When Spotify, an audio streaming platform that is home to millions of songs and operates in dozens of markets, officially announced its arrival in Pakistan more than a year ago, the way we consume music changed. We didn’t need to steal music through torrents, or hunt various websites for music we thought was lost.
Apart from providing listeners with a catalog of local music that was previously unavailable, Spotify also invested in local artists. It did so through masterclasses on how to expand listenership and by introducing specific initiatives.
Spotify took Pakistani musicians to Times Square, NYC and gave listeners a designated playlist for these programs. Equal Pakistan shined a light on female artists in particular and Radar focused on some of the brightest musicians in the business.
As Spotify Pakistan became the method through which consumption of music and other forms of audio content was made easy, it also broke many barriers. And while not all individual artists or labels opted to put their music on Spotify, its larger impact on the music industry and outside of it can’t be denied.
Now, another major player from the music business has arrived in Pakistan, namely Sony Music Entertainment Middle East, and Pakistan falls under this umbrella.
Helming its run in Pakistan is Ahmed Zawar, who holds the position of Associate Director Pakistan Repertoire. Still memorable as the front-man of music outfit, ESharp, he is eager to talk about Sony Music’s plans and how it can, in many ways, transform the industry in a different fashion than Spotify or Bandcamp or Saavn.
Zawar, who is as polite as he was since his Pepsi Battle of the Bands days, spoke with great clarity about the role Sony Music is going to play. Is it another Spotify? No, not at all. So, what is Sony Music going to offer that we don’t already have access to is the big question.
For one thing, as Zawar points out right off the bat, there is a magnitude of difference between a global giant that is Sony Music and another global giant such as Spotify.
“There is a difference between Sony Music and a Spotify or Saavn or Bandcamp. Sony Music is a record label whereas Spotify and others are streaming services,” he begins. “They are what you call Digital Service Providers (DSP) and it’s where the music is published and where you go and listen to it. However, a fundamental difference between DSPs and Sony Music is that the latter is a record label.”
“Sony is not a streaming service,” he continues. “It is a record label that has come to Pakistan to invest in artists. It will make sure that the music that’s being made goes out to all these streaming services.”
With Pakistani artists and songs making a mark on an international level, Sony Music is looking to amplify the impact.
“The larger perspective is to invest in Pakistani music and to take it one step forward – towards a more global audience. Our music has been traveling in the recent past, whether you hear it in Ms. Marvel or Coke Studio 14, with songs like ‘Pasoori’.”
Zawar further explains that it is about making sure that Pakistani musicians are equipped with the right resources. But what are those resources?
It means enabling them in a way that they can produce quality audio and video, strategize how to market the music and making sure it reaches the right destination.
“It is about being noticed on a global, digital landscape that is evolving with Instagram reels and TikTok. It is where all of this new music is mostly being found and the idea is to do so with the right investment. Sony Music is one of the largest record labels in the world with presence in 60 to 70 countries. Most of the platforms through which we consume music and other content are streaming platforms. So, for example, if I am a musician, I make my music and upload it to all these platforms. The platforms are not investing in my music and helping in making sure my music is being heard by everyone.”
This is where Sony Music will step in and achieve those targets and make sure Pakistani music is also on these platforms like Instagram reels or TikTok, which attracts young people who ultimately define pop culture in its present state.
Sony Music is not angling to fight DSPs like Spotify. “We hope there will be opportunities to work together so there is no competition but collaboration. All of the musicians who are doing well on a digital platform like say, a Taha G. are the ones that we will be working with.”
To put your music on Spotify, you first need to produce it while avoiding creating corroded din in the name of music. It immediately makes a listener change the song and not impacts them because a listener may not give much credence to them as a consequence in the future. This is just one problem. Another is not trusting a giant label due to past experience with another label. But a composed Zawar, who has done his due diligence, has faith even as he can identify these issues.
“A lot of these young and independent artists struggle with resources and investment to come up with music on a consistent basis,” he says, “That is one problem we want to tackle, which is to enable them to carry on making music and do what they do best. Our job is to take that music to a larger scale and to a larger audience.”
A common parlance in global music and one that might feel new to Pakistan is that of an A&R (Artists and Repertoire) who is responsible for scouting talent.
