Qudsia is trying to live above and beyond several clichés in her life, including this one: ‘the only thing constant is change’. So far life has had the last laugh, so she has chosen to just laugh along. By education, she is a psychologist and a social scientist. By experience, she has worked as a broadcast journalist, a development professional and a writer/researcher. The one thing that she keeps coming back to, are words. She loves the art of writing, loves to read and often silently edits text as she reads. Her dreams for the future include building a life around words, storytelling and the existential questions she loves indulging in.
The B Side: Seeping through the Cracks
Music has been among the most welcoming media of the digital age. Even when vinyl record sales seem to be on the rise, research suggests that we may owe this spike to passionate nostalgia, rather than a celebration of musical albums. Nevertheless, a dichotomy between the past and present is easy to acknowledge in a flourishing industry where the boundaries are well established.
But how does it translate onto an industry that struggles with defining itself? Papercuts editor Qudsia A. Rana probes this question and more in a conversation with Ahmer Naqvi, avid culture and sports author and Content Director at Patari – a rapidly growing digital platform for streaming and discovering Pakistani music. We talk about how the musical album has flourished and waned over time and what it means for the future of music sharing in Pakistan.
Qudsia Rana (QR): Let’s start off at the top. There aren’t many contemporary musicians on the Pakistani scene making albums anymore, why do you think that is?
Ahmer Naqvi (AN): Albums have always been a fraught concept in this region if you trace the history of ‘pop music’ – by that, I am referring largely, if not exclusively, to what our urban masses listen to. Any band that released more than one album was usually a ‘hall of famer’. There’s Junoon, Vital Signs and Strings – all have multiple albums and almost nobody else does.
Many bands would release successful singles, but then fall apart. Aaroh broke up after their first album was released. Noori is one among the few that has several albums and is still releasing them. By and large, launching more than one album was a big feat and maybe still is.
That just tells you how Pakistani music has operated. It has come to represent these momentary instances of popularity, where the artists make money because they are already famous, not necessarily because of their music. Album sales have become a precursor to acquiring concert invitations to perform at concerts – which is where the money is made. In that sense, albums serve as a means to keep you relevant and show that you are still a part of the current scene.
Today, if a musician wants to connect with his fan base, especially as a new artist, he needs to know of several mediums through which he can reach out to his audience. The album on its own is not enough. Let me give you an example of two albums that came out last year. Both did pretty well on Patari. One is Uzair Jaswal’s ‘Na Bhulana’ – he essentially gathered all the singles he had released over the last 7, 8 years and put them together with a few new songs. Most of them are repeats. Then there is Mooroo’s album ‘Pehli’. Mooroo also had some songs released over the past few years but he released an album of all new tracks. It is a pretty powerful album because these songs, in my opinion, are a level above the singles he had been putting out. His singles were mostly fun and entertaining love songs, but with his album he went in several different directions: musically, conceptually and as a vocalist. It is more mature and deals with weightier issues. It almost seems like he made it in defiance of what the functional purpose of an album is these days, which is to secure more gigs and sponsorships rather than making a strong musical statement.
QR: This begs a glance down memory lane – in the context of old pop hits like Hum Tum by Vital Signs or Junoon’s Talash – how do you think those albums compare to what Mooroo did with his? The way I see it, maybe Mooroo has released his album as a work of art and Uzair released it as a purely commercial piece of work. It begs the question, do you think music has become a means to an end and/or succumbed to commercialism? Have the mediums also changed in that sense?
AN: Yes certainly. Obviously things never happen in a vacuum. You can go back as far as Alamgir, with his Elvis-inspired sound, or Nazia and Zoheb Hassan, with their distinctive 80s disco-pop music, they were responding (and adapting) to the cultural environment that existed at the time. Talaash and Junoon’s first album were both responses to the era they were released in. Junoon brought in their own bold, politically vocal and later, sufi-rock sound, something markedly different from the Vital Signs music – which is what Salman Ahmed was pushing for after he pulled out from Vital Signs. Vital Signs went for a more pop-friendly, occasionally brooding sound during their initial years, which was where they drew their inspiration. But Hum Tum was them responding to certain artistic burdens they faced at that point – the demands for hits and need to make money. More than art, it was about their struggles as a band.
Mooroo’s album is reacting primarily to his own life experiences. So if albums are conversations, his work shows us what he was conversing with. Ultimately, as an artist I think a lot of it is about having something to express and then giving it your own distinct voice. That is where you start. Once you get past that then you have to figure out what you want to do with it – pursue fame, virality or an indie band status.
