digital technology such as streaming services. Marmarchi cleaned house by terminating artist agreements and built a different staff. He signed new artists and implemented a fresh ethos around marketing— particularly with regards to making use of social media.
Today he uses social media stats as evidence of how Platinum has turned around. Three years ago, the label’s YouTube catalogue had 200 million total views. Today, it has more than 1.6 billion (although for comparison, Rotana has 3.5 billion).
A similar spike has occurred among Platinum’s social media followers. Marmarchi also worked to expand Platinum’s profile by using his connections to create international collaborations. Ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Platinum’s Mohammed Assaf collaborated with famed American producer Rodney Jerkins to create a potential anthem for the tournament.
This year Platinum brokered a collaboration between Latin pop star Marc Anthony and Moroccan artists Grini and Jamila. It took barely a week for the track to reach 1 million YouTube views after launching in July. Marmarchi has also forged collaborations with Bollywood to use Platinum artists for film scores.
“All these markets fuse really well with Arabic music,” he says. Marmarchi got to work developing Platinum Independent around 18 months ago. MBC funded the move. “There was no pushback as I know both markets and was able to clearly outline the opportunity,” says Marmarchi.
Essential to getting the idea off the ground was finding the right talent. “It’s not about the volume of artists, it’s about the quality of the content,” he says. He plans to limit the label to six artists total over the next three years. In addition to the trio he’s already signed, Marmarchi has two more artists under consideration.
He hasn’t limited his search to a certain sound or genre. Rather, he’s worked purposefully to assemble artists who will appeal to distinct audiences within contemporary pop music. Currently, Platinum Independent has built a roster that includes hip-hop, EDM and teen pop.
The first artist he’s unveiling to listeners is Julian, who he discovered working as a sound engineer in Dubai. In addition to rapping, the 20-year-old is a singersongwriter and a classically trained pianist.
Marmarchi likens his sound to Drake. “He’s very talented, very interesting, very young, very cool,” he says. Although born and raised in Detroit, Julian’s family are Chaldean Christians from Iraq by origin.
Marmarchi immediately saw Julian as an artist who could serve as a bridge between the Arab market and the West. Platinum’s second act is Dany Neville, who has already built a reputation for himself in the U.A.E as a DJ.
“Think Diplo, think Major Lazer, very much that vibe,” says Marmarchi. Neville currently has two shows on Virgin Radio in Dubai and has residencies as a DJ at a couple of local clubs.
Atop that, he’s into cars— specifically drifting. “He tours around the world drifting. Right now he’s in Antwerp,” says Marmarchi. And then comes Hayek, the singing prodigy. He wants to market her to the same younger audience that made stars out of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.
It took a year to get all the artists together. Believing he had the talent to make it work, Marmarchi began reaching out to contacts and friends throughout the music industry. “I called Quincy [Jones], I called [Rodney] Jerkins, I called Pharrell,” he says.
He played audio and got feedback. “Everybody came back with positive comments.” He saw that as validation. He began the formal process of properly structuring the label and looked to arrange distribution in the U.S.
That’s when, as he puts it, it dawned on him that there’s an 11-hour time difference between Dubai and Los Angeles. He was trying to manage two labels on opposite sides of the globe simultaneously.
He began looking for a team that could handle Platinum Independent in the U.S. That’s how he met Faction’s McDaniels and began using his service.
One of Faction’s managers just so happened to be Randy Jackson. For Marmarchi, it seemed like a natural choice. He met with Jackson and laid out his plan. With artists and management assembled, the label is already operational as a business.
It just needs to start releasing music. Ahead of Julian’s debut, Marmarchi has arranged for the young rapper to appear on the radio show L.A. Leakers, which often features up and coming artists. It’s the beginning of the hype parade for Platinum Independent’s roster.
It’s also potentially the beginning of a new era for the Middle East’s music industry. If Julian, Neville or Hayek find an audience, Marmarchi will have established Platinum Records as a global player in the music industry.
“We’re looking at this as a much bigger picture.” Now all he needs is American audiences to press play.