“People get stuck in what they want. That’s fine up until a certain point. But if you want to go out into the mainstream and you want to present your work to a wider audience, then you have to understand what people want as well,” says Bilal Maqsood in a conversation with me earlier this month.
“For popular music, it’s very important to connect with your audience.”
We’re at his small but cosy studio in Defence, Karachi, where I’m getting the lowdown on the online music show that’s taken the industry, nay the country, by storm, Velo Sound Station (VSS). It’s a platform he’s created and produced. I say small because the last time I met both him and his long-time bandmate from Strings, Faisal Kapadia, they were producing of Coke Studio (seasons seven to 10), and their own studio extended over a massive house.
But that was meant to house several bands coming in for rehearsals. This current studio is for planning, preps and edits only.
Generally cool, calm and collected, Bilal comes across as both nervous and excited about how this new approach to music will resonate with audiences. He also knows that the music this show is putting out is lighter, preppy, frivolous if you may, and likely to ruffle the feathers of what he refers to as ‘purists’ in the music industry, who believe in creating art for art’s sake. Bilal strongly disagrees.
“There’s nothing to be gained from only making things for yourself,” he explains. “That’s a little hard to explain to others.”
But that’s a struggle as old as time itself, I point out — to find that balance between art and commerce.
“To create something that reaches a certain standard when it comes to art and also be successful with the public, that is much more difficult than producing a very experimental piece of music just for yourself,” he stresses.
“You can do that,” he adds. “But purists are of the opinion they’ll release this even if no one listens. Then they become bitter and they start criticising the people who have been successful.”
I somehow sense there’s more to this. When the first songs from VSS started coming out, with their glitzy, glamorous, fluffy, fun new vibes, they resonated well with audiences but caught quite a few people — especially in the music industry, where everyone takes themselves very seriously — by surprise. One noticed a few disgruntled online jibes targeting the show.
But that isn’t something new for Bilal. His band, Strings, is probably the only music act in Pakistan that is still intact even after 30 years. They’ve done that by periodically reinventing themselves and successfully balancing the ‘art’ part of their music with commercialism, and by knowing exactly what resonates with the public.
“That’s my game,” says Bilal. “When 'Sar Kiye Yeh Pahaarr' came out, it was a breakthrough genre at the time. [Back then] there was only Bollywood music from India. From 'Sar Kiye Yeh Pahaarr' to 'Duur' to 'Raat Shabnami'. We’re almost turning 50, but we’ve managed to consistently put out music that works.
“This is one thing I hear from [some] musicians a lot,” says Bilal, sounding quietly indignant. “Is that [successful artists] have compromised with their art. A lot of them… pata chal jata hai [I find out] when they talk behind my back in groups.”
Does that bother him?
“It doesn’t bother me,” he says nonchalantly. “The audience is what matters to me the most. I’m getting my response from the audience. I know what I’m doing.”
I remember meeting him and Faisal when they first started producing Coke Studio back in 2014. One of the first things they stressed was that they wanted to provide opportunities to people they felt hadn’t been featured or had been ignored on that platform.
“You know, 60 percent of those musicians have gone back and b****** about me,” he says incredulously. “I learned one thing from that. They’re the kind of people who will never be happy. There will always be a problem.”
Considering that he’s been a successful pop musician for decades and now has produced a very successful show that has, in its own, way re-introduced pop music into the mainstream, has he figured out the magic formula that makes a song a hit?
“No,” he responds. “Between these big hits there are a lot of songs that go unnoticed. So, I still haven’t found the formula. There is no such formula. Everything depends on what’s happening in the world, what sounds are coming out, what direction are people going in. Everything matters. At that point, if you make two songs, chances are one will connect and the other won’t, but you aim to have both work.”
The one thing Bilal feels very strongly about is reinforcing our own pop music identity.
“Pop has its own feel,” he says. “It’s more electronic, it has a wider audience, it’s more current. Every country in the world has its own pop culture that gives power to the youth. It gives youngsters something to identify with. It could be bekaar cheezein [useless things], superficial, fluff… but it is important for them.”
“Sometimes silly is good,” he adds. “There’s no ‘higher purpose’ to pop music. It’s all about having fun. In Pakistan, unfortunately, the last 12 years of Coke Studio and, prior to that, all of the political ups and downs… humari pop music khatm ho gayee [our pop music was finished off] which started with Alamgir, Nazia and Zoheb, Vital Signs, Strings, Music Channel Charts and all of those bands… sab khatam ho gaya [everything ended].”
Does he miss it?
