Niche services connect Iranian artists and listeners

THE WORKS by Mim Rasouli, a musician based near Tehran, is rich in Persian and Western influences. In “Fastalgia”, one of his most famous arias, Mr. Rasouli crushes songs by Seyyed Javad Zabihi, a muezzin since the time of the shah; Mohammad Reza Shajarian, one of Iran’s greatest cultural treasures; Archive, a London-based alternative rock band; and Arms and Sleepers, a Boston trip-hop group. The result is a dreamy and nostalgic piece intended to evoke a time when the fast of Ramadan began with Zabihi’s call to prayer and the iftar, or fast-breaking evening meal, was accompanied by Shajarian’s thunderous voice.

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Zabihi was assassinated two years after the 1979 revolution; before he died last year, Shajarian boycotted state radio to show his support for pro-democracy protesters. Listeners can still stream their music on Spotify and similar services. But “Fastalgia” itself is not available. Nothing else from Mr. Rasouli either, or even Iranian musicians living and working in Iran.

The reason is simple. Sanctions prevent Western companies from engaging in business relationships with Iranian entities or individuals. Mr Rasouli (pictured) says he would love to be on Spotify (itself not officially available in Iran), but instead puts his music online for nothing. His songs can be found on his personal website, YouTube, SoundCloud, Telegram, and Navahang, a Persian music streaming service. “I didn’t choose them,” says Rasouli of this last point of sale. On the contrary, after Navahang started publishing his music on his own, he sent it more. He does not receive any payment in exchange.

Based in Finland, Navahang was started in 2015 by Siavash Danesh, a refugee, with an app built in India. With around 2 million users, it’s a small team that focuses on the Iranian underground scene and female artists. The service is free; registration is not required. It advertises, but its size and the fact that many listeners are in an unprofitable Iran means that the income is modest.

To survive, Navahang overturns the traditional streaming business model. “Unlike other services like Spotify where you get subscriptions and pay artists,” says Danesh, “we get money from the artists themselves.” Since Iran is not a signatory to various copyright treaties, platforms like Navahang can use some Iranian works without paying. Many musicians, including Mr. Rasouli, are delighted with this exhibition. Those in the diaspora who want Navahang to promote them, for example on the home page, pay for the privilege. Navahang also produces music for some Persian artists based outside Iran. Mr. Danesh estimates that 90% of his income comes from these two sources.

Navahang is a relatively new entrant to the Persian music streaming scene. The most important and well-known service is Radio Javan, based in Washington, DC in 2004. Its application was downloaded more than 5 million times from the Google Play Store, far more than from Navahang. Running a service for Iranians is expensive, confirms Hamed Hashemi, founder of Radio Javan. Not only are most of the users in Iran, the lack of copyright protection goes both ways. His company also has an industry, but it is difficult to assert rights when his music is smuggled into Iran. Radio Javan adopted the same strategy as Navahang. “We are a promotion company,” says Hashemi. “We promote music.”

Think of it as targeted advertising. Persian musicians want to reach Persian-speaking listeners for record contracts and concert reservations, in Tehran or elsewhere. The likelihood of being discovered or making big bucks on a mainstream service – Spotify carries over a million artists and pays a fraction of a cent per stream – is low. For musicians in Iran, it is impossible. Paying for a promotion on Navahang or Radio Javan is one way to reach the right audience.

But the benefits go further. Iranian artists have long been engaged in foreign music, as Mr. Rasouli shows. Free Persian streaming services allow curious people from the rest of the world to experience the native culture of Iran. “As an artist, I like my work to be seen and heard,” says Rasouli. The rewards, he adds, are spiritual rather than material.

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Stream of Conscience”

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