Sell Out!

Long live the days of Pakistan when media was just what the political order wanted it to be. Pop revolved around kurta-shalwar clad, flag hoisting singers with songs of love and patriotism. So was it all that the songwriters wanted to project to the audience in those days? Hmm, I should say yes, everything on a songwriter's mind 'has' always been an approval to the chronologists, to state that every thing 'has' to be (grrr) sweet. Exceptions can never prove to be exceptions forever. We move on. We see pop music outfits fashioned on the formula provided by Western music markets. Our audience is being conditioned on the same format. And by now, it has almost forgotten the bitter pills the higher authorities were forced to swallow, when 'optimism' was not the only factor on the minds of the musicians.

This was the time when bands started rebelling, grousing, and coining anthems for the preservation of civil rights and songs were sung about reform. This act of rebellion gave musicians the option to either be hairless, pennyless and jeansless junkies unsure of a stable future or kurta-shalwar clad, flag hoisting milli naghma crooning slaves, telling the whole world tales of a national dream come true. In the hands of survival, we still can't see that can't be ignored. Today we either sing about national lies or 'ishq'.

We always forget we don't have any authorities confirming record sales. Neither do we have any organizations awarding musical excellence. So why should radio and PTV airplay matter to the performers when songs and videos are never given any more importance than Bonanza's end-of-the-season sale adverts? Why are Pakistani musicians still confined to, Cinderellas, lies and PTV policies, when all they have to abide by are the Indian policies practiced on MTV Asia, or Channel [V]? Yes everyone knows Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan wouldn't have made it 'as big' till he went to India. That is precisely why Junoon, Strings, Ali Haider, and all the rest entered the big competition the same way too. It's high time for our authorities to realise that PTV "sae aagae jahan aur bhi hain". The artists on the other hand, should clearly acknowledge that they are not tied to mother PTV anymore.

Today, they have all the options of getting across everywhere through the far-reaching world of cable and cyber networks. They can have a private underground audience and now, they can create private revolutions more effectively then ever before. State owned television won't ever go beyond the army's command. Fine, as someone might say, what has music got to do with politics and social reform? Anything can be supported if the audience supports it. Billo created an uproar and so did kangnas, payals and the collective chant of Ehtesaab. All that remains unknown is: why has local popular music restricted itself to certain topics, when there is so much happening around otherwise.

To trace the current standard of pop music in this part of the world, it would be essential to first analyze the pop boom of late 80s and early 90s. It all started with bubblegum pop, then in came rock, followed by a little bit of rap, gradually evolving into more indigenous pop, rock, and rap, giving rise to folk-pop, bhangra then goofy, sufi-rock and folk rap amongst other hybrids. And then tagged along indecision. Did someone say "Why?".

In the early days, optimism led pop artists to look towards the established Western pop music markets for guidelines which they are still doing. The only difference is that by now they have learnt the marketing techniques. What followed? After the shortlived pop renaissance, a government flipped and the same musicians saw themselves getting ruled over the by state officials and the market going down the hill. The performers, following the standards of Western popular culture, forgot to see that it happened the same way in the West too. There, social-reformist rock outfits were also faced the wrath of the government, but the government couldn't be successful for long because the musicians never surrendered. The mass rebellions and demonstrations of the baby boom generation were not everlasting, but they confirmed the power of mass approval in the continuation of civil rights educating free concerts of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. When our governments banned long hair and torn jeans, our musicians either switched to being skin heads and sherwani-jeans amalgamates musically over-whelmed by their own past, or left either the country or the profession itself. Pop vanished, rock disappeared and all that remained was Junoon, remnants of Vital Signs in the form of a self reformist JJ, leftovers of Ali Haider and the Milestones still partly seeking inspiration in the West and partly in their incomplete past, Shehzad Roy always on the verge of winning a major Cola deal and Miss Hadiqa proving to be the wisest of them all. Najam came, should have conquered but did what should have been least expected - an over-commercialized "Pyar Karannu Dil Karda", following the classiest and the most original example of Pakistani popular music at its peek in "Roop Nagar".

What is next? Tapal jingles and tea stall promotions? In came the Strings, influenced by their own past too. One fourth of the album redone and remixed, the newer stuff sounding remixed too because of heavy overlay of synth lines. Sajjad Ali, Ali Haider, Junaid followed the tradition of recycling their old music too. Sajjad being a bit more alike with both new and old stuff along with proving to be too original yet again by calling his album, "Cinderella", featuring remakes of past flops, like "Wachan".

