Let us be clear from the start. There has always been a gap between mainstream music and underground/independent music. It is in fact supposed to be this way since underground is the antithesis of the mainstream, which was at one point the representation of populist names and attitudes.
It existed in the 1990s with acts like Co-VEN, Ganda Banda and the 3D Cats and several others. It exists now where artists including Ali Suhail, Tolcrane and Slowspin have a plethora of released records while many mainstream names are coming around the same idea, again.
Pakistan’s independent music industry - burgeoning in 2000s – never relied on mainstream labels. But artists continued to release albums. From the net label Mooshy Moo to the birth and growth of Forever South and Del/Ser, the EPs and LPs continued to drop. But these artists never courted the mainstream market nor were they particularly catering to Pakistani tastes. Foreign publications like Pitchfork, The Caravan, The Quietus and The Guardian covered them. Several of these artists went to Red Bull Music Academy; other pursued degrees in various facets of the arts and used it to polish their polymath skills along the way.
But mainstream music is a different story.
The 2000s was a great time for music. Older acts like Junoon were winding up and Vital Signs had already drifted apart but a change in guard was near. With music channels propping up, acts like Noori, EP, a solo Ali Azmat, Atif Aslam, Ali Zafar, Strings (back with Duur), Mekaal Hasan Band and many more found a generation of loyal fans. They would go on to entertain and provide solace with their music and performances for years to come.
But as we entered the end of the decade, monopoly in record labels led to the delay in release of records by many artists. Among them were names like Mauj and Kaavish; the anomalous act of the era, Zeb and Haniya arrived with the indie-rock gem album, Chup, but had no idea how to promote it. The 2008 Mumbai attacks made matters worse for performing musicians who could no longer perform in India with its huge market and audience.
The success of Coke Studio - founded by Rohail Hyatt and former spouse Umber Hyatt - particularly in its early years, provided massive marketing as well as money to artists to perform music on a platform that would be aired on dozens of channels with music available for free downloading. The death of music channels and all and lessened record labels still standing didn’t matter to Coke Studio.
The TV series, particularly in the early years, gave mainstream musicians a platform. However, the format didn’t have room for an album. And poof! The LP format died.
The unprecedented success of Coke Studio led to some morphed form of mimicry as corporates jumped on the music bandwagon. Pepsi Smash, Cornetto Music Icons, Uth Records arrived but all were short-lived. It also led to the birth of Nescafe Basement that finally found a huge audience in its fifth season. Pepsi Battle of the Bands – that emerged in 2000s with just one season – made a comeback as well in 2017 with changes made to the jury nearly every season in the last three years.
Where Coke Studio gave people a chance to gain national fame in the absence of music channels, Coke Studio became the goal.
No one understands this better than Omran Shafique, who spent nearly a decade as part of Coke Studio’s house band guitar player as well as featured artist twice; once as Mauj and later with Chand Tara Orchestra. He’s also been the guitarist with Ali Azmat post-Social Circus.
“The impact that Coke Studio had was (obviously) tremendous but its influence, its reach has subsided a little bit. It’s not that new hot thing it was and there was a point in time when everyone just wanted to be on Coke Studio to prove themselves may be but it has changed.
People have now realized that just getting on Coke Studio will not do anything unless you get really lucky. The age-old saying - make your own music - still holds true.”
“The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin – they all played cover songs. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with cover songs. But what that does is that it informs how you do your original music. It’s a numbers game. You write 100 songs and you’re bound to have three or four songs that will make it huge. And that was the same formula that Coke Studio used. They released nearly 30 songs in a year and they’re happy if one or two songs took off; it achieved the purpose.”
The birth of Patari contributed significantly as did options such as Bandcamp, SoundCloud and YouTube, where musicians could upload their music. Music festivals/symposium like Lahore Music Meet became a game-changer for the indie music scene where acts like Takatak and Sikandar Ka Mandar could be the headlining act.
EPs that did make a mark include Fanoos by Zohaib Kazi and the award-winning Wajd (Volume I) by Hadiqa Kiani. Albums from Ahmed Jahanzeb, Abbas Ali Khan and Fuzon released as well.
Earning money in Pakistan for musicians has always come through live shows and in some cases, endorsements. But for every EP or album that was released, more and more artists focused on releasing singles with or without music videos.
In the end though, as the novelty of Coke Studio – entering its 13th season this year – wore off, somewhere along the line, the record finally turned around and came back.