“That’s why I wanted to do this show,” says Bilal. “I grew up watching BBC’s Top of the Pops. I remember running off to the video store to get the latest Top of the Pops video cassette. That show impacted my life in such a way that, if someone had the sleeves of his jacket turned up, we had to do the same. If someone had torn jeans, we’d tear them as well. That show used to be a window into a different world. Do you remember?”
No, I don’t. The era he’s referring to is the early 1980s, right before I was even born. For me, it was Music Channel Charts, the pop music show that aired on PTV in the early 90s, through which I connected to pop music.
“Now when I look at the music in Pakistan, it’s just Sufi, fusion, qawwali and spiritual music that is becoming more and more mainstream,” says Bilal.
“This is very scary for me, that a kid who is now 20 years old has probably never seen pop music in Pakistan. I just wanted to bring back the 1980s and give it a modern 2020 twist, with a lot of colour and energy. And it was like riding against the wave. Because everything that was coming was sufi or barray barray aalap [big singing modulations].”
His gamble clearly paid off. VSS has established itself as a successful music platform with people sharing endless clips of themselves dancing to Umair Jaswal’s 'Gagar' or lip syncing to Meesha Shafi’s 'Boom Boom', among others releases, on social media.
It has also managed to overshadow the currently unfolding season of Coke Studio, but ever so slightly, for now.
Considering that we are still in the middle of a pandemic that first shut everything down and has changed how we operate and interact, how did he manage to pull off a full-scale large production such as VSS?
“We were initially supposed to shoot it in March,” relates Bilal. “The lockdown was announced a week before. We took a call and postponed it. Everything was ready — sets, lights etc. That was the first jhatka [setback]. We had to dismantle the whole set and wait. But nothing happened.
Then this little window came when they eased the lockdown and then ended it. We thought we only had one month to do this. We went in with full force. With a lot of heavy SOPs [standard operating procedures] we managed everything.”
And absolutely no one fell sick? “We had to send three people back [prior to filming], that’s how strong our checks were,” assures Bilal. “There were 100 people in the audience. One day, [VJ and voiceover artist] Faizan Haqqee called me saying, ‘Yaar Bilal they’re not letting me in. I’m running a fever.’ I said, ‘You can’t come in!’ He said, ‘I haven’t slept all night, yeh sirf neend ka bukhaar hai. But we couldn’t let him in. He had to go back. Faizan got tested, it came out negative, but he missed one day of the shoot.”
I remember when the show first came out. My initial reaction was of painful disappointment, not because I didn’t like the music; I just hated the idea of another show full of covers. Every other music platform has had them for years, I think the industry has had enough of them. I tell Bilal this, even though I changed my mind later as the show unfolds.
“I know what you’re saying when you say you’re done with covers,” says Bilal. “We need to move forward as well. But this has become a part of our culture now. I was fighting for all originals.”
Which is a huge risk in itself… “But Natasha Noorani proved herself [with 'Baby Baby']. She made her space in between those two covers [Atif Aslam’s 'Kadi Te Has Bol' and Umair Jaswal’s 'Gagar']. I used to say our content needs to be strong, we don’t need covers. Eventually I said okay, let’s do it and do it well.”
If Bilal was going to do covers, they were going to be different. “The idea was, like 'Gagar', there’s no depth. It’s all about having fun. When you realise, ‘Oh this is that song!’ it bursts into something else and you start dancing. I just wanted to create those moments.”
While this time round Bilal had a small army of producers working alongside him on the music, the one artist he didn’t produce is newcomer Shamoon Ismail.
“I don’t understand what he does!” chuckles Bilal. “But it works. His songs are very good, but how does he make them? I don’t know. There’s this mystery around the way he performs or writes his songs. Maybe I’m getting too old, I don’t understand his process. The final outcome is always very good. What could I possibly tell him to do? [So I said] ‘Jo banana hai banao [Make whatever you want to] but you have to be on my stage’.”
In the history of Strings or even Bilal Maqsood as a professional, he has never done anything without his bandmate, Faisal Kapadia, whom he’s known since his school days. This is the first time he’s ridden solo. How did it feel?
“Initially it was very strange,” says Bilal. “I learned a lot from this. I think it was a good step. I used to take a lot of things for granted. But I had to look at every little thing on this. From getting the lighting set, getting the artists to perform, to the most minute of details like, we’ve run out of water or there was a problem in parking. I was getting that problem as well. I grew a lot as a person because I dealt with more issues than I was used to. I believe I handed it well. I’m quite proud of myself.”
And he should be. VSS is a breath of fresh air in a music industry that had gone stale with a constant regurgitation of straightforward covers and ‘serious’ music. Life is pretty serious and, especially in a year like this with the pandemic, it’s also pretty scary. With VSS, Bilal wants us to forget our troubles for a while and just have fun.