Remixing and redoing older music can be a very sly way to promote artists in between album releases or when they are lacking productivity altogether. It would be better if our musicians realize that the album must go to the credit of the remixer (for example, "Jadu" is more Faraz Anwar's album than Ali Haider's). Letting the album come under the remixer's own name can widen the music circle and encourage many other fields of music business. It's time when all faculties of music business should be highlighted to drag along the entire process of music business in some semblance perfect unison.

Coming back to the current local pop scene, amongst all of these desi music Godzillas the most promising act to come up these days is surely Fakhir's. Disbanding has surely proven profitable for the less hyped chord of Awaz. While Haroon did every thing to prove himself being more serious by shooting out everything in a hurry, a wiser Fakhir waited for a better time to promote himself with all the perfectly coordinated moves. A milli naghma sounding like a poppy love song promoted by a low-budget video, followed by a title song to a commercially acclaimed PTV serial, and a surprising move to abruptly follow-up with a sumptuous production of a wholly and truly sponsored video! The new video ever mounting the anxiety for the up-coming album has a shampoo brand dripping all over, shot in Spain and featuring the model of the shampoo sponsors. The result: Fakhir and the model market the shampoo, while the shampoo markets the song and Fakhir. Ek teer se do shikaar. Hurrah!

Another veteran like (ahmmm... veteran?...whatever) Yasir Akhtar should expand his musical taste to finally realize that Madonna's 'La Isla Bonita' was not about the 'latin' uproar in the global pop market these days. Even Haroon, Fakhir or the ever updated Sajjad Ali can provide better inspiration for Latino-Pakistani fusion than the Jazz man.

Junoon, the only surviving veterans on the verge of leaving the league too should at least be acclaimed for consciously labeling their direction towards filmpop. Salman Ahmed should realize that it is Ali Azmat who demarcates the direction, while he himself is still stuck in riffs and table co-ordination that is repetitive and monotonous and too much of a formula by now. Junoon have proved to be so predictable that they sound like sampled versions of their own past. The new album has some singles which can be put in the line of evolution that made Junoon so big but all the other singles which try being what they can't be ruin the over all impact of the album. In a way "Ishq" is not as bad as it has been projected. It surely sees evolution in the filmi sound, which was initiated in the last album "Parvaaz" with songs like "Sanwal" and "Pyar Bina". The problem is that Junoon seem to be trying so hard that their new music ideologies are coming across feebly and heterogeneously. I am not trying to say that Salman should retire, and replace himself with Ali Azmat, but that he should take a short rest and let Ali step into the prime composer's shoes for a while but without too much of Cola pressure. Why do I suggest that? Surely, Ali would be much more filmi than Salman, and it must get across as a compliment in this reference, that is, Junoon seeking filmi directions. Or maybe they should have thought about taking more time to render their most recent maneuver in the band's musical direction.

Facing the consequences, the only band to take music as true profession shouldn't get washed away so easily. "Dharti Kay Khuda", "Ishq", "Shaamein", "Nach Kurriyae", should be promoted. It's a time when Junoon will have to be video stars to survive. They should also realize it is not just a desert that a Junooni can survive in and not only one director that can make them. "Sitaroun sae aagay jahaan aur bhee hain". Moral of the story: move on please!

Talking about marketing, yes what about it? What can refurbish the music markets once they have tasted famine? Charisma is the only answer. Marketing techniques I think should be more elaborate. To see what is really required to highlight the presence of a music market in Pakistan, we shall go to a Pakistan VS. England match in London, interrupted by raining clouds. Live coverage via "an Indian channel", (how ironic of PTV) gets interrupted because, Indians start pouring in as well! Ohhh tobbah tobbah! And from somewhere the PTV Pop of 70s and 80s that no one even remembers! You won't ever see recent pop getting aired at any other time than the sum allotted to Zaheer Khan, the only PTV concerned director 'uniform-ly' loyal to popular trends in music. To promote contemporary popular music, and not the popular music of the past, policies at the State TV would have to be revised or updated, or else in the existing conditions only the private or the foreign channels can do for the music industry what should have been done by Pakistani visual media.

In the time of pop explosion in the post-Zia days, there were so many programs like "M.C.C", "Gold Leaf Rhythm Whythm", "Pepsi Top of the Pops", and later on for short duration "VJ", which had commercialized a lot of popular music, but what happened to them? Where did they all go? Did PTV have a short circuit that led to a fire that in turn burnt all the archives of the most recent pop artists? It would be wrong to say we are running short on pop. It seems there were many bands and one hit wonders that have been drowned out, not because they could match their own success but because they could never dare change the political scenario.

