The issues have remained the same: no proper industry, lack of diverse platforms, hardly any concert venues and no sustainable model for musicians to make a living out of their art.
The issues have remained the same: no proper industry, lack of diverse platforms, hardly any concert venues and no sustainable model for musicians to make a living out of their art.

For as long as I can remember the music industry has been under threat — it’s struggling to survive. That has been the narrative all along. Only in hindsight do you look back and think: that phase was fine, maybe even good, but it’s really bad now.

The issues have remained the same: no proper industry, lack of diverse platforms, hardly any concert venues and no sustainable model for musicians to make a living out of their art.

And yet, music continues to be made. While in the face of this immense struggle, many acts dropped out completely, some have persevered. Some musicians have found new ways to hustle — they’ve diversified into acting or producing music for commercials, taken on other side professions, but they stayed.

Some are staging comebacks (I’m looking at you Aaroh and, ahem, Junoon). Haniya Aslam’s move back to Pakistan and her contribution to this season’s Coke Studio (‘Mein Irada’ was a fantastic feminist anthem from a unified yet diverse group of female voices) is notable. Following in her footsteps, Sajid Ghafoor and Zeeshan Parwez have also returned to the motherland, but it remains to be seen if and how soon they’ll release new material. All in all, this is very good news.

Most importantly, when it comes to the two bigger television platforms for music, Coke Studio (CS) and Pepsi Battle of the Bands (PBOTB), this year has been all about new blood. Granted that’s PBOTB’s shtick, but this time round we saw bands auditioning that were way better than last year — most of them saying how Season Two last year indicated to them that ‘Pakistan mein bands ka scene on ho gaya hai’ [bands are back in vogue in Pakistan]. Anything that encourages newer music acts to work harder or come out from the underground is welcome.

Studio’s Season Eleven with its young new producers (Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi) at the helm, revamped studio and sound and slightly tweaked format comes across as a whole new show, which is great in itself but not as a show that has matured in its eleventh year. I’ve heard other producers in the industry complain about the new producers that “they’re too inexperienced. They’ve made some rookie mistakes!” That’s all true, but they also took risks and brought a much-needed fresh perspective. I’ll take that over perfectly-produced but the same-old and boring.

Judges Fawad Khan, Bilal Maqsood, Meesha Shafi, Ayesha Omer (host) and Faisal Kapadia.
Judges Fawad Khan, Bilal Maqsood, Meesha Shafi, Ayesha Omer (host) and Faisal Kapadia.

CS Explorer that preceded the main season was a very smart move. Going out of the studio, to the artists’ home grounds, visually depicting the diversity of sound, culture and environment in the form of these mini documentaries, was both heart-warming and entertaining. My only gripe is that I wish there were more of it — a whole story, not just a teaser.

For its part, before PBOTB even started, there was controversy over the selection — or rather non-selection — of the judges that would be on the panel this year. But by the time the season started, that seemed forgotten. Through eight long episodes (most were an hour and 20 minutes long), we saw a few returning faces and some new bands and went through a roller-coaster of emotions (I know I did) as the bands battled for the top spot on the show.

Some mash-ups worked, many failed horribly — the Independence Day special, for example, was absolutely tedious. What worked personally for me, were the originals — both by the contestants and the judges. Although Tamasha got eliminated, their Roshni is still a favourite number and, from of the judges, Meesha’s Mein was absolutely jaw-dropping in how hauntingly beautiful it was — both as a song and how it was represented visually.

What happens after the show’s over?

With any show, and especially with CS, which is currently considered to be the country’s largest televised music platform, the hope is that audiences will find artists and producers featured on the show interesting enough and that they’ll appeal to investors or sponsors and therefore find a way of financing their future work.

Having said that, that platform is wasted if the work that is produced on the show is the only good material that the artist or act has. That’s worse if that material is a cover — we need more and more original music. Whether it worked or not, at least this season had a lot of it.

PBOTB takes a little more ownership of the artists — they promise live performances, royalties and the production and release of an album to the top acts. The biggest criticism aimed at them is that, although they have a new winner and runner-up (Bayaan and Xarb) now, the albums of their previous winner and runner-up, Kashmir and Badnaam, still haven’t found a release.

It wasn’t just the times that made the first winner and runner-up, Aaroh and Entity Paradigm, into the bigger bands they became after the show ended. It was also due to the fact that they consistently produced and released new music and videos alongside their live performances, to keep audiences engaged. Kashmir and Badnaam are not even close to that. That’s a hard fact.

One question remains: in this day and age of the internet, when everyone has a platform via their own YouTube or Facebook Page, when appearing or even doing well on a music show isn’t a guarantee of success, are such shows even relevant or important to the industry as whole? Yes.

To support that, I’ll quote a response by Faisal Kapadia in a prior conversation with yours truly: “Right now, times are really tough. Earlier, if you were good, there was one platform and your music was out everywhere. It wasn’t easy to get on to that platform — if Vital Signs launched a song from PTV or if we did, it wasn’t easy to do that. But that singular platform was very powerful.”

We still need those few big platforms that everyone turns to. Otherwise looking for a good, new act on the internet — and there are many out there — is like looking for a needle in a haystack.


Originally published in Dawn, ICON, September 16th, 2018

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