In Pakistan, the options are limited. There are just a lot of gaps to fill so most artists will not have it very straight forward. What could they do? Get featured in Coke Studio or sing for a movie perhaps – that is also a fairly recent and limited opportunity given our nascent film industry.
QR: Where do you think Patari’s Tabeer stands in this sea of avenues?
AN: Tabeer is certainly a place to start. But while these new artists get to venture into the mainstream music world, you have to realize, this is not something ‘jis se rozee roti poori ho jayegi’. Abid Brohi for instance became a viral sensation right after the release of the Sibbi Song. He was called on several morning shows, news channels and entertainment programs. But that is not putting any money in the pockets is it? Maybe he will eventually do a brand activation or two, but it’s all on a relatively small scale.
Artists today have plenty of space to experiment with different things, so it makes things less straight forward than just putting your music out there. Virality is certainly something that a lot of artists cash in on. Social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat helps them accomplish that. There are also various styles of storytelling to try out, like what E-sharp did. Their recent release, Bahadur Yaar Jung, takes us on a journey of a conflicted young musician in Pakistan, who goes against his parents’ wishes. His story is spread across 21 tracks in the album. This new space for innovation has brought diversity into music like never before.
It also has to do with the fact that music is now so readily available on the cloud. Previously, you just had a certain amount of information that would fit on an LP. As an artist you understood this as an unavoidable limitation and worked within its boundaries – you just had one chance to put what you created on that tape in the best possible way. Contrast this with what Kanye West did with his most recent album. Since it is streamed online, he kept changing it up till the last minute even after its release. There is no definitive product.
QR: So how does that affect the pressure on musicians?
AN: In creativity, limitations are often inspiring. Without the presence (of these limitations), you need to be very sure of what you want to do. For instance, today you can opt out of releasing an album if you don’t want to. You can just launch a single on Patari or Soundcloud. Or you could release a music video on YouTube and that alone would be enough to propel you to fame. But I think Music has now fallen prey to the ‘disintegration of Monoculture’. This is especially true for the Pakistani music industry because there is no definite mainstream. It is a relatively small space run by a few passionate people so you run into problems with sustainability. There is Coke Studio, but that is merely one platform. The challenge, if you want to stay in music alone, is to think over all the things you are willing to try. Yes, the picture may not be as bleak as it seems, but music is certainly not as culturally relevant as it used to be.
QR: Speaking of cultural relevance, how do you contextualize this in terms of the digitization of music? What we hear from the West for instance, has a bigger element of digital, less organic sound. There are more metronomes, more synthesized vocals and more use of electronic instruments. How does that contrast with Indo-Pakistani music? Are we moving towards the same as well, or do you see a movement towards more retro-style, regional/ organic influences?
AN: I think the impact of digital cannot be underestimated today, no matter where you are in the world. Today, even if you are not synthesizing a digital sound, you are still using a computer to create a decent quality demo. Almost every aspect of production can be managed from a single laptop, other than sound mixing and mastering maybe. This opens up the field wide open for aspiring musicians. It democratizes opportunities and that is why you are able to see people like the Lyari Underground boys. They not only taught themselves to make their own music, but also created a space for their genre in doing so. Otherwise, they would have had to approach a studio or record company and who knows if those companies would have given them a chance.
I think it has also made the boundaries between different genres more fluid. You will witness a lot more incorporation of regional sounds in Pakistani music today. The inclusion of a rubab for instance, is a great way of breaking the conventional use of guitars for the stringed sound into the song. Previously there were some unsaid rules you had to follow. As a rock band for example, you could only use certain instruments and generate a specific sound. Those rules are much more malleable now. This has also meant that ‘fusion music’ is less of a novelty. As for adding digitally synthesized sounds to songs, there are bands and individual musicians who do that but it exists on a sub-culture level in Pakistan. A good barometer would be to compare this segment of our industry to India’s. We usually don’t have many of those desi club hits that Bollywood actively churns out – songs like Kala Chashma – the extremely popular tracks that you listen to constantly for one summer and then forget about.
QR: Do you think, the ‘lifetime’ of a song has decreased, if you compare our music today, to that of the 80s or 90s? And does that have an effect on how an era will remember it? For instance, Junaid Jamshed’s songs trigger a certain memory of happier times, positivity, patriotism, and maybe picturesque landscapes for many of us. Do you think millennials will also do the same 30 years from now? That is, look back at the music today and lament on how good it was? Or will it be a long faded memory by then?
