At the turn of the century, as mobile phones were taking off, there was a fad for novelty ringtones. People were paying small sums for their new Nokia phones to play a simple version of popular tunes as a call alert.
“It was a silly trend at the time” says Eddy Maroun co-founder of Anghami, which is today the Arab world’s biggest music home-grown music streaming service.
“I would compose the melodies” he says. His co-founder Elie Habib, meanwhile, took care of the technical and distribution side.
To go from two men with some ringtones to creating one of the most successful regional technology companies took years, inspiration and the battle to overcome the limitations of launching in a region where new tech companies are the exception rather than the rule.
Eddy Maroun can pinpoint the moment the idea for Anghami came to him.
While at a technology conference in 2010 he wrote in his notebook: “Piracy”.
“At that point piracy was killing the economics of producing music,” he says. “Producers were at the point where they were making almost no money.”
By coming up with a platform which was convenient and affordable the founders believed that consumers would be willing to pay rather than illegally download music.
Anghami makes its money from people subscribing to the service, advertising to people who stream the service for free, and by doing deals with mobile phone companies who carry the app.
From one word in a notebook the two founders have built a service which claims a music library of more than 20 million songs and which streams 500 million songs a month to 30 million users.
“We contribute in a big way to the funding of the music industry”, Mr Maroun says.
‘We invested our savings’
“I can say that the hardest part is fundraising in the Middle East.”
“When we came up with the idea of Anghami there were people in America and in Europe doing the same, so international labels knew about it, but for Arabic labels that was something new.” Eddy Maroun says.
As a show of good faith both founders quit their jobs and put up their own money.
“If you invest your own money that means you have the passion and the willingness to make your project a success. Labels and investors like that. They see you as reliable.”
The pay-off came quite quickly a year after having the original idea. In 2011 they signed their first million-dollar investment and quickly after a second.
They were able to start hiring people and closing deals with labels to finally launch Anghami in 2012.
The company says revenues are on the rise, doubling year after year and they exceeded $10m (£800m) by the end of 2016.
Shrinking the music
The other major challenge was the problem of data distribution in the region.
“Internet in the Middle East is notoriously bad,” Elie Habib says.
“We can do nothing about it, bit by bit we realized the more we can actually work on making the music smaller while maintaining quality, the better the user experience will be.”
Still, even if the size of the music is small, data remains very expensive in countries like Lebanon, where topping up the phone with 500 megabytes costs around $12.
Potential users, who want to save on their data, are left with two options: paying for Anghami Premium, an advert-free service with unlimited downloads, or streaming exclusively while on a free wi-fi network.
“People here are not ready to pay,” says Moe Hamzeh, a music and digital entertainment executive based in Beirut, “Subscription services are not doing well.”
Mr Hamzeh also says Anghami could face problems if international competitors establish in the Middle East.
Anghami currently dominates the market along with the American tech giant Apple’s music service.
“We have the local flavour,” says Eddy Maroun.
“We understand the artists and the Middle East music better than the competition, 75% of our business comes from this region. The other 25% comes from the Arab diaspora.”
“Even if Anghami reaches 30 million people, that only accounts for less than 10% of the population,” he says. In short, he believes there’s plenty of room for growth.