The last two years have seen records, in the form of EP or an LP, from scores of acts including Chand Tara Orchestra (LP), Strings (LP), Mughal-e-Funk (EP), Adil Omar (LP), Danyal Zafar (LP) Osama Com Laude (EP), Shamoon Ismail (EP) to many older acts announcing fresh EPs in the pipeline; Ali Hamza, Ali Noor, Sajid and Zeeshan, Meesha Shafi and Haniya Aslam to name a few. Mekaal Hasan Band is also moving on to its fourth record. Ahsan Bari has announced a solo EP as well as the second album of Sounds of Kolachi.
The first obvious question is why are LPs and EPs important?
One of Pakistan’s top producers and the leader of Mekaal Hasan Band, Mekaal Hasan – talking to Instep – said that they are indicative of a body of work and is about more than just getting a viral hit.
“Making music is not a trend. LPs and EPs are volume(s) of a body of work and their importance lies in serving as markers of realized or unrealized growth,” said Mekaal Hasan. “Further, music is about feeling, emotion and those are things where the words or the language stops and sound and feelings take over.”
As Hasan noted, even releasing singles is fine as long as it is done frequently.
“Singles and EPs are fine, but essentially as long as you keep putting out work, it’s healthy. Albums are extremely important for mapping and charting artistic growth, and that is why a record making artist is responsible for revealing an important series of stories/experiences in his/her/their record. Thus, records represent a body of work and musical experiences during the last few years or year of that artist’s life. If you’re not a recording artist, you’re essentially saying your writing depth is limited to one-liners and at best a decent first chapter maybe.”
Equally significant is the question: why now?
The number of LPs and EPs that have come out in the last two years include artist as diverse as The Sketches and Talal Qureshi and the EP in particular is now something to look out for. It flushes out the filler tracks and gives you the best an artist has to offer. A case in point is Quaid Ahmed’s upcoming EP that will be without filler tracks.
An LP is however just as important if it’s full of songs that belong on it. A case in point is Abdullah Siddiqui, who is releasing an LP featuring 14 songs less than a year after releasing the full-length Metannoya (2019).
Haniya Aslam (along with Zeb Bangash), in 2008 was an anomaly in modern mainstream music. An all-girl duo? Huh. Since then, Haniya has moved to Canada and learned about various facets of music and come back only to work on Coke Studio before embracing the role of producer and artist with an EP in the works. Zeb Bangash is pursuing a solid solo career with playback singing, Coke Studio and Pepsi Battle of the Band appearance(s) as well as playing with Sandaraa, a Brooklyn-based band.
Back at home an icon to women who have since then entered the field of music, Haniya Aslam, talking to Instep, noted that there are multiple reasons for this shift in increase in albums from 2018 onwards.
“In my opinion, there are multiple factors. One factor is the evolving, morphing music industry internationally,” said Haniya. “It is primarily because of technology. The invention of the mp3, which is a highly compressed music file that can easily be sent across the Internet, changed everything. It broke the old model of the industry in which the record label was the biggest entity and in control of all the money, the artists, performances, everything.”
Haniya reasoned further, “It’s taken about two to two and a half decades for record labels to relinquish their death grip on music. What has happened now is that a lot of artists across the world are taking control of their own careers. They have cut out the middleman so there is no one between them and their listeners. In fact, through PayPal and all, fans can directly fund the work of their favourite artists. That’s one huge thing.”
Locally speaking, Haniya stated, “In Pakistan, Coke Studio absolutely changed everything. It’s been an interesting transitionary tool for Pakistani music. As you said in the mid-2000s we had record labels and channels, which were not necessarily a good thing for those of us who signed up with them. We didn’t make anything from them; they didn’t promote us as artists. When they died out, social media was up and coming at that time. Coke Studio made us understand the extent to which social media can be used to get music to listeners to promote it and spread it.”
However, perhaps Coke Studio in its current iteration is no longer throwing up as much fierceness and freshness as it once did. “Every new idea is obviously exciting, it catches on, and people are interested but everything has a shelf life. Even Friends (the hit sitcom from 1990s) ran for just 10 seasons. You can’t sustain something for so long. It needs to be radically changed and it needs to give way to something new.
“The biggest criticism I’ve been hearing of shows like Coke Studio is that they don’t promote enough new original music and their biggest hits, right from the beginning, have been adaptations, or remakes or covers. The songs that have gone over 100 million views or so are either old qawaalis or folk music, et al. So, I think as creators, as artists, I personally have been feeling the itch.”
On a parting note, said Haniya, “You mentioned Ali Noor, Ali Hamza, Meesha Shafi, myself and MHB – we are working on new material.
I think our generation is entering a new phase in life; I have things to say and I’d like to say them in an innovative way. I’d like to help create some more culture, I’d like to do something new, something fresh and technology allows for the ability to create my own music and upload it myself to my fans giving me an incentive to create a substantial body of work and put it out there.”