Site for sore ears
UrFilez founder Hassan Miah tell us about his 'iTunes meets Facebook' music download services website.
UrFilez is a new Middle East website that offers music download services as well as social networking facilities. Founder Hassan Miah explains why the tough economic climate, as well as strict Gulf censorship laws, won't be enough to stop the music.
It's 1.30am and Hassan Miah sounds tired. As well he might be: the Detroit-born tech entrepreneur has just walked in the door to his New York apartment after a 14-hour flight from Abu Dhabi. But there is very little time to rest. He launches the biggest gamble of his career next month: UrFilez, a music download and social networking website in the Gulf, which aims to have 500,000 users by the end of the year.
As you'd expect from a tech guru, he calls from a Skype phone, but the line is bad. He calls back from a mobile - he's got three in total - after confessing, with a hint of embarrassment, that he doesn't have a land line in his home. For someone that moves around as much as Miah, land lines are less of a consideration.
In short, Miah's plan is to create an Arab ‘iTunes meets Facebook' across the Middle East, to champion local and Western music to a predominantly Muslim audience. The website is launching in Bahrain this month and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE in June. If the takeup is healthy, a more extensive roll out across the Middle East is planned in Jordan, Lebanon and even Iraq. UrFilez has also formed a tie-up with Kuwaiti telecoms giant Zain to launch the service in Palestine.
"The more troubled areas are more exciting, we'll see," he says laughing. "Music is something that people feel good about, it can really inspire. What we are bringing is culture, music and entertainment and I would think it's something that people will really like."
UrFilez is a multi media downloading platform, where users can not only buy songs and music videos, but interact with each other through a social networking facility. Subscribers can use credit on their mobile phones, or their credit cards, to download and pay for songs, priced at around $1. The beta version of the site is already available for users to register.
The plan is to roll UrFilez out first in the Gulf and Egypt and then into Africa and Asia, focusing primarily on India. Miah envisages that the service will be available across the US in three years time, with UrFilez eventually projected to reach an audience of one billion.
Miah certainly has the Hollywood credentials, the former accountant having been directly involved with the sale of Universal Studios to Seagrams, Geffen records to Universal Music and A&M Records to Polygram. He knows a thing or two about technology, too - while Miah was at the helm of the US software company Xing Technology, the firm developed the first consumer MP3 software.
Miah is fusing the two through a concept he first envisioned while working in India as managing director of entertainment investments for chipmaker, Intel.
"I saw this large emerging market that was not served by any major player, and I started noticing that there were some acts coming out of the east that were getting popular in the West," Miah recalls, citing Slumdog Millionaire as a recent high-profile example of an East-set work that has been a major hit in the West.
Initial take-up will depend on the appetite of the 100 million people in the first four targeted countries - Bahrain, UAE, Saudi and Egypt. And Miah is hoping that the system's ease-of-use will act as a USP for Middle East music lovers: UrFilez will enable users to download content using their mobile phones, whereas iTunes users need a laptop and an iPod, which could be financially constraining in some of the parts of the world that the service hopes to conquer.
"We have a social networking site and we'll also have people that will subscribe and purchase songs, so we could have a million users in a year," he explains, admitting that the idea to merge a music and social networking site came from the US. "The fastest growing music sites in the US are social networking ones.
"We hope people will interact and talk about the music they like - it will create a real buzz. It has some risk to it because of people saying the wrong things, so it requires a little more effort monitoring it, but we encourage free speech where possible," he asserts.
Looking forward, Miah's aim is to take the company public within two to five years.
"The highest standard of success is to take it public in the region," he says. "I would love to list on the Qatar Stock Exchange, in a market that has lots of liquidity like the West, but doesn't have local products.