MDLBeast has been making headlines since 2019, when it launched Soundstorm Festival in Riyadh, a couple of years after the Saudi government had first announced its “Vision 2030” – an attempt at diversifying the economy and doing away with its ultra-conservative and authoritarian image. And what better way of bringing that message home than through music?
That’s what MDLBeast co-founders Talal Albahiti and Ramadan Alharatani thought as well. Aside from promoting Soundstorm, which counted 730,000 visitors across
four days in 2021, MDLBeast also hosts the region’s first music conference, XP, and launched the MDLBeast Records label last year. The company wants to be the go-to for anyone looking to bring music into the region or book local talent for international events outside.
Pollstar spoke with co-founder and deputy CEO Talal Albahiti, as well as chief creative officer Ahmad “Baloo” Alammary ahead of the second edition of XP,
Nov. 28-30, which kickstarts the third Soundstorm Festival from Dec. 1-3.
The significance of Soundstorm’s 2019 premiere can hardly be overstated. It marked one of the first times in Saudi Arabia’s history that men and women of various ages danced next to each other at a public festival without scrutiny by the authorities. Prior to that, they had to meet in secret at parties organized at peoples’ private homes.
Albahiti explained what that looked like: “Arriving, we would use different routes, so it didn’t seem like there was high traffic going to specific spots. Leaving the party, sometimes police would be waiting for you, asking you to get inside a van. You never were in major trouble, but it’s just inconvenient to be held for 24 hours and having to explain to your parents where you were the last day. So, we’d make sure to choose a location that had a backdoor escape. It was second nature for us.”
“If you love something so much, you’ll always find a way,” Alammary added. “As a creative, I did have my struggles with self-expression growing up somewhere where we were encouraged to conform, to look and act and behave in a certain way. Over the years you develop a shell, a façade. But in a private setting you are free to express yourself to your closest circles and be yourself. What’s happened recently in Saudi is an unveiling of our true selves. We are creative, humorous, intelligent, worldly, and expressive people. I am not looking for approval anymore, I’m doing me fearlessly.”
Soundstorm festival, “ripped off the social band-aid,” Alammary continued, “everything that was underground – all the musicians, and music fans – came out. This
shift helped us realize that we have so much talent and communities around us, so many artists and tribes.”
Many of those local artists are performing at Soundstorm each year, where they are treated no different than superstars like David Guetta, who’s been on every Soundstorm lineup so far and considers MDLBeast’s work “history in the making.” When the festival debuted in 2019, he called up some of his DJ friends to bolster the lineup. This, Albahiti recalled, was crucial to the festival’s success, because the company he had originally hired to book the talent and produce the event pulled out 40 days prior to the premiere.
“That’s how I got my crash course in booking 101. I really appreciate all the artists and partners, who were part of first edition, because that will forever be in my heart,” he said.
Recalling Soundstorm’s first edition gives him goosebumps: “Anytime you ran into an employee on site, they’d tell you about something unheard-of they’d just witnessed. Our Saudi DJs were tearing up on stage, the audience, if they weren’t crying themselves, must have wondered what was going on. There were some 4000 people watching a local DJ, who never played to more than 40 people before that night. We had locals open for Martin Garrix or Tiësto, who couldn’t believe they were sharing a stage with their idols. That was fuel for what’s to come.
“It was also a bit of a memory wipe for us. Seeing people’s reaction, their smiles, and their tears, made us forget some of the hardships we had been going through. We will forever be carrying scars, but they’re happy scars now.”