Is the Internet the future of music in Pakistan?

November 8, 2009

As Overload and Mekaal Hasan Band release their records without the backing of a record label and pull it off without a glitch, Instep takes a look at the burgeoning music scene, record label battles and how the Internet just might be the way out

By Maheen Sabeeh

Throwing out the blame

OverloadInternet. The inescapable term that has become an intrinsic part of our lives. We tweet through our phones; share pictures and at times send pointed (albeit indirect) messages to people on Facebook… and that is just one small example. According to the CIA Fact Book, Pakistan had an estimated 17.5 million internet users in the year 2009. So if music sales are going down at stores, which they very much are, we can guess that fans are downloading and sharing albums online instead.

The music industry is on a collision course as record labels struggle to make a profit in the face of an economic recession that has seen corporate sponsorships for music and musical events go down as well. Meanwhile artists are waiting for their albums to be released. The current scenario isn’t while my guitar gently weeps, it’s more while my guitar gently sleeps…

The industry that seems to have come to a virtual standstill seems to be in desperate need of a new business model. The Internet has come as an alternative music platform. It is one that the West took on years ago. Nine Inch Nails, REM, Travis, Coldplay – no one is immune to its power. Exclusive and special releases and artwork, discounted rates and global easy access makes the Internet a real alternative to the conventional buying of a physical CD. Musicians like Butterfly Boucher, Tegan and Sara, The Raconteurs, Kate Voegele, Paramore (and quite a few names of the Twilight OST) shot to international acclaim via their MySpace pages and Internet downloads. YouTube tells us that Ali Zafar‘s ‘Dastaan-e-Ishq‘ for Coke Studio has over 85,000 hits. It’s really that simple and accessible.

Our music industry itself is going through a metamorphosis of sorts. On one hand is the question of copyrights with musicians blaming record labels for taking them away and on the other there are the record labels saying ‘Well why did you sign the deal?’. One can understand musicians’ concerns though. In a country where holding a big concert has become almost impossible because of security concerns and the Taliban threat and corporate sponsorship has been curtailed by economic recession – generating revenue for musicians comes through album sales and record deals. But the cut in album sales only applies if the artist has not sold off all his rights to a record label.

This debate has been ongoing for some time now and the direction remains unknown.

Get up! Stand up! Stand up for your right…
The last few months have been submerged in controversies. On one hand are the artists who are happy with their deals and their releases. Shiraz Uppal‘s Ankahi has hit markets and he is incredibly happy as are Hadiqa Kiyani and Jal, all of whom have signed up with Fire Records.
“I am very happy with my deal with Fire Records. They are a pleasure to work with,” said Shiraz to Instep while speaking about his album release. Fuzon – who were with The Musik Records – have now joined the Fire bandwagon and will release their next record with Fire. These artists are doing okay.

MHBOn the other hand are artists like Mauj and Kaavish, alternative bands who have been hit hard by the economic recession with their albums releases still pending for over a year. It’s a waste of time and money: make videos, release them, watch them ride up the charts, while there is no album in the market to benefit from this exercise. Both Kaavish and Mauj seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place. That’s true for any musician who isn’t deemed to be commercially viable in a market that favours pop and bhangra over anything else.

The sentiment is of resentment and there have been casualties. Fire Records own the rights to Mauj and Kaavish’s debut albums. Both records are still not out despite being signed up with Fire Records. They signed up over a year ago. These young acts are now stuck.

Speaking with Instep, Jaffer Zaidi, lead vocalist of Kaavish said, “After over a dozen prior release dates given to us by the record label, the last date for Gunkali‘s release was December 2009, we’re pretty much a part of Fire’s backlog. The hold-up apparently, is that the label can’t find a suitable sponsor for the album because it lacks all the ‘masala’. I think before they signed us up, they knew that this album was solely a ‘music oriented’ album and they felt it was one of it’s kind. In this country I guess it’s only a matter of time that a label realizes that what could’ve been the biggest hit, and was supposed to be the future of music, 10 months ago, is worth just a show piece on their shelf now.

“We had had issues with the master of the album around the end of last year (December 2008). We got it fixed early January this year (2009), and that was the last time the album got mastered. I guess when the record label needs to hide it’s own flaws, it starts to play the blame game.”

Omran Shafique of Mauj holds a similar view.
“I have not been given a valid enough reason. It’s usually that the ‘situation’ in the country isn’t right right now. Maybe if I go into politics, rise to power, and fix all the country’s problems the ‘situation’ in the country might be good enough to expect an album release? The things you have to do to get a release date!”
Defending the continuous delays, Dr Akbar Yezdani, CEO of Fire Records told Instep, “When we release an album of one artist, we make sure that something different is released with it so one artist shouldn’t take cut of the other artist. Shiraz Uppal’s album (Ankahi) had been ready for about two years and it was just released. Kaavish’s album was completed some six months ago and the video was also made, but then the bomb blasts happened and then the long march, so we put it on hold. We’ve made an investment in Kaavish and Mauj so we will release them, hopefully by December.”

Whose right is it anyway?

The biggest name that keeps coming up is of Fire Records who have signed up some of the most prolific as well as young, fresh names in music in the last two years. It would be safe to say that there is a monopoly situation in the music industry, with artists having no alternative but to sign up with Fire. Barring Ali Azmat, most artists, according to Fire, sold their copyrights in return for lump sum payments. These include Ali Zafar, Atif Aslam, Zeb and Haniya, Shehzad Roy, Shiraz Uppal… anybody and everybody has willingly signed the contract that they complain about.

