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The sound of silence

June 02, 2013

Yasir and Jawad's visual depictionof their ode to Khan Abdul Ghani Khan's poem, Niqab — File Photo
Yasir and Jawad's visual depictionof their ode to Khan Abdul Ghani Khan's poem, Niqab — File Photo

It’s astonishing the speed with which technology moves, and the devastation it leaves behind. Not more than a decade ago Pakistan saw a musical renaissance with Pepsi’s Battle of the Bands and Indus Music. Suddenly, contemporary Pakistani music was in vogue — it existed and it burgeoned. Teenagers picked up instruments and video cameras, aiming to ape their heroes on the thriving platform that music channels provided.

Over the past few years with an increase in internet broadband coverage and increasing speeds video hosting platforms such as YouTube took over from where TV left off. Many bands could now make and upload their own videos, without having to rely on the patronage of music channels and their need to direct viewers’ content. No matter how weird or experimental the music, an audience beyond one’s friends beckoned.

With no middleman to contend with, Pakistani music fell in love with YouTube’s accessibility. These changes led to considerable shifts in how music in Pakistan is consumed, since no longer were radio and TV channels the sole providers of contemporary Pakistani music. More Pakistanis, fed up with the quality of music and the sheer number of advertisements on TV, switched to the likes of YouTube and Soundcloud. The balance of power seemed to shift towards musicians, who were now in control of their own content and direction. Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth now formed the basis of recommendations for listeners.

The likes of Coke Studio and Uth Records have also eaten into the concept of music videos as the primary tool of exposure for artists. With both shows immediately uploading videos to YouTube, viewers managed to avoid sitting through advertisements, or could revisit episodes days after their original airing.

These shows are also driving significant changes in the music industry. Rather than having to accede to radio or music channels’ demands, musicians can let their music speak for itself. A fair amount of Coke Studio’s material, for example, would’ve led to concussions in marketing departments. Yet the show’s durability is a testament to Pakistani listeners and their acceptance of nuance in music. Coke Studio’s success has led to more musicians taking greater risks, leading to a surge of experimentation and genres. This dismantling of music channel hierarchies has also remarkably led to more independent and electronic artists carving for themselves a share of the pie.

The current ban on YouTube, however, threatens to derail not just independent Pakistani music but mainstream music as well. Many shows are now uploading directly to Vimeo or to Facebook, thus limiting their audience considerably. It inhibits the ability of Pakistani music to gain listeners from all over the world, as music is left stranded in a bubble and only a minimal presence of Pakistani music exists on YouTube.

Haamid Rahim (Dynoman), co-founder of Forever South, an electronic music collective in Karachi, points out that, “People got to know of us better via YouTube. After the ban, even the number of plays on SoundCloud declined.” Even now, months after the ban was instated, people are still coming to grips with sites like Soundcloud or Bandcamp.

The ban’s effects aren’t ephemeral either. It’s harder for teenagers to pick up instruments or indulge in the world of music when their access is severely limited. YouTube also exists as more than just an aggregator of kitten videos — the site offers an incredible and versatile array of tutorials on instruments, production software and audio engineering. Pakistan, as a whole tends to suffer from a lack of proper education when it comes to music, and YouTube was filling a vital deficiency.

Although the ingenuity of Pakistani musicians and listeners has so far managed to compensate for the banning of YouTube, its adverse effects on the Pakistani music industry cannot be swept under the carpet. Where one was once inundated with music videos and live performances, now only an occasional link crops up. A limited reach tends to affect live shows for independent musicians as well, since fewer people are likely to be exposed to their music.

The Pakistani music industry has experienced quite a few — perhaps even fundamental — changes over the past decade. The advent of YouTube was one such impetus for change. Even though contemporary music is trudging along, seemingly in good health, its growth has been stunted by the ban. The fact that Pakistani music has nevertheless rallied is a tribute to the country’s insatiable desire for music, and entertainment as a whole.

The writer has been commenting on the music industry for the past five years. He makes music as well. You can follow him on