“I am the person who has the ability to pick up the right artist or an artist who is promising but lacks resources. Signing them to make sure their music comes out in the best audio quality and visual aesthetic and strategize and releasing their music accordingly is one part.
“We have such a huge pool of artists so my job is tough. But while I can’t pick every artist (I would love to do that, though), it is about recognizing the potential in an artist, someone who can create music in consistent fashion. To that end, we have already signed Taha G. and we’re in conversation with other artists as well.”
Ahmed Zawar is clear that Sony Music has nothing to do with how each of these profile streaming services operate and their business model. Like Spotify or YouTube that is also operating officially in Pakistan.
“It’s great to see how these streaming services are officially operating in Pakistan and it will help our music. Each has their own subscription or non-subscription business model and premium offers. But as far as Sony Music goes, any artist that is signed to Sony Music will be playing across all of these platforms. To be honest, it is no longer just YouTube or Spotify through which music is being consumed anymore. Short video platforms like Instagram reels and TikTok also matter because so many of the songs that were decades old have managed to make a comeback. Instagram reels and TikTok is where a lot of your young audience is discovering this music, on their cellphones.”
What can an artist signed to Sony Music not do? There has to be something.
“What it does mean is that an artist cannot sign up with another record label for the period with which they’ve made the deal. Pakistan doesn’t have a lot of record labels.
The ones that exist are mostly created by artists. Sony Music is the first major record label to enter Pakistan.
“We are willing to paying the artist to make their music,” Zawar clarifies, “and their videos and to take them onboard. When this music is earning money on all sorts of streaming services, the artist will have a share in that.
“In a lot of countries, what record labels do is that they go for buy-outs. They pay an artist and have the songs through which they earn and give nothing back to the artist in the aftermath. But we’re not following that model of business. What we, at Sony Music, will be following a revenue-sharing model and it’s an artist friendly structure.
“I am working on strategies on how this will pan out in the coming months. So far, all the artists we’ve spoken to have responded in a positive manner. Everything will be transparent. The perception is a record label will rip-off everyone, but luckily that’s not the case.
We put the artist first. Artists are so cash-strapped. We want to make a lot of things possible for them as far as production is concerned, having that signing bonus, and also share revenue that is generated.”
There is no science to signing an artist either. It is an intuitive process and transparent process. And this is also where Ahmed Zawar’s own experience as an artist (who has released three records with his band, which is currently on a sabbatical) is a bonus.
“I’d rather go with my intuition and with an artist who can make more than one good song,” Zawar says as a Sony rep and someone who is an experienced artist as well. “You have to know what kind of pop culture and art is being consumed by the youth and what they listen to and care about.”
Another aspect that shouldn’t and won’t be overlooked is each artist’s vision, what they’re thinking, how they see their own music, how many songs they hope to release within a given span of time and those discussion will be considered.
“Artists will have complete control or artistic liberty. Sony Music will not tell them what to make. We want to sign an artist because we believe in them 100 percent. We believe in their artistic ability. To understand the psyche of the artist is very important to Sony Music.”
The larger goal, perhaps, is to make Pakistani music so identifiable that it can work in more than one or two markets.
“It is also about building such a strong network that it can create jobs and give emerging artists a chance to play in the same field as the rest of their counterparts and to motivate others. It is a hopeful time for music,” says Zawar.
This, perhaps, is the reason behind signing Taha G. as its first artist. His music is exciting, it appeals to the youth and he, too, is a young artist. A lot of his music hasn’t been heard by listeners and by getting onboard with Sony Music, he will be able to do so.
“It’s just the starting point, to bring original, organic, indie, creative young talent of Pakistani music and to make it possible to take it to the world.”
As someone who has dabbled in music significantly and is technically on a sabbatical, Zawar notes that Sony Music’s vision and intention is in the right place.
“Let’s go beyond the glitz and glamour and sky is the limit for the betterment of Pakistani music.”
It is about being noticed on a global, digital landscape that is evolving with Instagram reels and TikTok. It is where all of this new music is mostly being found and the idea is to do so with the right investment. Sony Music is one of the largest record labels in the world with presence in 60 to 70 countries. Most of the platforms through which we consume music and other content are streaming platforms. So, for example, if I am a musician, I make my music and upload it to all these platforms.