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Did you know the term “pop culture” was coined in the 19th century? It was initially a phrase used to describe the culture of the less privileged and the uneducated; the upper classes had what was called the “official culture.” All that, of course, has changed over the years. In 2022, one needn’t look too far to observe that the elements of mass culture have pierced through the barriers of language, race, and nationalities. Amna Aijaz, co-founder and Chief Art Officer at UAE-based online artist marketplace POPC, however, highlights one glaring issue within the Middle East’s pop culture ecosystem: regional artists like herself don’t have a year-round platform to showcase their talents, nor sell their merchandise.
It was a problem she observed firsthand while working on various pop culture events including the Middle East Film and Comic Con– an annual event that brings together fans of comic book movies, TV shows, and video games, among others, and ANI:ME- an event that celebrates Japanese pop culture such as anime and manga. “We see instances of platforms like this in Western markets, but they’re not easily accessible for most independent artists in the Middle East,” Aijaz says. “The Middle East market has a huge appetite for pop culture, and we’ve seen an exponential increase in e-commerce shopping after the pandemic. With that in mind, my co-founders and I created POPC. With POPC, we can provide artists with their own storefront and unique metalink that they can easily share across their online community, giving them the opportunity to sell their work 365 days a year.”
Launched in July 2022, POPC was co-founded by Aijaz along with Arafaat Ali Khan and Haroon Tahir. Khan is the CEO of POPC’s holding company Waverider Entertainment, an intellectual property content creation and management firm centered around pop culture and entertainment. But he is perhaps better known as the co-founder of the aforementioned Middle East Film and Comic Con, and, according to Aijaz, is referred to as the “pioneer of pop culture” in the region by his peers and competitors alike. “Considering he launched the event that brought about the creation of the pop culture community in the region, it was a no-brainer to have him on the team,” Aijaz says.
Meanwhile, Tahir is a marketing and communications professional, as well as a self-published author and content creator whose debut poetry collection Loved, Lost and Learned debuted at the top of Amazon’s Middle Eastern poetry bestsellers list and charted in the top 20 of the overall bestsellers’ list. “He [Tahir] and I have been good friends since university, and I believe his enthusiasm for music, urban culture, and fashion also bring a unique energy to the POPC management team,” Aijaz adds. According to Aijaz, having a co-founding team that is deeply ingrained in pop culture has helped in ensuring that the essence of the business stays intact. “Our goal has always been to nurture this community and help it grow, with a heavy focus on building an independent artist community, where they can expand their skill set and create a fan base,” she says. “We aim to unite pop culture fans, artists, and shoppers alike under one pop culture hub- POPC.”
This attitude exhibited by the trio of self-proclaimed pop culture enthusiasts also explains the reasoning behind the startup’s chosen name. “POPC is simply a short form of ‘pop culture,’ where the C can be used to describe all the elements that form our vision for the brand- such as, community, creation, content, and more!” Aijaz says. “The name had a wonderful sound to it, and it lends to great brand recall! It also bottles up the essence of our brand: we’re fun, we’re tongue-in-cheek, and we want to make high quality merchandise easy to sell and shop for in the region.”
So, what exactly does POPC offer? The co-founders reply that their enterprise has launched with a core product line of t-shirts, hoodies, mugs, wall art and stickers. “All our products are custom printed and on demand to the highest of qualities,” Tahir explains. “They are produced and printed once the customer places an order, thus ensuring the limited and unique nature of the designs, and also minimizing waste. We want our customers and creators to come as they are, so we are open to their designs and inspirations from their favorite fandoms. We see ourselves as facilitators, bringing their creativity to life on physical merchandise.” On how the artists themselves earn money through POC, Tahir replies,”Our artists receive aggregated royalties for their designs when their products are sold, on a timely basis. The business model is a sustainable one as it encourages our artists to be more invested in their products and allows them to monetize their skills very quickly, all while keeping our supply chain lean and efficient.”
But as much as the designs from pop culture artists and creators come from a place of joy and genuine interest, issues such as lack of originality and diversity can threaten the integrity of a business such as POPC. But the team claims to have those aspects covered too. “We always take great steps to ensure that the artwork is not copied, and that no copyright infringement is taking place- each artwork that is submitted by our talented pool of artists is manually vetted by a senior member of our design team,” Tahir explains.
“Our target audience are people who have a passion and love for pop culture and art, people who are not afraid to express their unique point of view. We want everyone who comes to POPC to find something that resonates with them. The core age demographic is 16-45- although we truly believe great taste has no age! We’re also a very inclusive brand; our apparel products are unisex, and we offer a great range of sizes- even while creating our t-shirt line, we’ve created a fit and silhouette that would work for every body type. Our goal is to have something for everyone that wants to express their uniqueness, no matter their background, age, or gender.”
Moving into the new year, POPC already has more plans up its sleeve. “We are currently working on some exciting projects that will further engage the pop culture, artist, and comic book community,” Aijaz says. “One of them is POPC Reads, the first of its kind Arabic-language comic book reader that will be home to a repertoire of exciting new titles created by artists from the region, in addition to global titles that have never before been presented in Arabic. We are also looking to engage with Web3 artists and the wider community to create ‘phygital’ pop culture experiences that go beyond just purchasing a digital artwork. Moreover, the offerings we want to add in the next quarters include more color options, custom matching sets, custom stickers, and a greater variety of custom apparel including bomber jackets.”
But when it comes to the long term, Tahir believes that the sky’s the limit for his enterprise. “For the POPC brand, our goal is to become the chosen platform for pop culture artists and retailers to reach their fans,” he says. “We want to build an entire artist and pop culture fan ecosystem that is created for the region, by the region!”