Pakistan’s music economy: The stalemate

Published: May 21, 2011
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The Express Tribune takes a closer look at the factors behind the dearth of new music in the country  
.DESIGN: AMNA IQBAL

The Express Tribune takes a closer look at the factors behind the dearth of new music in the country .DESIGN: AMNA IQBAL

LAHORE: What was once a buzzing and dynamic music industry in Pakistan in the mid-2000s is now slowly dying. So what exactly happened after Noori, Jal, Atif Aslam, Ali Zafar, Mekaal Hassan Band, EP, and Call hit the airwaves in the early 2000s?

Since 2004, our industry has not produced a single new ‘star’. Even subsequent albums by the said artists, if they have appeared, have not captured the public imagination the way their earlier albums did.

Observers struggle to explain the current stall in our music industry. Surely we have not run out of talent? Some conjecture that consumer tastes have suddenly changed. Or that artists have lost the connection with their fans owing to the decline of public concerts. However, none of these theories hold up on closer scrutiny.

The reason lies elsewhere: In the way the music industry commercially operates. Over the last five years, the very institutions that were responsible for bringing good music to the Pakistani market have caused its downfall.

Let’s start with the record labels. There is only one active record label in Pakistan at present: Fire Records. With more than 50 artists under its belt, Fire Records enjoys a monopoly over the industry. The other big players of the industry (The Musik Records, EMI and LIPS Music — not counting Alif Records and Riot Records which only cater to individual artists) are currently dormant.

Fire Records offered artists the complete package for audio production, video production, television advertisements, concert deals, dedicated airtime for videos, interviews and appearances on TV. Many artists eagerly signed on to this one-stop shop for launching their music.

However, when you read the fine print of the contract, it featured a few conditions.

For starters, the package included no monetary compensation for almost all artists.  Secondly, an artist had to give up his/her rights to the music. This meant that Fire Records vetoed every decision including which song to launch when, which video to make when and when to distribute the album. Moreover, all artists signed under Fire Records could have their videos aired only exclusively on Fire Records’ sister television channels (AAG, Geo TV, etc.) unless royalty payments were made by other channels.

With blatantly anti-competitive practices, Fire Records became the sole lifeline for these top 50 artists of Pakistan. So, unsurprisingly, when Fire Records decided to decrease its output of new releases in the market, the whole industry suffered.

A good example is that of the band Mauj. Having released their first single “Khushfehmi” in 2004 to widespread acclaim, and then “Paheliyan” in 2008, the band signed on with Fire Records in January 2009 with a ready-made album in hand. However, the record company decided to postpone the album’s release. The fans waited, the band complained, and illegal free downloads soared on the web. It wasn’t until a year later in January 2010 that the album finally saw a release. But by then a lot of water had passed under the bridge – it was too late. The craze had already died.

Call suffered a similar fate. With their album ready in 2008, they had to wait till February 2011. “Laree Chootee” had truly missed the bus by then.

So, is Fire Records really the menace it appears to be? Those who understand the music business would explain that in a market which is plagued by piracy and illegal online downloads and operating in an environment of socio-economic downturn, the record label business is probably going through its worst times.

Fire Records, the largest investor in the record label business, is also facing the crunch. In the words of the Operations Manager at Fire Records: “The days where an album could easily sell a 100,000-plus copies are over. Even mass appeal albums of artists like Shazia Manzoor are struggling to hit the lower thousands. There are very few returns to be made in an environment such as this”.

Other factors affecting record labels is the refusal of TV channels to pay any royalties on videos, and the increased influx of Bollywood songs being played on local channels which is directly hampering consumer demand for local music.

On the distribution side, the market is dominated by Sadaf Stereo and Sound Master. With the widest distribution networks in the country, these distributors are widely alleged to act as a mafia.

Conventionally, record labels engage with distributors and have joint investment and revenue sharing models. This is not true in Pakistan. Artists such as Jal, Ali Azmat, Ali Zafar and many others have to directly engage with Sadaf Stereo and Sound Master for the distribution of their albums. These agreements are often not legally binding contracts but simply a take it or leave it offer in which the artists are paid up front. Consequently, the artists receive no royalty per sale, have no say in where and when the albums will be placed, and cannot keep track of the quantity sold. The lack of respect for legal contracts by distributors reflects the general lack of respect for intellectual property and copyright in our country.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the biggest illegal online music distributor in the country (apniisp.com) has been up and running without disruption for over nine years now. The website now gets almost half a million visitors per month and its estimated value lies close to US$900,000!

