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Sun 24 Apr 2016 09:55 AM

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Ismat 'Izzy' Abidi: How I built Freshly Ground Sounds

Ismat “Izzy” Abidi, founder and creative director at Freshly Ground Sounds, shares the inspirational story of how her love for music led to setting up Freshly Ground Sounds and consequently helping build a recognised independent live music scene in Dubai.

Ismat 'Izzy' Abidi: How I built Freshly Ground Sounds
“Freshly’s largest and most important asset is the community following that we have and the team is reactive towards that.”

The unassuming start-up: Freshly Ground Sounds.

I attended an art evening in Dubai where a woman relentlessly vented her frustration at a lack of a “real creative, art or music scene in the UAE”. A guest speaker relayed a quote that made her fall silent and the audience cheer. The mantra was “Don’t moan. Organise”.

I think that is what I did.

Freshly Ground Sounds became the natural side-effect. I love music and the ability it has to bring communities together, make barriers disappear and inspire others. I am an accidental entrepreneur.

The blank canvas, made in the UAE.

Having grown up in the UAE, I was very aware of the historical one-dimensional nature of music. The early 90s was a handful of well-known international acts, performing a few times a year in large hotel venues, specifically targeting the 40- and 50-something demographic.

A local music “scene”, as we label it today, was non-existent for a few reasons. There may have been musicians scattered across the Emirates, but no grounded community bringing them together. The economy, at the time, demanded professional executive roles and, therefore, creative free-lancers, local start-ups and homegrown venues were unusual and uncommon.

Fast-forward 25 years later to a UAE that is starting to celebrate local brands, venues and start-ups. This is attracting attention, investment and (hopefully) regulation relaxation to ideas like mine. There is now a tangible creative economy; the ideal breeding ground for a concept like Freshly Ground Sounds to become an unassuming start-up.

The cup of coffee in the local cafe.

After university, law school, some extended travel and a few years working in London’s corporate world, I took up a job as a technology/media lawyer and relocated back to the UAE. I had landed in Dubai with a fresh pair of eyes. To balance out my life as a finance lawyer in the thick of London’s LIBOR crisis, I had been an active part of the 2010-ish East London music scene and it was that community feeling I immediately missed when I returned to the Emirates; meeting like-minded individuals in like-minded spaces.

There was a bookstore café in London I spent an afternoon in once, soaking up a lazy weekend afternoon, sitting a few meters from a local musician. This anecdote is commonplace across thousands of cities across the world, but not in the Emirates.

I didn’t spend too long trying to figure out why. Instead, I began to ask a few local cafes in Dubai if I could sit in a corner and play on a Saturday afternoon.

In late summer 2013, in a pre open-mic, pre-coffee-shop-culture, pre-pop-up market Dubai, I was met by a few confused looks and rejections until I met Rose and Leon. The couple, now dear friends of mine, ran a charming, relatively unknown at the time, space in the back of the Dubai Garden Centre called The Roseleaf Café. This local business duo seemed to understand why I was asking and took a chance. I played for a few friends one weekend and was asked to come back. More friends turned up. Friends of friends spread the word and it helped that The Roseleaf Café was extraordinarily good.

By October 2013, the hidden gem of a conservatory in Al Quoz regularly reached its 20- person capacity and I needed a bigger coffee shop. I found a bigger coffee shop. Brownbook’s Magazine Shop in the DIFC was the ideal open-air space for a slightly wider audience.

I called up a school friend, Tareq, who had a sound engineering background and asked him to help me figure out some dials on an amp. I packed up small rug from my house, borrowed a blackboard from a friend, called a few musicians I knew, created a Facebook page, named it after my combined love of good coffee and good music and designed a logo, for fun.

I recognised today’s value of domain names, so I purchased, just in case I one day needed a website.

November 2013 marked Freshly’s first gig and a crowd of 40. It was different and felt new for the city. Word spread.

December 2013 marked Freshly’s second gig and a crowd of 200. That was the gig where I hectically scrambled around my flat before the gig, picking up lamps to light up our little living room in Safa Park.

Tareq and I headed to my hometown of Abu Dhabi a few weeks later. I called up a café (Café Arabia) that was a renovated villa, ideal for the ambiance I craved and they immediately said ‘yes’. A few hundred people turned up.

Word kept spreading and a few months later, Freshly was an established movement, but its direction was vague. We put on gigs, more people kept turning up, more musicians kept signing up, more venues kept asking for us to play. There was a hidden demand for what I had created with Freshly, from businesses, musicians and students.

