Instep Today

The fluctuating landscape of music during coronavirus

Instep Today
By Maheen Sabeeh
Sun, 04, 20

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” – Leo Tolstoy

The worst kept secret in Pakistan is that even as the music industry, like the rest of the country, lays in wait for coronavirus (COVID-19) to subside, it is also the more vulnerable form of performing arts. A documentary called Indus Blues teaches us that entire generations of folk musicians, languages and instruments are already on their last leg.

The number of confirmed cases in Pakistan has crossed 3000 and though some have recovered, we have seen over 50 deaths till now. And let’s assume this is a conservative number.

During such an inexplicable time that hasn’t been seen in generations, with the most developed nations struggling as well and no vaccine in sight, we do have plenty of conspiracy theories abound.

Beyond that, one of the worst hit industries in entertainment is the near-haywire music industry that was almost coming back to its feet.

Music videos, albums, EPs, singles, corporate shows, indie music festivals – everything in every genre was being created and released. Concert culture, aka ticketed music gigs was well on its way, teaching people to respect music by standing in lines or buying tickets only. Buying tickets online via apps was gaining traction too. The counterculture movement had led to the birth of Karachi Community Radio (KCR) as well as A for Aleph, the state of the art studio that recorded Takatak’s debut album, Acrophase with plans to do a lot more.

As a people, we had begun to embrace digital consumption over physical CDs and cassettes, soon to become relics of the past.

Karachi-based Salt Arts has had approximately more than 90 shows since inception and added the flair of narrative and aesthetics to their shows, teaching others along the way to do the same. Music festivals were expanding with Lahooti Melo and Lahore Music Meet closing their fifth edition(s) respectively with swag earlier in 2020; the first edition of Koblumpi Music Festival started last year, each fest with its own narrative. The latter was scheduled to hold its Karachi chapter after its Islamabad chapter but had to be postponed. Salt Arts, too, has postponed shows; geographical boundaries in lockdown are a reminder that the world is not a global village, not anymore.

The whole country is presently under the grip of the infectious virus. But amidst all this, where does the music industry stand. As the lockdown still continues, Instep reached out to a slew of artists on how they were coping with the times. Even as artists have hosted concerts and conversations via Facebook and Instagram (IG) live to keep the public engaged and out of falling into certain anxiety and depression, Instep digs deeper to find out what industry insiders are thinking and what they think will be the larger ramifications.

The times they are a-changin’

It isn’t a secret that for most bands, concerts are bread and butter. For several artists, playing sessions pays the bills. For others, playing regular shows is how they survive. It includes solo artists, bands, musicians, creative managers, etc.

Shamoon Ismail, who is currently one of music’s breakthrough stars, told Instep that during this eerie period, he has lost close to 5-6 (live) shows and approximately more than 1 million rupees. That is not a small amount.

Speaking to Instep on the matter, producer, composer, singer-songwriter and Sounds of Kolachi leader, Ahsan Bari noted that people who are session players have been hit harder than producers. “Corona has affected everything. Nobody was expecting this. No one had an inkling that something like COVID-19 was in the offing,” said Ahsan, echoing the voice of several artists, before adding, “When producers such as myself, who are somewhat working, are stressed, I am sure session musicians have it way worse. It is too early to say anything about how to deal with it and we’re looking for ways out.”

On a cautiously optimistic note, added Ahsan further, “InshaAllah, we will come out of it. The artist fraternity needs to come together; I’ve been saying it for a while now. United Music Association of Pakistan has a WhatsApp group in which these conversations continue to take place. We have moved forward and what needs to be considered is where it will go next and we need to find a serious way out.”

Ahsan Bari further reiterated, “We have hope but to live in denial is not a good thing either. We don’t see concerts happening. I don’t think we will see actual concerts this year at all. Perhaps towards the last quarter – if things improve – but it will not be easy, not until we don’t go through the process of vaccination and so on.”

