Where did all the music go?

Jul 14 2014

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Mai Dhai. -Photo courtesy of IPAC
Mai Dhai. -Photo courtesy of IPAC

“If you happen to be an Isloo-ite and want to pursue music professionally, you should shift to either Karachi or Lahore.” That’s the advice most people would give an aspiring musician.

For the most part, these people would be right. Islamabad is a sleepy little town, which, barring a few events at Kuch Khaas and some other places, cuts a culturally barren figure.

In such a scenario, the Music Mela Conference 2014 was a breath of fresh air for the capital’s residents. We organised the conference through the platform of FACE (Foundation for Arts, Culture & Education), in collaboration with the Pak-US Alumni Network (PUAN), on the first weekend of May 2014. Over three days of the festival, more than ten thousand people danced and swayed to folk, classical, fusion and rock tunes at the outdoor amphitheatre of the PNCA Islamabad.

Headlining acts included the Mekaal Hasan Band with Humaira Channa, Zeb and Haniya, and several other bands, including my own.

My favourite part was when Mai Dhai from Tharpakar took the stage on the closing night of the festival when it started to rain. I kid you not, it was divine blessing that showered down upon us that night, when Mai Dhai, with a veil covering her face, played on the dholak and sang songs of the desert in front of an enraptured audience.

Besides live music, Music Mela Conference 2014 featured master workshops, presentations and panel discussions, hosting heavyweights like Rohail Hyat of Coke Studio and Todd Puckhaber of the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.


What Pakistan's music industry wants


The conference brought some very important issues to the forefront, concerning the state of the music industry of Pakistan, which urgently needs to be addressed.

Airtime on media

Why is it that Pakistan, with all its poet-saints and advocates of humanism, love and pluralism; has now shrunk into a scared myopic society, where intolerant and bigoted elements seem to hog the most airtime on our media, and the majority of music on television is the commercial pop of Bollywood?

There’s little chance that we would have heard of Tufail Niazi, Amanat Ali Khan, Pathaney Khan, Mai Bhagi, Shaukat Ali, Alam Lohar, Alan Faqir, Sain Jumman, Reshma, Faiz Baluch and so on, if Pakistan Television channel had not promoted them during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Yet, the media today – under the pretext of popular demand – pays no heed to its social responsibility of promoting our true culture, while the state has all but abdicated its responsibility as a patron of the arts.

Pakistan's music industry: What the future holds

According to the license terms and conditions (clause 7.2) of the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), channels are allowed to broadcast only 10 per cent of foreign material and 90 per cent of local material. Whatever the exact percentages, it is imperative that the Government of Pakistan strongly enforce some sort of policy to safeguard music and culture in Pakistan.

Adequate performance venues

The music industry cannot survive on television alone, no matter how many Coke Studios and Pakistan Idols come up. The real sources of bread and butter are regular, live music gigs. And the first prerequisite for this happening is to have appropriate usable venues.

 Over three days of the festival, more than ten thousand people danced and swayed to folk, classical, fusion and rock tunes at the outdoor amphitheatre of the PNCA Islamabad. —Photo by author
Over three days of the festival, more than ten thousand people danced and swayed to folk, classical, fusion and rock tunes at the outdoor amphitheatre of the PNCA Islamabad. —Photo by author

Is it not strange that a country of almost two hundred million people cannot boast of even a single venue where there is live music once a week?

The right business model

The other requirement for live music is a workable business model which enables a steady stream of income for both the artists and the event organisers. Pakistanis aren’t used to the idea of paying for music, and will try everything in their power to obtain a free pass for a concert even as they happily spend a thousand rupees for a meal in some restaurant.

Alcohol is banned in the country, so organisers can only depend on sponsorships to cover concert costs. However, due to the current security threats, sponsors are reluctant to get into large-scale music events, and the few events which do happen are small exclusive affairs not open to the general public.

Royalties for artists

The next thing which a music industry needs is an equitable system of royalty collection for musicians, composers, lyricists and publishers. This is important because a regular number of concerts isn’t enough to sustain a lifelong profession.

Mehdi Hasan and Reshma held countless concerts throughout their working lives, and their music is still alive, but in their last days, these legends were forced to depend on handouts.

There is, however, good news on this front: Under the initiative of the Intellectual Property Organisation of Pakistan (IPO) and a group of concerned musicians led by Haroon Rashid, the process of establishing an authorised body for royalty collection is underway.

To ensure transparency, this body will have representatives from amongst musicians, lyricists as well as publishing companies. The government must ensure that the channels pay royalties for all the music material they broadcast, whether foreign or local, so that musicians can look forward to some form of security in their lives.

Anti-piracy measures

Unfortunately, many critics are unaware of the real problems faced by the industry, as seen in the article here.

Though the author is right in claiming that it is record companies which exploit musicians the most, he couldn’t be further from the truth in calling piracy a ‘non-issue for the music industry’.

One reason why record labels feel it is their right to exploit musicians is because they’re not making a killing on selling music CDs either. They mostly rely on third party distributors who are as dishonest about disclosing their actual record sales to the record labels, as the labels are to the artists; and piracy hurts around about everyone in this circle.

People must pay for music

With the internet now causing record labels to begin going out of business everywhere in the world, artists now have direct access to their audiences. But this is good only if there is a viable system in place of ensuring the online trade of music.

The YouTube ban has been disastrous for musicians, but even if it were open, just promoting concerts through YouTube and Soundcloud after spending a fortune on recordings and videos is not enough for any musician. I’m happy when my songs go viral, but I’d be much happier if I was getting some sort of remuneration for my recordings, not just the hope of getting more concerts.

YouTube to launch music service amid indie dispute

In developed countries, that is happening through iTunes. In Pakistan, though, the awareness that one must give something in return for downloading a song is yet to be born. So is the practice practice of using credit cards for online trade.

To counter this problem, Haroon has come up with an interesting model at Taazi.com. This is an artist-friendly website where musicians can create their own profile and upload their songs while retaining complete ownership; and users can download those songs without the need of a credit card, using simply their mobile phones. If this website catches on, it will mean good opportunities for all musicians who feel their music is worthy to share.

Lastly, for the sake of our music industry, as well as for society in general, we need to transfer our true, humanist heritage to our younger generations. This means dealing with our current school and madrassa curriculums.

Shouldn’t Pakistan Studies textbooks be teaching kids about the poetry and philosophy of our great humanist saints, and the study of the Raags that they’re sung in?

Do we not want them to take pride in their culture, and to prepare them for bigger things in the future, instead of having them fall prey to a victimised and violent mindset?