Welcome To The Machine
Every time a "serious" and "meaningful" pop/rock act in the west gets into a lucrative sponsorship deal with a corporate sponsor, they at once are faced with outcry and cutting criticism from their fans and the press.
This is nothing new. Musicians who have, through their music, lyrics and celebrity leverage, espoused causes beyond puppy love, partying, and sex, are automatically taken as players who stand above the many commercial formulas of success weaved and enforced by general corporate mechanics.
In other words, an act like Britney Spears, or Michael Jackson or Justin Timberlake will only gather nothing more than a few cynical chuckles when and if they sign a deal with a corporate sponsor, whereas, whenever players like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, U2, Radiohead, Metallica or even Coldplay were even rumoured to do the same, music fans and the press came down hard on them.
The logic in this respect is simple: Britney Spears and the likes are "industry manufactured" acts with nothing serious or intelligent to say; they are created by the industry just like any corporate brand; they are projected as being "hot," "cool," "sexy," and "in" through expensive advertising campaigns and similar deals cut with gossip and show-biz magazines and youth-oriented corporate brands.
The interesting thing is that major league acts in the "serious" and "meaningful" music category too rely on various types of corporate marketing techniques and tactics. The difference is they were not manufactured by the industry. Instead, each one of them emerged from thriving underground scenes.
When acts with 'integrity' start using the same marketing and media tools being used by their more overtly corporate counterparts to get into the mainstream, their reputation only stands to be publicly tarnished. The logic remains clear: No matter what corporate marketing tools and ways these acts' record labels are using to sell their albums, the albums themselves are full of songs that both directly and indirectly talk about things in ways not particularly liked or appreciated by world-views projected by multinationals and their economic and political allies.
Thus, the biggest contradiction in this respect is not serious acts reaching record stores and the charts the same way as all the corporate pop acts do, but rather, when and if, they decide to sell part of their cherished and meaningful art to a corporate sponsor.
In Cola We Trust
Arriving first with Imran Khan's deal with Pepsi in 1987 and then Nazia & Zoheb's signing with Lipton in 1989, the whole concept of corporate sponsorship in the Pakistani showbiz arena took a more serious and focused turn when Pepsi managed to bag the Vital Signs in 1991.
Gradually over the next fifteen years, cricket and locally generated pop music and acts became the main areas of interest for a growing number of corporate concerns.
Not that the new music scene was not producing any worthwhile acts before corporate intervention and interest, the truth is, Pepsi's signing of the Signs' suddenly (and a tad too early), changed the rules of the game.
Whereas until the early 90s most new acts were signed by EMI-Pakistan on royalty basis (just like their predecessors were), right after the Signs-Pepsi deal, the attention of the musicians shifted away from the royalty-based system that was in practice in the market for many years.
Suddenly, every new act was chasing after corporate sponsors for a fast buck. Ali Haider landed a deal with Pakola, Awaz arrived with a Pepsi contract in their hands even before they finished recording their debut album, and what is still a lesser-known piece of history, even Junoon who in 1993 were at the peak of their angry-young-band phase, cut a deal with Close Up (toothpaste).
The new brigade of musicians went on the attack, denouncing EMI's "slow" and "low" royalty system, not realizing that the same system had served well scores of musicians ranging from Ahmed Rushdi to Alamgir to Nazia & Zoheb.
Nazia & Zoheb came from wealthy backgrounds, but this did not mean their contemporaries died of starvation. In fact, royalty from album sales and money earned from concerts pretty decently sustained many pop musicians even during the stifling and myopic Zia years.
So, it can be said that if matters like piracy and "low and slow" music labels did contribute in the growing skepticism in the musicians, one can also suggest that a total lack of vision, any serious commitment or interest on their part to tackle the issue was also a leading reason behind the gradual but firm takeover of the scene by corporate concerns.