Why can't we dare for existence, so what if we get ruled by skin heads of fascists? Art should be independent. It should happen in a cafe on the corner of a street in some residential area. Come on, there are performers so there would be an audience. How can there be performance and no audience? The only thing lacking is sincerity. It has to come back again. It's time for a revolution. Maybe a small "private revolution", but there has to be one. It has nothing to do with governments. The policy will never change until people dare on every level - the common and the elite, the corporate along with the artistic. Things have to change.

We need professional promotion in industries of fashion, showbiz, broadcasting, music, literature and all else that our country is completely bereft of. All these fields have enough in their individual markets to rely upon. All we need is proper way to channel what resources we have in the right directions. We need a well devised corporate sector to market music in whatever way that it might feel safe - corporate or artistic, underground or above ground and then a proper individual setup for the upcoming bands to start out in the hands of right people so they can end up at the right places in the right manner.

The problem that our music industry faces is that it gets criticized even before it can stand on its own. In the wake of the corporate mode of music promotion the truthful values of music and art would also get highlighted. Juxtaposition works in situations like these. Marketing art and music like refrigerators, colas and toothpastes might sound restrictive and fake to the standards of art but in conditions of such artistic deprivation, apt marketing, hype and uproar is needed more than anything else. Artistic consciousness and awareness can be brought to spotlight the most effectively by monopolizing and packaging it in the most coordinated and corporate way. Staged and pushed efforts can later on break loose once the whole artistic awareness scenario catches momentum and the stir of spontaneity and individuality will come to the brink as well. This monopolizing of art would pave way for true standards of music to surface from in-between due to effectivity of juxtaposition of contrasting values.

Looking towards the West, the whole presence of glitter pop in the seventies, underlined by David Bowie's space-age character Ziggy Stardust propped up a theatre of corporate rock stars, 'earning' with as much zeal as 'performing'. For Alice Cooper who also delivered heavy-metal rock theatrics, "the idea was to make $1 million. Otherwise the struggle wouldn't have been worth it. I am the most American rock-act. I have American ideals. I love money." This induced aggression in the more creative and devoted musicians who started revolting against the corporatising and glamorising of the music industry. As a reaction, the Blank Generation' of punk rock led by Richard Hell and other New York punk outfits, saw bands from the British middle class like, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and Siouxie and the Banshees create a British punk movement substituting an angry anarchism for the theatrical excess of seventies superstars. "We have got to fight the entire super band system," stated Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols. The music industry to advance in the uproar of contrasting values and varieties.

The local music market surely needs furor and hyped media projection to attract new talent. Billboard and poster campaigns, non-stop radio and TV airplay of new releases based on the MTV criteria of playing videos so often that success becomes inevitable is surely to be considered. Weekly highlighted slots on cable channels and local radio stations for new local pop acts and joint ventures between various arts related industries like fashion, literature, visual and performing arts can be very useful. Music venues on an urban level in the form of cafes and restaurants should be established, which would provide opportunities to the probable 'next-best-things' on a more private and intimate smaller scale besides the media uproar being the next stage. More investment will lead to cash outflow too. Radio airplay can do wonders for uplifting the future of the music industry in a big way. The press should collectively strive for promoting newer music probables in coordination with radio DJs and TV producers.

As a first step labels should further reduce the prices of CDs and cassettes, making it more affordable. It can increase gross profit if business increases. Right now no one gets to invest also because rival offerings from the music markets of the West and India cost less than Pakistani music, because rights are reserved for the local acts! Music sales would have to be focused to a much smaller scale. Singles CDs and cassettes should be launched at the most minimal prices to make music more affordable for the teenagers who form the majority of commercial music listening.

Fanzines and cyber space can create a lot of hype too. The expansion of a cyber music industry will provide opportunity for further music promotion. Local Napsters should be established. Music should be made free on the net, and for the real music markets, sales should account for more than music sales. Music albums should be accompanied with other commodities concerned with the artists like books, guides, fan club utilities, or anything that would further promote cassette and CD sales.

Authentic National Charts should be initiated, whatever the kind of music sells, it should be truthfully charted to see the commercial strengths and based on the surveys, multi nationals should be made to market musical groups against similar music dolls from the West and the remaining East.

If advertising is hell bent on relying on the music industry it should first aim to make it big enough too. How long can they bid on retiring horses?

The entire music marketing would have to be renovated to turn a hobby into a business. For that our artists would have to mature and for a little more time stay slaves to the corporate sector, while the sector itself acquires more ideas to uplift sales which they have been utterly unsuccessful at, in this part of the world!

M. Sayem Ghayur
July, 2001
The News International, Pakistan