Death, revival and the emergence of Natasha Noorani's new album Ronaq

Published 17 Aug, 2021 10:48am

How sustainable is a ‘revival’ of the music industry that doesn’t come with pay cheques?

Discussions about the state of the Pakistani film industry have tended to take familiar form in recent years. Out-of-the-box features by foreign correspondents; nostalgic laments for the days when “educated” folk made films; hopes for a “resuscitation” by the latest Shoaib Mansoor blockbuster; or documentary-no-one-saw winning an Oscar — all in their own way cosign the cinema in Pakistan to a perpetual state of oscillation between ‘death’ and ‘revival’.

I often find myself revisiting this excerpt from Ali Nobil Ahmad’s writing on Pakistani cinema. His allegation against the cultural discourse surrounding the film industry — that it cosigns a “perpetual state of oscillation between ‘death’ and ‘revival’,” is one that offers meaningful insights even when used to investigate cultural discourses beyond cinema.

Specificities may vary, but the larger narrative — that the industry is either dead, or on the precipice of a great ‘revival’ — reverberates across culture industries in the country.

In recent months, there has been talk of ‘revival’ in the music industry. This looks like many things — from the launch of a nicotine-backed ‘pop station’, to a renewed commitment made by a prominent record label to produce ‘new’ music and, perhaps most importantly, the emergence of more than a few brooding pop-poster boys dropping hit after hit.

The discourse surrounding these developments can’t quite be categorised into the boxes Ahmad demarcated for the film industry — for starters, the terms of the discourse have radically transformed over the last few years. I get my ‘discourse hits’ from either Instagram-based newsletters such as Hamnawa, or low-key Twitter feuds between leading cultural commentators, debating the many deaths the music industry has died, and whether those deaths took place at the hands of older musicians, or the corporatisation of the industry.

Natasha Noorani has studied the music industry, historicised it, built spaces within it, worked with corporates, been part of a prominent indie band and really lived all sides of it. As she prepares to release Ronaq, her very first solo album, how does she understand the spaces she occupies?

Amidst that revival — which some Twitter users have gone so far as to describe as ‘too much launda energy’ — came 'Chhorro'. A decidedly different energy: pink fluff, pastels, floral vibes against a swoon-y, sensual timbre, with angsty lyrics about feeling trapped in a relationship, brought to you by Natasha Noorani.

Natasha, is like none other. She’s an ethnomusicologist, a musician, an industry stakeholder: co-director and co-founder of Lahore Music Meet (LMM), general manager for Coke Studio Season 10, manager for Strings, marketing executive for CityFM89 — the list goes on.

She also runs an archiving initiative called Peshkash, through which she is digitising and archiving Pakistani music from 1947 to the early ’90s — in an attempt to push back against, what she describes as, “cultural erasure, consistently taking place across the country.”

“You know how people will say today ‘Oh, you’re making Western music’! If you go back to the 1960s, if you had that music released today, all very trippy stuff, people would say this is very Western. So when people get up on Twitter and go, ‘This isn’t Pakistani culture’, I just wanna go, like, ‘Look at this record, it came out before y’all were born’,” she tells me over the pandemic-determined medium of communication, a Zoom call.

We’re talking because 'Chhorro' is making waves, and I’ve found myself thinking many times now who better to unpack this ‘revival’ and its many moving parts with than Natasha?

She’s studied the industry, historicised it, built spaces within it, worked with corporates, been part of a prominent indie band (Biryani Brothers) and, really, lived all sides of the industry. So, as she prepares to release her very first solo album, how does she understand the spaces she occupies?

She surprises me by saying, “I, as an artist, just released a song. I have no way — despite being so embedded in the industry, in what you would imagine to be a decent position, even on the back-end level — to get this song played on TV.”

So what does it take to get your music airtime? According to Natasha, it’s not merit, it’s the marketing budget.

And while digital alternatives do offer up millions of views, they’re still part of a niche market. In order to get airtime that will land you billboards and ratings, you have to have some kind of corporate backing.

This brings us to perhaps one of the most important questions for someone trying to understand contemporary discourse around the music industry — has this ‘pop revival’ affected the position of corporates as key stakeholders in the music industry?

“Part of me is very over this corporate vs. independent binary,” she says. “Because your Hasan Raheems and Maanus have shown that they don’t need that. That they can make good content and transcend all the angst and bullshit that me, or artists five to six years older than them, have seen.

“And, you know, they get critique like their music is not accessible enough. But I see people going to their gigs and singing along to all of their songs.”

Does that mean that they’re able to monetise their art without corporates as well?

That’s complicated, she admits. Natasha describes how there are a number of ways to make money as an indie artiste — YouTube is a possibility, but not the easiest route. Gigs help but they’ve been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Singing jingles is another option, one she’s personally more open to.

But the path that a lot of artists end up taking is that of an ‘influencer’, and that requires a different sort of content creation altogether, one which artists shouldn’t necessarily have to do in her opinion — because the music, in itself, is already content that they’re making.

But perhaps all of this is rooted in a changing, yet unclear, endgame for artists themselves. She describes how, when she was growing up, the endgame appeared to be getting your song on Indus Music — that would open up all the doors for you.

Then it transitioned into getting on Coke Studio, which would also open up all the doors for you. But, now, it’s all about getting as many YouTube subscribers as you can, and that only opens some of the doors for you.

“How will I know I’ve made it now,” she asks, “I’ve done a corporate show, I’ve gotten millions of view. [But] I don’t think I’ve made it. It’s not me being modest at this point. I don’t see a pay cheque coming in every month for everything that I’m doing.”

And I’m left questioning — at the cost of falling into the very trap Ahmad warns against — is the industry on a path to oscillating back to yet another death? After all, how sustainable is a ‘revival’ that doesn’t come with pay cheques? Or in other words, ‘Ab sub ko doon main hit pe hit aakhir free kyun?’ — perhaps the most important question the industry faces, found in Maanu’s lyrics on 'Sweetu'.

Natasha, however, is hopeful. “I think all of us need to collectively figure out what is the endgame? It’s a far more hopeful industry than it was five to six years ago, when we started working on LMM,” she concedes.

And perhaps some of that change can be seen in her personal journey too, as she prepares to release her solo album, Ronaq.

Ronaq captures a transition in my life, into really accepting who I am. And really just going back to the roots of what would have made 15-year-old Natasha really happy, in terms of wanting to be a musician and actually pursuing her dreams, without all the angst and the gandagi [dirt] of the industry.”

I for one, can’t wait.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, August 15th, 2021

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