As Ahsan concluded, he noted that the question that needs to be asked is how are musicians going to survive this? “Every big producer, the big names in the industry, they need to raise this question and not just raise it but also find ways about how we move forward as an industry but coronavirus has destroyed the music scene.”

Lahore-based music producer Jamal Rehman, who is changing tracks and is moving towards films, echoed some of what Ahsan pointed out. “I spoke to some people a week ago and this question was raised about financial losses. Generally, musicians who rely on concerts and session work will be hit the hardest,” said Jamal. “They don’t really earn that much per show. It also depends on the season and frequency of shows and they earn according to that. So, obviously not having that is a big problem for them. Having said that, it’s roughly a month and a half worth of shows because now summer is coming up and summer doesn’t have as many shows. It’s a lean period anyway.”

Jamal also pointed out that the halting of big music shows like Coke Studio or Pepsi Battle of the Bands will also make an impact. “Recordings of bigger shows like PBOTB and Coke Studio and so on – I believe those have been put on hold as well – will definitely put some people’s payments on hold and stopped. I know some people working on the show and their payments are currently on hold.”

Music producers, noted Jamal Rahman, are comparitively in a better place financially, at least for now.

“As producers go, they tend to earn a decent amount, depending again on how often they are working but their work is also on hold because of the general ad industry slowing down with most people working on PSAs (Public Service Announcements). Any projects I was in talks for, after working with Harsakhiyan for Generation, has been put on hold. I’m currently living off my savings and trying to get by in this period without spending too much; I have some post-production work so I am working on that – from home.”

Jamal reiterated, “I think a lot of people are doing the same thing, staying home and trying to conserve their finances.”

Rapper and songwriter Osama Com Laude (OCL), based in Rawalpindi, is in the midst of releasing his most solid EP, paKING. He reiterated, “Pakistan, I hope, will be out of it sooner than later. With me, right when things were getting ready to take off again, with the craziness of ‘Pindi Aye’ and everything I had planned with my EP (paKING), I think I lost out on about four shows in the month of March and a TVC as well.

“Shows are being postponed for now is what they are saying and the TVC got cancelled as well so definitely it has been a financial hit. Music was not my plan for 2019 and I had just come back to it. I would also say I lost out on a lot of traction as well because the virus has taken over social media and our lives in general.”

Osama continued, “However, I do think as people are home with not much to do, there’s a huge boom in traffic and audience. Things were being negotiated and when you have a huge viral hit under your belt, there is freedom to negotiate so, I would say, a few six figure deals have been lost out financially because of the outbreak of coronavirus.”

Sherry Khattak, guitar savant and singer-songwriter for independent music group, Karakoram, told Instep, “I feel everyone is affected by coronavirus; it’s paradoxically affected musicians in a good way and bad way.”

Sherry explained, “Every musician is in their zone, polishing their skills. It’s one thing happening right now. A lot of content is coming out and that’s something good. It’s the positive to take from it. But, musicians have been hit the hardest because if there is no fix that emerges soon, whatever solution including a vaccine comes out, people will be reticent for a long time after this. So, in terms of concerts, the attendance will be low and it will take a long time for us to reach a point where people start coming to shows again. I hope we don’t come to that point; I hope concert culture starts as soon as it becomes safe but right now the way we see the situation, it’s looking bad; it’s not looking easy for a musician who earns through sessions or concerts. I feel this is a change we should accept and find means to earn through online portals. I think we have to figure out a way to get the support of other musicians and do something on those lines. I’m just putting it out there.”

As the world looks toward creating a vaccine, noted Jamal Rahman, “What is really great is that a lot of musicians are using their time productively to host videos and do live concerts on IG and FB live. They are very heartwarming and it’s good to see that our artists are contributing to raising morale and keeping people entertained during this difficult time. I can’t give you any figures; I think that is something generally people would not really want to discuss, but I do know everyone’s bread and butter is on standstill so it’s a difficult time for everyone.”