Recently, I met a producer in Lahore who told me a story that he said left him quite perturbed. The producer, a self-taught musician, had found himself in a social gathering where there were several young musicians hailing from important gharanay. A gharana is defined as “a system of social organisation linking musicians or dancers by lineage or apprenticeship, and by adherence to a particular musical style.” In simpler terms, it means a hereditary tradition of classical music, where musicians pass down their specific skills and musical ideology from one generation to the next.

The producer I was speaking to had always held musicians from gharanay in utmost respect, given how they had literally grown up with an intimate understanding of music. However, when he met all the scions of various esteemed gharanay, they kept asking for a chance to collaborate with him. Specifically, they kept referring to one of his pop hits, and asking if he could make a similar song with them.

Now this wasn’t an example of the youth abandoning their traditions. Instead, this was an example of struggling for survival. While all these young men (they were all men) knew classical music inside-out, they lacked the ability to translate it into commercial success. And without commercial success, they simply had no other means of survival.

At the heart of this issue lies the problem of patronage. For several centuries, patronage was the way the arts thrived. Royal courts would be expected to support several top class proponents of the arts, and the subcontinent was full of maharajas who would patronise the best artists in their region. However, modernity was always chipping away at this system, and post-independence it collapsed. What helped mitigate the end of royal patrons was the emergence of the state as a patron.

Even classical musicians now aim for commercialism

For several decades, both PTV and Radio Pakistan served as a new form of patron. Both institutions were instrumental in introducing young artists and musicians and providing them a platform from which they managed to find national acclaim. Just about any musician considered a ‘legend’ today found their mark through either state TV or radio. For many such musicians, the fame found through these two platforms could translate into chances to sing in films etc, find buyers for their albums and compilations, and be invited to perform at the houses and events of discerning listeners.

By the end of the 1980s, both Radio Pakistan and PTV began to lose their pre-eminence, and the turn of the century had seen the rise of private competitors on radio and TV. This began to sever the last vestiges of the patronage system, and musicians were left at the mercy of the market. But the market itself wasn’t the way Adam Smith would have liked it. Overrun by piracy and with absolutely no system of earning royalties, there was no way to earn a living off album sales alone, but they could still serve to ensure that one got invited to perform at live events. However, once the last decade saw the rise of terrorism, that avenue too began to shrink.

Currently, we find our music industry in a situation where it is captured by the patronage of corporate brands. There are currently at least half a dozen ‘musical products’ out there that are bankrolled by the corporates. While corporate sponsors have existed for a long time within the local music scene, they are currently in a very powerful position. Rather than just sponsoring an existing act, they now launch music created specifically in line with their own marketing campaign, and are then also responsible for its distribution (paying channels to air the content) and its marketing and promotion. The process ends up almost excluding the listener, in the sense that its success doesn’t depend on how much people like the music but rather on how soft-drinks or ice-creams they consume.

And that is why the producer discussed at the start of this article found himself surrounded by gharana musicians desperate to make a commercial hit. They are the products of an ancient system that just doesn’t have any means of transitioning into a modern system. Across the rest of the world, the patronage model had been eventually overtaken by the market, but that market came with record labels and promoters and copyright laws. Moreover, it came with spaces like pubs, clubs and bars to perform in and which could regularly hold events. In Pakistan, all of these things existed at some point but over the past couple of decades have disappeared.

Thus, musicians today aren’t trying to make music that carries on their traditions and expands what they have learnt. Instead, they are trying to make something that catches the attention of a brand manager who then adds them to their latest show. It is quite an ignominious situation for such an esteemed tradition of the arts.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 25th, 2017