Published in Jan-Feb 2022
Pakistan’s music industry which enjoyed much international success in the nineties led by Vital Signs, Junoon – and then by Noori and Atif Aslam in the early 2000s – experienced a sharp decline in the mid-2000s due to significant social and cultural changes. Music festivals disappeared and the lack of local record labels meant that a younger generation of musicians was deprived of the support necessary to showcase their talent.
During this period, Coke Studio gained much critical and popular acclaim as it fed the appetites of fans but became stale with each season restricted to fusion music without pushing boundaries and raising the bar as it had done earlier; and although commercial brands played a crucial role in sustaining the music industry in the past 15 years, indie music artists remained on the fringes as commercial entities sought out the established artists.
Thankfully, today, indie artists are breaking into the mainstream. Punjabi RnB has seemingly become the defining soundtrack of the younger generation, with people such as Shamoon Ismail bringing back Punjabi music one can dance to. Rap, which for decades acted as the trademark counterculture music, commenting on social, cultural and political injustices, is also seeing a resurgence. Be it Faris Shafi with his scathing lyrics highlighting the hypocrisies within Pakistani society or Young Stunners shedding an insight into the struggles of Pakistan’s urban middle-class youth, Pakistani rappers have found a unique way of narrating their stories in Urdu. The fact that Young Stunners were chosen for the PSL anthem last year shows the extent to which Urdu rap has broken into the mainstream.
However, this revival is not restricted to one or two popular genres – it is its diversity and creativity that is eye-catching and different from what came before. Even artists from niche genres like metal are making waves, and I was extremely happy to see the release of Takatak’s debut album Acrophase and even happier to see it voted as one of the top 20 metal albums for Metal Injection.
Perhaps what differentiates today’s music scene is the fact that not only are the lyrics thoughtful and the music catchy, the way they are packaged and produced is different. The production quality across genres is indicative of a blend of maturity and a new age mood as embodied by former teenage prodigy Abdullah Siddiqui who at 21 is producing for musicians like Meesha Shafi.
This new wave of Pakistani music should not come as a surprise. The talent and creativity were always there, all that was needed was a push into the mainstream. Although multinational corporations played their part by becoming much-needed patrons, it is how those musicians seized the opportunities and opened up the way for others to join them in the spotlight. There is a sense of camaraderie among musicians, with each one quick to support the production and promotion of another’s work. You just know it’s different this time.
With Spotify entering Pakistan’s music ecosystem, one hopes the platform will provide the required support to the ongoing music revolution in Pakistan, giving artists more ownership of their music and a direct line to their fans, while providing globally competitive rates for their work.
Although the signs are promising, there is still some way to go for the current generation of musicians to hit the same heights as their trailblazing predecessors. The lack of large-scale music festivals or curatorial organisations is preventing them from interacting with their audiences and building on their existing fan base. There is no reason to believe that this generation will not achieve global success, but they need the support of fans to help create an environment that is conducive to making money while maintaining their artistic credibility.
Sheheryar Khan is Communications Assistant, Consortium for Development Policy Research.