“You thought you’d found a friend/To take you out of this place/Someone you could lend a hand/In return for grace/It’s a beautiful day.” – ‘Beautiful Day’ by U2
To imagine that Pakistan has only a handful of record labels, at the moment, would be like saying, we can only find just a few flavors of ice cream (or pick any metaphor).
Currently there are more record labels than we can count and everything seems to begin from a digital standpoint.
Many are the brainchild of artists and feature a very carefully curated catalogue of musicians, popular, and becoming increasingly popular. Others offer music that might not fit the style of music being offered by a more popular label. In other words, the emergence of newer record labels might not be propionate to the number of artists who continue to surface and may be releasing new music. To a degree, this is because listeners or artists might not be as informed by the rules that have defined the music ecosystem in the past.
But, if we take into account what the last couple of years have taught us, it is the simple fact that some have a larger presence than others.
The reasons, like everything else, almost always vary but what is common to them are certain key factors. Some offer a catalogue of music that is not cluttered but also has room for those who may get lost on an audio streaming platform like Spotify. Some cannot afford to make a visually striking music video and need a label to offer certain promotional efforts.
Others have name recognition. Some are even experimenting by releasing their own music before becoming a one-stop platform for other much younger names.
Like I said, there are many, many reasons.
The primary reason that does appeal to an artist and makes these labels successful and popular than is that not every artist wants to make music and go about promoting themselves. Art-ists, by and large, want a responsible, reasonable and trustworthy record label to do everything else, so they can focus on the music. It is also true that not every single artist has a clear understanding of what makes a label worthwhile.
In order to make a record label work, the people involved
need to have a better understanding and know what the rights of an artist they sign are, what constitutes terms such as music publishing, licensing and what kind of profit margin is shared by an artist and its respective label.
But perhaps the biggest reason is that some of the more popular labels do not have the reputation of taking an artist for a full ride, all under the guise of promotion. Yep, it has happened at home, the region, as well as with some of our favorite artists from the wild world of the west.
“Yes, I’m changing, can’t stop it now/And even if I wanted I wouldn’t know how/Another version of myself I think I found, at last/And I can’t always hide away/Curse indulgence and despise the fame/There is a world out there and it’s calling my name.”
If we keep this in mind, some record labels do matter a great deal more than others. When illegal music producing factories were shut down by the FIA in the mid to late 2000s, it created some room. Intellectual Property Organization of Pakistan (IPO-Pakistan) was formed. Illegal factories producing CDs and DVDs which could be exported and were involved in the piracy business, were shut down and that too at a time when music was looking at a boom with the emergence of music channels.
An official record label like EMI Pakistan made its name, although seemed a bit lackluster.
Newer and prominent record labels also entered the game. But they created a monopoly, in terms of distribution, and the number of popular artists they had signed.
The biggest creator of record labels is the digital boom to a point where you can find and listen to any song to your heart’s content.
Gone baby gone
Gone are the days when the music scene was a reflection of the past era unless you’re swimming in nostalgia. The very music channels that had played a part in creating a whole generation of artists, were calling it quit. Game, set, match.
For audio purposes, musicians – irrespective of what was happening to music channels - had to rely on one or two record labels, leading to a monopolistic scenario with artists stuck at the behest of when a label would release their music. New music means tours, and tours mean money that could allow an artist to make real money, money that they could live on. We must never forget how the late Pathanay Khan died – as a pauper.
“We are the champions, my friends/And we’ll keep on fighting till the end/We are the champions/We are the champions/No time for losers/’ Cause we are the champions of the World.” – ‘We Are the Champions’ – Queen
In today’s business model, music has an intrinsic attachment to technology and in that sense some record labels matter, either in a very mainstream sense by catering to popular acts, or, as those who may not be offering what is most popular but what counts as counterculture.
The digitization of music has created many changes.
The way listeners consume music has changed. This conversion is not a small one. It too, played a significant role where any artist from one big, bad record label, as time passed, was not bound by an unreasonable contract.
Because, the shutdown of illegal music factories made a significant impact. Technology played an even bigger one.
