Record labels have a history of simply not working in Pakistan. Whether in the form of EMI that has operated in the country for years building up one of the largest archives of Pakistani music in the country, or the ones that emerged during the second music industry boom in the first decade of this millennium. And the latter perished due to rampant piracy operating in the country with impunity, coupled with an inadequacy to adapt to the changing face of the medium of music — digital and on the world wide web. A surviving record label in Pakistan seems like a foreign concept inapplicable to this region.
Musicians in Pakistan never did make much from record sales anyway. With widespread piracy and certain operating ‘distributors’ well-known pirates themselves, accurately assessing physical sales or profiting from them has always been, in the very least, difficult. The two main sources of income artists in Pakistan have had to rely on are concerts and product endorsements/commercials. The former has been made incredibly difficult due to socio-political instability and lack of security when hosting large scale events. The latter, only a chosen few from the industry actually get. Music, for the large part, has been a labour of love gifted to audiences by the artists that create it. It often, if not always, supported by a full-time job the artist does that has nothing to do with the art itself.
The newest medium through which artists are now gifting music is via the internet. It has allowed artists to get a measure of control over when and where their music will be released, tap into a wider audience and has allowed lesser-known artists from smaller cities have their voices heard. The internet has become a melting pot for an eclectic mix of sounds coming from almost all corners the country. This method essentially bypasses the scrutiny and selection that record labels employ when deciding which artist to release. Where do the labels come in then?
“They can release their music online but they’ll never be able to profit from it,” opined Dr Akbar Yezdani, the chief operating officer of Fire Records, one of the few existing successful record labels in Pakistan. Video hosting websites such as YouTube have contracts with record labels that allow them to host their content in return for a percentage of the revenue generated via advertisements placed on the page of that video. “They can host your content for free but unless they align themselves with a label that holds a contract with YouTube, they’ll never get paid for releasing that content. Giants such as YouTube, in the international market, do not usually deal with individual artists,” he affirmed, adding that Fire has an exclusive contract with YouTube over hosting revenue-generating content on its platform.
Also, the future is in digital content. That includes content that you pay for and the various applications you install on your mobile. Local telecom companies are in the process of acquiring newer technologies that would enable them to provide a better and faster internet to its users. For that they also need to be able to provide their subscribers with content. There are less than 10 companies that provide all of the digital music content to mobile phone operators in Pakistan. Here is where the record label comes in when they provide these organisations with access to a large portfolio of artists in bulk. These too, usually don’t deal with individual artists.
“International agencies rarely work with just individuals,” added Dr Yezdani, “And it’s still the record label which, by picking up an artist makes him big. Take the example of the artist who sang One Pound Fish (Mohammad Shahid Nazir). He truly became big and profitable when the Warner Music Group picked him up. Otherwise he simply would’ve remained an internet singing sensation.”
According to him, record labels cannot be considered as unnecessary in Pakistan. “In this extremely competitive world, you have be really good, persistent, very patient, extremely hardworking and very lucky,” he says, “Music is a business that like any other profession, requires immense work, knowledge and persistence. And yes, as one invests in his her education or business, artists nee to invest in him/herself as well.”