Rising above the noise

December 31, 2017

In 2018 the stakes for Pakistani music are high. An overview of the industry as it stands today

Rising above the noise

Each new film, play or song release in Pakistan is accompanied by the hype of its respective industry’s ‘revival’, yet there is still very little by way of original theatre, and it is difficult to come up with a solid list of watchable Pakistani films. The only indisputable revival is that of Pakistan’s drama industry. Certainly, its economic upturn of the past decade is the stuff of dreams, though in content it still remains largely vacuous and antiquated.

The Pakistani music industry, long the bulwark against Pakistan’s artistic decay, also succumbed to the general degradation somewhere around the early 2000s, unable to cope up with Pakistan’s deteriorating security conditions post-9/11 and the ways in which music distribution changed in the age of the MP3. The advent of dozens of new channels in 2002 also made it more and more difficult for Pakistani artists to rise above the noise, resulting in the death of music channels and album releases.

Saavn has been advertising itself on billboards in the country, featuring Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shafqat Amanat Ali and Qurutalain Baloch, three artists straight out of the handbook of what Indians imagine Pakistani music looks like.

In 2009, Coke Studio’s second season brought the spotlight back on Pakistani music. Young students I taught at school (15 to 18-year-olds) played Pakistani music in their iPods, talked about it and generally seemed enthused by it, but the Coke Studio formula also started to wane after a while. It offered little to mid-generation Pakistani music fans, the ones who had seen the industry rise in front of their eyes and felt invested in its well-being and development. Relying on old, time-worn hits as a formula for success seemed stale and backward-looking.

Where was the edginess of an industry that distinguished itself with tongue-in-cheek political commentary (Mr. Fraudiye, Chief Saab, Talaash), rock licks distinct from the Bollywood behemoth next door (Junoon, EP, Noori, Aaroh) and even pop that was refreshingly simple but sophisticated (Vital Signs, Awaz, Abrar, Music Channel Charts).

Apart from its youngest audience, those who wanted and expected more originality from Pakistani music grew either bored or despondent. It almost seemed like that special hat from where Pakistan could seemingly conjure fast bowlers and rock musicians at will had lost its magic. Both bowlers and original musicians need fertile grounds for growth, they need a tradition to get inspired by, and they need the promise of financial prosperity through their art. If medium pace and singing covers can get them into the team, they will have little incentive to play their heart out in risky but spectacular ways. Originality needs to be rewarded for it to flourish, otherwise mediocrity will continue to pass as good enough.

In this ecosystem of Coke Studios and Nescafe Basements then, 2017 was finally a welcome step forward. We cannot ignore the service Coke Studio has rendered simply through reinjecting Pakistani music into the mainstream, but we need to demand an evolution towards original content, something even Coke Studio seems to have acknowledged of late with original songs like Ali Hamza’s ‘Tinak Dhin’ and Ali Zafar’s ‘Julie’.

But if the buck has truly moved forward regarding original content, it’s Patari, a music startup that began just two years ago that has moved it. I personally don’t think Patari is the best Pakistani music app if you are looking for a broad range of Pakistani content. Even till date it has glaring omissions like Nazia & Zoheb, Junoon and Vital Signs, the holy trinity without which Patari’s claim of being the largest music streaming service in Pakistan rings hollow. Its Pakistani counterpart ‘Taazi’ has the Junoon discography and a few more essential Vital Signs songs (though not the complete albums) but Saavn, the Indian-American giant has any Pakistani song you can imagine.

But where Patari leads the pack is in its reimagining of what a music streaming app can be and do. In 2017, it released Patari Tabeer, Patari Fanoos and volume 2 of its Patari Aslis, giving three original albums to the Pakistani scene and a new star in Abid Brohi whose ‘Sibbi Song’ not only garnered great critical commentary but also did what is rare for Pakistani songs, made its way into mehndis next to Bollywood item numbers. That may not be the epitome of artistic achievement but it certainly is the pinnacle of commercial success in Pakistan.

Patari’s indigenous credentials also mean a fresh, cutting-edge take on everything current, its social media and marketing well aware of its target audience. Saavn, on the other hand, with far more money, music and outreach seems archaic in its handling of Pakistani music. A rather comically out-of-touch attempt by Saavn to promote itself in Pakistan of late means it has been advertising itself on billboards in the country, featuring Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shafqat Amanat Ali and Qurutalain Baloch,  three artists straight out of the handbook of what Indians imagine Pakistani music looks like. When it comes to knowing the pulse of its audience and moving Pakistani music into a new direction, Patari is definitely ahead of the app pack.

The last year also saw other nascent attempts at original Pakistani music, the second season of Cornetto Pop Rock had some could-be good songs that were destroyed by over-produced audio and video, aiming for a bubble-like, filtered unreality more reminiscent of Karan Johar than Rohail Hyatt. Another brand out of touch with its core audience. PSA for all such brands:  Pakistani music fans are largely those who seek something outside of Bollywood item numbers and highly sentimentalised ballads. Know your audience.

Which Pepsi Battle of the Bands managed to do. Sadly, this also turned out to be its limitation. With a generation out of touch with this kind of music, Pepsi did not get the same critical mass of viewers as Coke Studio. Despite bringing big names like Meesha Shafi, Atif Aslam and Fawad Khan on board, its marketing seemed lackluster compared to its cola rival. On YouTube its competition format meant it released whole episodes whose ticker count doesn’t look very impressive (compare Badnaam’s Bismillah Karaan’s 222,000 hits to Sahir Ali Bagga’s Baazi’s 11 million views). Coke also went out and did big festivals to promote its stars. Pepsi also fell behind on that count despite having better, more exciting content.

In 2018, the stakes for Pakistani music are high. Ali Noor is back on the saddle with his YouTube vlogs and his own music recording label BIY promoting new artists with original content. True Brew Records that has been around for a long while has also made a cautious re-entry into the foray through its weekly YouTube video releases none of whom have hit the mark quite yet, other than Abdullah Siddiqi’s ‘Fiction’, but one has hopes from it. There is also Shuja Hayder doing the same with Soundscape. Patari intends to release at least 50 new songs in 2018, Pepsi Battle of the Bounds will be back with another season. and Coke Studio is moving in a new direction with Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi which bodes well for more original stuff to come.

Rising above the noise