If artists cannot find a deal for their albums or a distributor willing to take their music to the stores, and fail to get their videos aired during prime time, why would they make music in Pakistan at all?

While some established artists have managed to explore new markets through Indian record labels, new artists have struggled to overcome these enormous hurdles. Take the example of Qayaas, an amazing new band from Islamabad who produced their own album, made their own videos, and personally distributed their own printed albums to stores across Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

What are the odds that Qayaas will make it big? What is for sure is that many other talented artists will never venture as far as them. In the end, it will just be the music fans like you and I who are going to miss out.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2011.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • Osama
    May 22, 2011 - 12:07AM

    I think Pakistan’s music industry has had actually never witnessed a boom after nazia hasan, medi hasan, ahmed rushdi, which could have perpetuated it’s success. These musicians, bands, and artists are unprofessional at the least. They’re those wannabes who have no musical training and, with sincere thanks to the latest boom in computer audio production, digital audio workstations including cakewalk sonar, apple logic, and protool HD, they have quite managed to come to limelight by hiding their insecurities and flaws.

    What lacks is the training, and what is needed is a professional and honest outlook towards this profession, a sharp discouragement to any random Raam, Rahim, and Abdullah who might turn up to this industry to gain overnight fame and counter his/her insecurities. Recommend

  • Tia
    May 22, 2011 - 1:37AM

    Fire records is one of the factors of destroying industry by their stupid contracts and non Artist friendly contracts and policies. They could’ve single handily uplifted the industry but instead single handily destroyed it. Everyone hates them except themselves. Recommend

  • May 22, 2011 - 5:08AM

    The future lies in the digital sales and we are definitely not working or upgrading ourselves for that.

    Apniisp now publicizes bollywood content(same thing all our music channels do) and doesn’t put up Pakistani Albums anymore. The biggest pirated website is songs.pk which has ripped all latest bollywood releases right on time. The $US900,000 figure is just exaggeration, however I do believe its ‘brand’ now and have some potential.

    Try to see the situation this way – piracy also promotes the artist (that’s what I believe and have experimented with new artists)

    Bilal Khan just started with his unplugged song and now he has a complete album ready , half of which he has already released online for FREE. Is he mad? not really! he has now over 60,000 fans on Facebook only – a music video of him has crossed a million mark on youtube recently and the guy is now in COKE STUDIO tomorrow :) (just in a matter of time)

    He did it all via digital and social media marketing and we are here still talking about : Cassettes and CDs now available! Wuhaa

    Fire Records have sunk completely and all the major artists I know are regretting their decision for getting signed up with them. They are perfect monopolists and have no concern or soft heart for musicians.

    Now is time to come up with some new ideas and with the help of digital things and technology, [Pakistani Music][1] industry can stand again on its feet and earn musicians and stake holders some good money. Its just lack of interest by potential sponsors/supporters/entrepreneurs. Otherwise you can analyse the demand of our artists in Bollywood.Recommend

  • Bunty
    May 23, 2011 - 11:15AM

    Who wrote this? I don’t see any name.Recommend

  • Sverige
    May 23, 2011 - 3:37PM

    Just not a good idea to slow down the process and being pessimistic. We the foreign settled Pakistanis like Pakistani music and many of us buy from iTunes. It would be better if could be able to get a CD from our local record companies. A little focus required on EU countries other than just english speaking lands. We are here to support!Recommend

  • Aamir
    May 23, 2011 - 4:18PM

    Yes FIre Records tried to be a smart by monopolising, even went to litigations againsts cooperate houses and artists, instead left such a bad taste that no one even wants to speak to that guy. Recommend

  • Shahshams Zaheer
    May 23, 2011 - 11:14PM

    @Danish It’s true Bilal Khan has managed to do well by using social media and letting people download his music for free. However, Bilal Khan clearly is an exception and not the rule. There may be many more people like him who might never make it through the cracks.

    Bilal Khan too, deserves more for the amount of talent he has. A corporate sponsored TV appearance, in my opinion, is really not the epitome of artistic brilliance – although considering the state of affairs of the industry it is an achievement nonetheless.Recommend

  • May 25, 2011 - 4:45AM

    Truly said Danish
    Now Apniisp has a good image, Tribune don’t know about Apniisp that what they are doing..
    Apniisp’s admin Hasan have taken some interviews of Bollywood celebrities..
    Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar and many names are there..
    You should make your Tagline “Jaldi Aiye Jaldi Paaiye Cassettes abhi baaki hain” LOL
    GROW UP :DRecommend

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