Artists didn’t need physical distribution in the form of cassettes and CDs anymore by a huge margin. Physical distribution does have a market, though. Think of trucks and the truckers who spend late nights driving, making pit stops before going from one city to another and it does matter.
But, do they have phones, and internet carriers? If they do, they too are stakeholders in terms of consumption. However, the standard has obviously changed and the sales of music in such fashion is increasingly becoming an outdated idea.
Phones, for instance, do not have to be an iPhone or an Android that might be in vogue. A bevy of cheaper phones offer platforms that feature music. Should the music offered through the internet on these services be catering to truck music? Yes, and some already do while others labels are looking at that market.
However, music across the country by and large, is not being heard on CDs or cassettes. Why? Well, think YouTube, Apple Music, Saavn, Spotify or even your internet carrier offering some sort of music. But there is an obvious difference, still.
Now, you can pay a premium amount, and have access to millions of songs and either buy music online for a reasonable amount and have access to it, even when you’re not online. You can just download it to the respective app or depending on the service you’re using, to your personal computer. From Spotify to many other audio streaming sites, each with its own model, like bandcamp, Sound Cloud and a few others have made way for a multitude of labels, services, platforms.
Those who don’t wish to pay a cent can simply go online and listen to music but they will have to deal with advertisements that will greet them after one, or two, or three songs or more. Those who pay a premium price or buy music don’t have to deal with advertisements. Your phone, car, your computer, your television sets need not be as expensive or fall in the bracket of a brand to fulfill your musical needs. They will still offer you something musical.
The number of record labels currently operating in the country, therefore, cannot be restricted to a handful. What we do know is that the system is becoming more transparent as more record labels that are cropping up, and those in existence, continue to opt to operate with some degree of knowledge about how a label is operated and apply it.
It can even be said that the cassette-buying model may be classified as a merchandising one and the rule doesn’t apply to every artist. Physical is not the biggest piece of the pie, it is digital. Older record labels, pre-tech boom still sell cassettes. But people in Pakistan across all stratas of society now listen to whatever genre that appeals to them to a greater degree in digital mode. Do we have more research on truck music? No, not yet, but some are willing to cater to them as well by learning more about it.
Digital format or labels also require distinction.
For example, Spotify and Apple Music and similar platforms are digital platforms. Bandcamp allows you the chance to go online and listen to music for free or pay the artist, and in a variety of cases, even buy the music in the form of a vinyl, or cassette.
The entrance of Sony Music Middle East in Pakistan, for example, differs from other digital record labels. They are the example of what a record label represented before technology allowed for a massive shift.
It doesn’t just mean selling their music in a digital manner. They invest in an artist which means an investment with respect to the creation of content. This means they can also form partnerships with other labels or streaming sites. The profit margin is also different. Signing an artist can vary depending on how well-established they are. Signing an unknown talent and investing in them means giving them everything they need to produce music. But this partnership and what comes to fruition from it, therefore, is not the same as an indie label.
To not give Coke Studio some credit here would be a folly. They were not the first major or minor record label. But at a time when there was no official entrance of digital streaming platforms such as the audio giant, Spotify, we had Coke Studio. In its initial seasons, we got a visual through YouTube and Coke Studio’s own site, where – in addition to watching the video synced with YouTube – a listener could, for the first time, download the most mainstream music being made in the country from its website – for free.
Similarly, the independent record label, Mooshy Moo, offered a record from, say a band like Mole, for free. Both fall in the same decade.
The dependence is now on digital instead of a cassette unless that is your primary audience.
In the end – as we, in my humble opinion – struggle, and give you the names of those record labels, digital platforms that offer the most interesting, mainstream as well as counterculture catalogue of music (in next week’s issue), remember that while there is no hard and fast rule that governs each and every record label, ultimately good music often has a way of finding listeners from nearly every income bracket, whether it is mainstream or belongs to the counterculture movement.
In today’s business model, music has an intrinsic attachment to technology, and in that sense some record labels matter, either in a very mainstream sense by catering to popular acts, or, as those offering what counts as counterculture.