Kaavish“We do not dictate the producer of our choice on any artist to make sure that they are comfortable with the producer. We have spent a lot of money on production. Now naturally we need to recover our money,” says Dr Yezdani “We are not a charity organization. With a population of nearly 180 million, why is there only one mainstream record label even though the music industry has expanded? It’s not like we are forcing anyone to work with us or sign with us. We provide them with the options and then they say that we have their exclusive rights.”

For some time, this model (signing over your copyright for a lump sum payment) worked. There was no other model to follow and no licensing system was in place. Songs aired for free on channels and radio stations. As Fire Records grew, they started utilizing the copyrights they own. They created uproar in the music industry when they demanded that the MTV Music Awards pay Fire Records for playing the songs of their artistes.

“Music is content and its not free,” maintains Dr Yezdani. “With rights lying with us we can tell channels not to play our song because we have the rights unless they pay us. The sum of royalty per song is nothing. But when it accumulates, it is then that we can recover our cost. It’s our dream that all the artists should be united. All the channels are retaliating because they feel we now have the monopoly. We don’t want to be a monopoly.”

However, this strategic business move triggered a chain reaction in the industry with musicians becoming more aware of their own interests. Atif and Ali Zafar are researching business models. Speaking with Instep, Rohail Hyatt revealed that he is planning a record label as well.

“Necessity is the mother of all inventions,” said Rohail who firmly believes that no record label can own copyrights in return for a bulk payment. Rohail’s view is simple: Put the content out there.

“There is no such thing as a contract for life. Just because an artist has signed an unfair deal, it doesn’t give the label the right to own those songs forever. Take for instance Zeb and Haniya. They sold their rights to Fire. Now just because they’ve sold the rights, it doesn’t mean that they are not the original creator of the content. A contract is a mutual understanding between two people and as long as those two people are willing to stay on the terms of that contract, it is valid. You can terminate it whenever one part does not wish to continue with it any longer. It’s not slavery.”

However, it remains to be seen when and if Rohail Hyatt’s record label is launched and what business model he will employ to generate revenue. In the here and now, as awareness grows, one thing is clear. Musicians – at least some of them – now want to own copyrights to their music. Karavan have signed up with The Musik Records without losing their copyrights.

The label will distribute their album and the lump sum payment is only partial. It’s the same deal Ali Azmat struck with Fire Records earlier, giving the label just the distribution rights. Of course, Ali didn’t make as much money on lump sum but that was the price he was willing to pay. As a result, he can play his songs at any concert, on any channel, and do whatever he wants with his music. Truth be told, Ali Azmat was the only one who took a stand and is sitting pretty while everyone cribs about a contract they signed.

“It takes two to clap. The artist is as much responsible as the label,” says Rohail Hyatt. “If the artist wants to continue and not believe in a fair system, then they’ll go on in the same way things are happening now. But in order for a system to come into place, they need to re-think as well. If they are willing to take the risk and say ‘no, I won’t take x amount of money’ and ‘I want to believe in a royalty system or for any future earnings, I want to own my own rights’, then it’ll change. Artists also need to do that. There’s no point in crying after the deal. You should be careful in the beginning.”

The alternative is online

MaujOne thing Rohail Hyatt is right about is that necessity is the mother of invention and each and every musician in Pakistan seems to be launching himself in the virtual world while waiting for release in the real world.

Mauj released their record digitally weeks back. The record, colourfully titled, Now in Technicolor, can be digitally downloaded, legally (i-Tunes, Amazon, Napster) or illegally (through Torrents). But the consequence is that the songs have become slightly stale. We’ve heard them over and over except the there is no legal copy of the album in the market. When the album is released, who is going to buy it now?

Meanwhile two bands have taken the alternative route that is common in the West, i.e., going independent. Overload‘s Pichal Pairee is available for download on the band’s website while Mekaal Hasan Band’s Saptak has released on Overload’s Pichal Pairee has no mainstream label behind it and the band has not released the record physically. In other words, there is no cassette or CD in the market available.

Speaking with Instep, Farhad Humayun of Overload explained, “After our release over the Internet, labels have been approaching us. When we went to them earlier, they had nothing to offer. If we get a good deal even now, we may release it or we just light reject them for fun!”

Mekaal Hasan Band have a slightly different game plan. Their second album, Saptak, which released on October 10 over the Internet via CD Baby and is also hitting Amazon and iTunes by the time this article goes in print.

Speaking about releasing without a record label, Mekaal Hasan said to Instep, “Why should I? I create my own content; I make my own videos and produce my own records. Before this album came out, I played the record out on almost every channel before its release. We road tested before making any decisions.” And Mekaal is in talks with The Musik Records whereby the record will hit markets later this month but Mekaal Hasan Band will retain all rights to their songs.

From ground zero…
It sounds too complicated but it’s really that simple. Record labels are big business, but globally they have taken a severe hit in the wake of digital outlets and are rethinking their business model. With recession and the changing dynamics – Musicians in the West make millions of dollars through their concerts – independent labels are the ‘in’ thing. From Jay-Z to Justin Timberlake, indie labels are all over the place. And they are filling in a void mainstream labels are unable to.

In Pakistan, the context is similar. With rumours of a Union for Pop/AMPP in the making and the licensing of musical content, the industry is waking up to global trends and picking up on it. Atif Aslam has joined Facebook. He is not an Internet person but he realises its potential. Twitter has become the latest fancy of the music industry. MySpace has Zeb and Haniya, Mauj, ADP and countless others, connecting to a broader fan base.

The very public debate (or musical spectacle as I like to call it) over the never-ending moved release dates of Mauj and Kaavish’s albums (blogs, forums, fans and music industry insiders all talk) have proven to be a catalyst. Moving past the blame game, it is clear that the monopolistic era of the record label is over. The Internet is inescapable.

Source: INSTEP Magzine