Published in Nov-Dec 2021
Fifty-four percent of the world’s population identify as being ‘fanatical’ about music, and among 16 to 24-year-olds, this statistic rises to 63% (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 2020). Yet, in Pakistan, our relationship with music is complicated, to say the least. Some consider music to be haram and parents mostly discourage their children from pursuing music even as a hobby, mainly because barring but a few musicians struggle to make a decent living. Despite all this, there are multiple music ‘scenes’ in Pakistan; from the devotional to folk; urban rock to electronica – all one has to do is log on to YouTube or Spotify, to hear and see the immense talent that exists in every corner of the country.
Looking back, it was a brand – Pepsi – that played a critical role in making pop music popular in Pakistan. “I saw the impact the commercial version of Dil Dil Pakistan had making the song popular with the public. Before the commercial, Vital Signs were a niche entity. Just the earnings from that one commercial earned us more money than all our albums put together, and Pepsi also funded all our videos,” says Rohail Hyatt, formerly of Vital Signs.
“This was when pop culture started developing in Pakistan,” says Bilal Maqsood of Strings. “Cricket and music brought the whole country together. The youngsters at that time were proud of who they were and could identify with both the music and the sport.”
Before the Taliban insurgency took hold, we were beginning to see concerts, with thousands of people attending. At its peak, I remember a concert at Fortress Stadium in Lahore where over 35,000 people were gathered. The bands, the organisers and everyone else involved were making good money. An industry was evolving, with a few record labels beginning to establish themselves. Perhaps, that was the time when, if a Pakistani child displayed signs of talent as a musician, the parents may have been more willing to take it seriously.
However, when the insurgency hit and the threat of terrorist attacks made it impossible to hold music concerts, the corporate sector once again stepped in. Coke Studio, with Rohail Haytt at the helm, brought music to the relative safety of people’s homes. “When we started Coke Studio, it was a very low point for Pakistan,” says Zohaib Kazi, former GM and later Producer and Director, Coke Studio. “The spirit of the country was very low and we wanted to uplift it.” Coke Studio featured some of the biggest stars in the music industry, performing either their classics or covers and the show became a huge hit.
Fourteen years later and Coke Studio is not only still going strong; many other brands have jumped on the bandwagon (sorry, could not resist), with shows such as Nescafé Basement, Velo Sound Station, Kashmir (Oil) Beats, Bisconni Music – and Pepsi also producing new seasons of their Battle of the Bands franchise.
“Wherever there is a booming music industry, there is an audience for it,” says Maqsood. “If the audience was not there, the music industry would crumble. In Pakistan, if you take the branded shows out of the equation, the music scene would be pretty boring because of the absence of live music. Festivals should be taking place regularly and bands should be performing at small venues. None of this is happening. Luckily, we have Coke Studio, Nescafé Basement and other branded shows keeping audiences entertained.”
So what has happened to record labels? According to producer turned film director, Jamal Rahman, “the reason why labels do not exist is that there are not many ways that they can make money; there is no protection against piracy. As a result, the corporate sector has filled the vacuum and it has done so because Coke Studio has proved that music is a viable platform for brands to build their equity.”
Kazi has a different perspective. “Record labels are not able to make it, because there is no legal recourse. In case of a dispute, what can a musician do? Land disputes do not get resolved in Pakistan, so forget about intellectual property cases.”
Saad Bin Mujeeb, creative and executive producer of Pakistan Idol and producer of Pepsi Battle of the Bands’ reboot, echoed Kazi’s thinking. “For music to flourish, we need a revenue-sharing model based on intellectual property rights and a body to manage this; especially in the absence of a concert culture.”
Umair Dar, co-owner of A for Aleph Records, is among the few to have kept himself and his record label away from the corporate circuit. “It has been challenging on several fronts because musicians are looking for the kind of pay cheques they receive from branded corporate shows and as an independent label, we cannot offer them that kind of money. What we do offer is the facility to record an album. Typically, we do not charge people who cannot afford to do so but whom we think are worth having on our label, and then we publish the music on a profit-sharing arrangement – the success of which remains to be seen. We want to do live shows as a label, a studio and an artist management agency. We hope to eventually create a new wave of original, independent Pakistani music. We do not want this to be about selling products. It has to be about the musicians and their work.”
The absence of live shows is felt by everyone I spoke to. According to Saad Hayat, music producer of Bisconni Music’s first season, “there are no venues for live performance in Pakistan, which is why the culture is unable to develop and the quality of musicians doesn’t improve either, and at the backend, there is no support from the record labels. Finally, there is no support from the government. In the end, brands, for better or for worse, are the only way we can reach larger audiences.”
So are brands harming the music scene? Hyatt’s view is that “it is not an ideal relationship because corporate entities have their agenda and despite efforts to get them to set up something academic at the grassroots level to help music develop, our suggestions fall on deaf ears because it does not serve their short-term marketing objectives. In a nutshell, the relationship works but is fuelled by marketing imperatives, rather than the love of music.”
Kazi adds that “the brand side has the final say, and they may not even be interested in music. If brands read this, I hope they will listen to creatives more; they need to keep a pulse on what is happening in the creative world.”
“I have been listening to a lot of exciting, innovative music from Pakistan, and brands have picked up on this new wave by featuring some unconventional and lesser-known musicians. Perhaps, with the democratisation of content through streaming services such as YouTube and Spotify, there may once again be a future for musicians and young people pursuing music in Pakistan.”
Nofil Naqvi is Head of Content, Z2C. email@example.com