Of course, as the musicians continued to beat their chests decrying piracy and "mismanaged" music labels, they took little or no action apart from running after interested sponsors. In fact, none of the major league players, which were also sponsored by big corporate concerns, ever bothered to ask their wealthy corporate patrons to stop investing in individuals and instead invest in the scene.
That's why today the bulk of Pakistani pop scene and so-called "music industry," is nothing more than a total sum of various sponsors' money and corporate interests. Take these out and there will be little or no scene whatsoever.
Any question that did arise in the press regarding the situation was/is usually answered by the sponsored artists with even wilder and louder exhibition of chest beating and fears of dying of starvation. The truth is, by starvation most of these acts believed (and believe!), that instead of a 1400cc car, they will be left stranded in their old 800cc automobiles.
Of course, nothing wrong in aspiring for better, bigger things, but make this as your main reason for going for that faster corporate buck instead of all that chest beating about piracy and bad music labels.
It was these musicians' responsibility to improve the system that they had inherited and were criticizing. It was their duty to encourage their sponsors to put some of their economic muscle and influence in the making of a scene that was becoming so apathetically dependent on corporate patronage.
In 1996, Junoon's leader Salman Ahmed went (when invited), to Coca-Cola's headquarters in Lahore, with the intention of making the giant cola company invest not only in Junoon but also in the fledgling Pakistani music scene. The deal was struck, but after seven years or so, Junoon ended up becoming one of the biggest contradictions to what they had set out to do.
Ironically, the Vital Signs who had shown absolutely no inclination of asking Pepsi to invest beyond the Signs' material well being in the five years they were with them, the band's leader, Rohail Hyatt, finally managed to convince his former corporate patrons to invest some of its financial muscle back into the scene the cola company had so much benefited from.
This came in shape of a platform for aspiring new artistes called "Pepsi Battle of the Bands." However, since the cola company did not generate the kind of commercial mileage it had for its brand when only investing in the Signs, Awaz, and Fakhr-e-Alam (in the 90s), the experiment was short-lived, so much so, Pepsi eventually pulled out of the scene all together in the new millennium!
No Signs, No Pepsi Deals. What Music Or Music Scene?
There are acts that are aware of the apathetical state of the scene. They know if one takes away the sponsors' money, the scene which so many young (over), enthusiastic Pakistani pop fans gloat about as "expanding," will almost cease to exist.
Who's to blame? Piracy? Lethargic music labels? Or the convenient apathy and hypocrisy of the musicians themselves?
Unfortunately, chest beating and relating apathetical scenarios (in case of having no sponsors), is still most musicians' reaction when questioned about their insistence on retaining a sponsor.
Former Junoon singer, Ali Azmat, decided to actually do something about it.
Early last year, he decided to form an artistes' union and was enthusiastically joined by both major league and as well as struggling players. A few months down the road Ali Azmat is a disappointed man. Why? Because most of the unions' major members are simply refusing to do what Mr. Azmat is suggesting, especially the boycotting of any TV-channel-related or multinational sponsored event that is paying the musicians a lot less than what they are worth. After all, these events are generating tremendous amounts of money for the channels (through advertising), and great advertising mileage for the corporate brands sponsoring them.
However, so far, instead of Ali Azmat himself who recently got in a tussle with the management of a music channel for this very reason, most other members of the union have simply refused to do the same. One of the leading reasons given by them: "Our sponsors will get angry!"
The point is, Ali Azmat who (though grudgingly), defends corporate sponsorship in Pakistani music scene, rather ironically finds his plans for a powerful music union burn down to the ground because his contemporaries' sponsors wont allow it. It's a catch 22 even a character like him is left stumped by.
That is the bane of the matter. Thanks to the indifference exhibited by the genuine music labels and the apathy shown in this respect by the musicians themselves in the '90s, today the whole agenda of corporate sponsorship is such that it will not allow the functioning of genuine music labels or for that matter, a scene run by aggressive unions.
They won't do so because the revival of a clean royalty system and the emergence of organized unions will take away the clout, influence, and power the corporate sponsors exercise over musicians.
