Izzy Abidi’s espresso music machine

The founder of Freshly Ground Sounds tells Kate Dobinson how her musical pop-up events are as crucial for fuelling Dubai’s creative community as a shot of coffee

Tell us the story of how you started up Freshly Ground Sounds in Dubai…

Having grown up in the UAE, I knew how important community is to make you feel at home. I was looking for a space to enjoy local live music, in an attempt to connect with the creative community. When I couldn’t find it, I decided to play myself and had some experience of playing in London. Freshly Ground Sounds began in November 2013, rather unassumingly, in the Roseleaf Café at the back of the Dubai Garden Centre. In a pre-open mic, pre local gig Dubai, this was the first venue that said yes. I was invited back to play the next week and within a month, we had to move out to a park as the crowd had grown to 200 and there were about 15 local acts wanting to play. That pattern grew, year after year and Freshly Ground Sounds became a voice for musicians and the local creative community. Three years later, we’ve reached a top attendance of 1,200 and 382 local artists, and we have helped 32 local creative start-ups and played 24 independent venues. Freshly was born at the right time, in the right place where all these various creative spheres were waiting for a platform to connect them all through the power of music.

How did you scale up the event at the same time as keeping your loyal community?

Freshly’s model was never intended to scale up the way it did. Fortunately, due to the popularity of the events and the growth of the brand name locally, the gigs continued to attract higher attendance, a very engaged fan based and a local demographic that local creative business found challenging to specifically target. This combination resulted in local creative businesses, start-ups and venues offering Freshly incentives to scale up the events in size, through sponsorship. We managed to avoid commercialising the Freshly brand, by ensuring the collaborations were integrated and aligned with an ethos of supporting local musicians and promoting community. The fan base stayed loyal and Freshly retained it’s integrity by never charging for any of its community gigs (and there was push from a lot of directions to do this) and instead, keeping all community events free, making up the cost through the support of local businesses and venues.

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Freshly is run by a team of 11

How has Freshly Ground Sounds brought the music community together?

The most surprising effect has been the international reach. We’ve had inquiries from Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait and our music (via a simple acoustic free EP we released on Soundcloud in our first year) reached as far as Florida, New York, Sri Lanka, Goa, Singapore and London. As a result, we’ve been able to bridge relationships between music communities around the world, exchanging ideas and in some cases, especially in the GCC region, help regional artists get their music heard in the UAE and vice versa. Locally, we have worked behind-the-scenes on breaking barriers, relaxing regulations and changing the culture of local venues to show the value of local live music.

What are the challenges in building an independent local music scene in Dubai?

I don’t think Freshly single-handedly “built a music scene” in Dubai. There was always a music scene but it was hidden and scattered. I think what we did, was build the first platform to unite the scattered scene as one voice. The first and hardest challenge we faced was time. We grew incredibly fast and the demand was hard to keep up with. We were at a stage six months in where there were about 40 sign-ups for six slots at an event. The other challenge that occurred later was expectations. One of the elements of Freshly that we pride ourselves on is quality of the event, sound and integrity. There are still musicians and venues that don’t appreciate the grit work, cost and behind-the-scenes coordination (especially with local regulations) that goes into running a gig, no matter how small. We had to learn to say no, many times, to maintain the quality and standard of what we do. Our most successful, long-term collaborations are with those local start-ups that appreciate the background work that goes into it. That was the second challenge, which as a team, we’ve managed to be increasingly comfortable with.

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Freshly Ground Sounds has become a thriving musical community

How does your background and experience as a lawyer influence your decisions?

It probably gives me more structure in terms of managing things and makes Freshly run in a professional manner but with a team of 11, all with full-time jobs, Freshly wouldn’t run without it being organised. We have received a lot of support from various government entities and local companies and I’m sure the lawyer in me helps me represent the brand in this way, but not consciously. I’ve recently moved from technology to media law, working in TV, film, music and digital rights for the region, so that definitely helps when I’m helping local artists protect their intellectual property.

Who is your favourite musician to emerge from the project?

Physical Graffiti have consistently worked on their sound since they began as an acoustic folk trio on our stage in December 2013. They’ve gone through all the phases of young local musicians in Dubai – back-to-back bookings, sponsorship offers, regional gigs and even a big-fish-small-pond phase. They took a step back last year, went back into the studio and focused on music, music and more music. What has emerged recently is a mature band with a modern, clean, ethereal electro folk sound and identity. Whenever I travel, for work or pleasure, I always direct anyone that asks me about Freshly to this sound. I’m just so proud of these guys, their work ethic and their commitment to music. It’s really outstanding and been a pleasure watching them and helping them grow.

What does music mean to you personally?

Music, for me, is a form of expression, relaxation, creativity and community. Witnessing Freshly grow has made me appreciate the power of music in it’s simplest form. It breaks barriers and builds bridges. Through music, directly and indirectly I’ve gained so many rich experiences that I would not have otherwise without music. 

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For Abidi, music is a form of expression, relaxation, creativity and community

Can you take us through a typical day-in-the-life of your creative agency?

Freshly Pressed DXB is our new creative arm that grew as a result of Freshly Ground Sounds brand identity being associated with high quality creative projects. There is not a typical day at Freshly Pressed DXB and at the moment, it has the agility to pick and choose the most fun and creative projects. One day we’re on a boat curating a playlist, they next day we’re on a stage creating our iconic garden effect for a festival.

What is your advice to other aspiring creative entrepreneurs?

Do stuff that you find fun or believe in. The minute you do anything that becomes a burden it will show on you, your team and potential business partners. When that happens, adapt and ensure that you’re always ready to change. It’s a fast paced city and agility is key. If Freshly began in 2015, it would never have grown into the voice it is today. Over the past three years, we have had to say no to a lot of commercial opportunities because on balance, they didn’t align with Freshly’s core values. In the long run, that’s worked in our favour to create a strong local brand.