Every community or social enterprise needs a base or home, whether a physical or metaphorical space. The beauty and charm of Freshly partly lies in its ability to foster an online community. It is very millennial in that respect, but this online society is nurtured based on face-to-face events in and around the local venues, so it also feeds that human connection and tangible community element we are all increasingly craving. I think that is the element of Freshly’s magic formula that struck at the right time, in the right place, which can’t be re-created.

The unassuming movement thrust into the start-up spotlight.

About a year after Freshly’s conception, another side-effect began to happen. As well as demand from the venues, the community fan base and musicians, the brands and local creative-start ups began offering sponsorship or requesting presence at Freshly gigs.

This was the ideal solution to be able to sustain Freshly’s increasingly growing and costly events, now at a top attendance of 1000. The first sponsors that approached us were large international independent fashion, car and media brands. I welcomed the initial injection of sponsorship and to date, we still work with those early-day brands that helped us find our feet.

Local start-ups (venues, brands and creatives) also began to approach us to collaborate or establish presence at our gigs. There was now a clear indication that the specific demographic Frsehly attracted at its events and the online community following we had gained was extremely valuable to the local market, particularly the thriving creative and start-up community.

The local and international media began to pay attention to what we were doing.

Within the space of 24 months, our story had been commissioned for a short film at the Dubai International Film Festival 2014, we had been covered by international art and culture magazines, regional music publications, Dubai Art Season and the Dubai Tourism and Culture Authority. A series of awards raised Freshly’s profile, as well as the wider music scene’s existence to an untapped audience of local businesses and investors. Good Magazine named us a Homegrown Hero 2014 and I won Emirates Woman of the Year 2015 on behalf of Freshly Ground Sounds.

The right people began to increasingly appreciate the intangible creative value of music and the effect it can have on brands, venues and businesses. We will never be able to measure the butterfly effect of Freshly Ground Sounds on Dubai’s creative and start-up economy, but I am confident we are a significant contributor.

Two-years in, by November 2015, Freshly Ground Sounds had inadvertently become a connecting force in the start-up community with the same basic principles of incubating local independent music, alongside the community that had grown around it. Now what do we do?

The hard part. It’s business time.

The biggest obstacle to keep up with Freshly’s growth has been time.

Running Freshly Ground Sounds as a volunteer, alongside a full-time job and personal life requires a great deal of self-motivation.

That motivation comes from the passion for music, a sense of responsibility for the passionate community that Freshly has fostered and the incredible members of Team Freshly.

A knock-on-effect of the time obstacle was learning how to say no. Initially, any ‘no’ was a huge effort for me personally. Time was an obvious restriction but I also hesitantly declined certain opportunities that did not quite align with Freshly’s vision and values. At the time, I kicked myself for turning down sponsorship or investor opportunities and soon realised the more ‘no’s we sent out, the more selective ‘yes’s we got excited about.

Saying ‘no’ seemed to bring us more of the right opportunities. A question I used to find tricky, was now really easy to answer: “Guys, why aren’t you charging for these Freshly gigs, you could make a killing”. Whilst that might have been (or still be) true, Freshly’s vision and model is not that of an events company or booking agency, of which there are already plenty.

The Freshly Team, a natural creative consultancy.

Within the first few months, time became an overwhelming practical obstacle; I began to recruit team members. I recruited based on whether or not they “got” Freshly, instead of any specific skill set and through a combination of luck and circumstance.

As the founder of a creative start-up, letting go of creative control can be a bit scary at first, but it is now the best thing about it.

Team Freshly is a full creative agency, a functional dysfunctional family, inspiring new ideas and keeping each other’s in-check. Freshly gigs can now function with one, some or all of us present and that is a sure-fire sign of a solid team.

The community, directed by the Freshly fans, for the Freshly fans and the wider scene.

Freshly Ground Sounds is about so much more that the music and musicians. There is now a recognised independent live music scene in Dubai, supported by commercial musicians and local businesses. Freshly’s largest and most important asset is the community following that we have and the team is reactive towards that, planning the next phase and new ideas based on feedback from the Freshly fans.

The grounded sound that is ready to rock.

Start-up? Social Enterprise? Community? Commercial? Independent? Freshly can mean one or all of those things, and part of its continued charm is in its versatility. Local, independent, community-driven and creative, fuelled with the power of music.