This influence stretches beyond the companies' doling out cash to meet the musician's studio and video bills and other perks. Many leading sponsors are also known to have claimed the right to intervene and influence the artistic content and direction of the sponsored musicians.
With the sponsorship dragon now stronger than ever, one is not being too skeptical to suspect that the music being made by most sponsored players today is more or less a compromise based on the demands dictated to them by the hovering presence of their sponsor's corporate interests.
How Much More Is Too Little?
Each and every sponsored artist in Pakistan makes a decent living. They are in the forefront of defending the practice of corporate sponsorship in music.
However, apart from only Ali Azmat, none of the others ever seem to detect the obvious contradictions and artistic and aesthetic fall outs that come along with being sponsored by multinationals. What is even worse, still none of them is prepared to ask their sponsors to invest in the scene.
It is as if they do not want to face up to such contradictions and this is why their approach towards this issue has been more reactionary than anything else.
They will lash out at anyone questioning the ethical and artistic contradictions between the social and aesthetic content of their art and the cynical economic interests that they enthusiastically undertake on part of their sponsors.
Much chest beating takes place and a number of rhetorical questions are asked but the issue is never seen as a problem to be solved. Instead, it is actually seen as a solution, without ever being realized that this solution is one of the main reasons (along with piracy) that is keeping at bay the whole idea of a system based on organized and clean royalty-based structure led by genuine music labels.
One of the most frequent rhetorical questions asked by the sponsored artists is how are they to survive as musicians in a country like Pakistan?
Simple. Exactly the way Alamgir, Mohammad Ali Shaiki, and Sajjad Ali did. None of them was ever sponsored and yet none of them died of starvation.
Of course, today musicians who become popular seek higher standards of living and bigger financial rewards. But can it be said that they get this quicker than they would, had there been a well-organized royalty-system placed in the market?
In such a case, one can also suggest that most of these players would not really appreciate such a system. In other words, why would they question or change the status quo in the scene mainly maintained by multinational bucks and sponsored artists?
On the other hand, one can also question major players like Atif Aslam, Strings, and Ali Zafar, who in spite the fact that they draw huge amounts of money as concert attractions, still decide to get into hasty, cold cut deals with mobile companies who only see them as dancing, singing sales people.
Working to change things in this context by allowing corporate sponsors to rule the roost has failed to do anything whatsoever for the scene as a whole. Time has come for major players to stop playing the role of slippery pragmatists and do something innovatory instead. They must come together to make their respective sponsors realize the importance of investing in the scene as a whole and not only in individual acts.
It must be realized that it is these companies and their media allies that need the musicians and not the other way round.
The answers are out there. We are just looking for them in all the wrong places, no matter how more glitzy and financially rewarding they may seem.
The Good, Bad & The Company
"Musicians are the software most television channels and multinationals can not do without. We should understand this and make the best of it, instead of letting them treat us as if they are doing us a favour by playing our songs."
- Salman Ahmed (Guitarist, Junoon)
"On many occasions, we felt stifled by sponsorship, but this was the only way we could survive as musicians. But when Pepsi agreed to do "Pepsi Battle of the Bands" with me, I proved that a sponsor could be used in lots of different ways as well."
- Rohail Hyatt (Music Producer/Keyboardist, Vital Signs)
"I personally do not have huge qualms about corporate sponsorship in music. However two things do disturb me, first that corporate sponsorship tends to take the edge off music and make it generic because that safely plays into the hands of brands that do not want to be associated with political or social comment. Second, whatever the artist endorses, it should have some semblance of continuity with the persona of the individual, otherwise it jars on an aesthetic level."
- Fasi Zaka (Music Critic, Radio RJ)
"In this country for a musician it has become a necessary evil. How else can I survive? We don't get any royalty money from the sale of our albums, concert organizers want you to play for peanuts, and TV channels want us to play whole sets without giving us any money at all."
- Ali Azmat (Vocalist, Junoon)