The day the music died
THE manner in which Pakistan and its citizens have suffered during this past decade is well-documented.
But the climb back to normality would actually involve more than being able to step out without undue fear.
It would involve restoring to Pakistan a vibrancy that was, not too long ago, almost within our grasp – or so it seemed then.
Back in the ’90s, a decade that was remarkable amongst other aspects because it followed a period of dictatorship of a severity that had earlier been unmatched in Pakistan, it did seem that things could be on their way up. Notwithstanding the musical chairs being played by the political leadership, the mood in the country was responsive, and one of the places this was most noticeably reflected was in the manner in which people were retaking possession of the public sphere.
In cinemas and theatre halls, auditoriums and concert stages, people were working and attending with a vigour renewed after the war against the arts that had been undertaken by the Zia regime. In music, particularly, there was a great deal happening in the wake of the success of that landmark event of Music ’89.
In the years that have followed, the country’s music industry has, at one level, gone from strength to strength. On another, it has been in the process of dying.
There are more music acts at work now than perhaps ever before, for though such figures are difficult to quantify, the airwaves and the Internet are replete with plenty of evidence suggesting this. A number of Pakistani performers have made a name for themselves nationally and internationally, from Rahat Fateh Ali, the Meekal Hasan Band and Zeb and Haniya to Shehzad Roy, Atif Aslam and a good number of others. Locally, there have been some impressive initiatives too, most notably Rohail Hayat’s Coke Studio initiative that to many has put Pakistan on the map in terms of fusion and innovation.
All this is readily apparent at first glance. But on another level, this decade past has also sounded the death knell, on two different fronts, for the local music industry.
First, there is the matter of public music performances that have become a thing of the past. Concerts on any notable scale have disappeared from public consciousness, not because they draw no crowds but because they are simply not held anymore. That is a direct result of the manner in which the country’s much talked-about ‘security situation’ has plummeted.
It is not that there is any sort of official ban on holding concerts. It’s just that, on the one hand, the relevant provincial or city administrations tell would-be organisers that security cannot be assured for a large public – and possibly volatile – gathering of people.
On the other hand, sponsors have dried up (which has hit the theatre circuit too). Tight times vis-Ã -vis the economy, in addition to the multitude of security threats, has made potential sponsors less willing to lend their support. Who would want to have their name associated with the event that was blown up last week, after all?
The result has been that music performances, like a number of other cultural activities, have been forced out of the public domain. They haven’t ended: in the large urban centres businesses that rent out the relevant equipment say that they are still reasonably well-booked. But they are booked for private gatherings that take place behind closed doors, at venues that are more easily defended (and I pick this word with care), where guest lists can be rigorously checked.
The losers, then, as in most other spheres, are ordinary people. Those who live in Defence or Gulberg or the ‘F’ sectors can attend their evenings of music and song. Those that live in Nazimabad or Samnabad or Dhok Kashmirian cannot.
Meanwhile, the piracy market and the lack of the state’s ability to enforce copyright laws have taken its toll too. First, there are the difficulties of getting a fair deal out of the recording labels that are big enough to negotiate a ‘private’ deal with the groups that lead the piracy market (at least one of which, ironically, has grown big enough to become a label in itself).
A number of musicians with whom I have spoken say that the contracts they are offered are not equitable, favouring the recording/ releasing label at the cost of the actual creators of music. And then, there’s the problem of uncontrolled piracy where the above-mentioned ‘private’ deal has not been struck.
The creators of the music own their work only as long as it gains popularity, at which point hundreds upon thousands of copies are made to be sold at a profit that goes only to the pirate. The result is that music acts are increasingly looking outside Pakistan’s borders to sign a contract, a tendency that will prove immensely damaging to the local industry. In Pakistan, smaller acts are increasingly turning towards the Internet as a means of putting their work out into the public sphere. Here again, though, the prime consumers are the more well-to-do in the urban areas, for regardless of the figures regarding Internet accessibility, it is still only a fraction of the country’s population.
Will we look back at these times and say one day that this was when the music died? The shutdown process, it seems, is under way.
The writer is a member of staff.