AN: Nostalgia is popular because it sells. That is perhaps why you see the 70s style music making a comeback, or vinyl records becoming popular. It is also the reason why bands like Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd or Guns‘n’Roses still get audiences to their concerts without having released any (good) new music for decades.
With respect to pop culture today, if someone were to look back at the music, they will be considering soundtracks of films and TV dramas more than just stand alone songs or musicians. So Drama OSTs for ‘Humsafar’, ‘Diyar-e-Dil’, and ‘Mann Mayal’, and film OSTs such as ‘Bol’ or ‘Actor in Law’ – I think those would leave a more lasting impact. Because music builds an identity through the connections it can make. So if it has been associated with a film or drama, it stands the chance of being remembered better. You also need to remember that the millennial will be thinking of Facebook, Vine Videos and Memes.
QR: So you think the means of defining an identity have shifted away from music?
AN: Yeah, definitely. But that said, I think music does resist having a set ‘shelf life’. From what we have seen on Patari, the songs that catch on, people keep coming back for them. It is also about having a bigger pie and having many more slices to choose from. Twenty years ago, if you had 10 bands, you would know everything about them. Now you may have over a 100 bands and solo artists, so it just becomes that much harder to track. If you look back to the time when you and I were teenagers, you will feel that maybe we had 3 or 4 things to obsess about. But now there is so much more.
Let me give you a very interesting example. I recently attended an Ali Azmat concert where they played all the old Junoon songs. What was interesting was that the audience was primarily all young kids, like 20 years or younger, but quite a few of them knew the songs. Then there was this one song that everyone was singing along and I had no idea about it. Apparently it was a song that he had sung for a Bollywood movie. So music may still be an identity for the millennial, but the medium through which it is derived has changed.
You also need to take into account that music is deeply related to religious identity in South Asia. Yes, there are the factions that say music is against Islam but contextually, it is very difficult to separate the two things. It has always been.
QR: Maybe because it taps into the contradiction itself?
AN: Yes, and it also has to do with oral tradition. Many self-taught musicians learn the lyrics through rote. Like Abid Brohi and the Jahangir (of Patari Tabeer) have never learned how to read or write properly but they know the words of their songs effortlessly. Our culture has benefitted from the oral transmission of folklore for a long time and that is where music gets an advantage over other art forms. It is a very visceral art form. You don’t need to know the semantics to be able to understand it, or know the instruments used in creating a piece to be able to enjoy it. That is just what it does – invokes certain memories in your mind, takes you back in time, connects you to spirituality. It is a game of powerful associations. Even when the music we produce here may not seem to be wearing a ‘green passport’, it is still pretty central to a Pakistani’s experience.
QR: How does Coke Studio fit into this whole discussion?
AN: I think that the discussion around Coke Studio has evolved over time and so where we are right now is that with the show in its tenth season this year, it has become the only marker of mainstream recognition in music. For example, the rappers from Lyari Underground we worked with for Tabeer told me they hoped to get a chance in Coke Studio – so the show seems to have become the pedestal for ‘having made it’. But there is very little chance for unknown acts to make it on the show, because particularly over the last few years it has stuck to the really famous names and isn’t looking to showcase new talent. Paradoxically, it is the only real status for a new artist to aspire to, despite the low chance of being featured on it. So that tells us more about the state of the industry than the show itself, in the sense that there are very few avenues for musicians.
Coke Studio has distinguished itself though in being the only corporate brand to have really struck gold with what every other brand has also tried – use music to serve as a successful vehicle for product sales and brand value. This is important to note because there have been many failures in the sense that the music has failed to make an impact. The one exception would probably be Nescafe Basement, and it is similar to Coke Studio in that it started off with a lot of freedom for the music producers.
QR: Do you think online streaming has a future for music?
AN: Yes, as part of an online streaming platform, I can say that it may just be the future of most mainstream, if not all, music. There is a lot of potential. Though as it goes with the music industry in the country, I believe the noise will need more effort to be broken into. At one end, there are fewer media choices, and to be able to break into those you need money. If you agree to receive the money from a certain body, then unfortunately, you run the risk of having them make the creative choices for you. The steadier infrastructure in India definitely makes a difference. But there is potential for Pakistani musicians too, you just need a more creative lens to approach it.