Features | Society | South Asia

Pakistan’s Rock‘n Roll Resurgence

After coming out from the shadow of security concerns, Pakistan’s musicians face a more mundane challenge: money.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
Pakistan’s Rock‘n Roll Resurgence

Musical group Starzone performs on season 4 of Pepsi Battle of the Bands.

Credit: Pepsi Battle of the Bands/ YouTube screenshot

The Sri Lankan men’s cricket team is in Pakistan for a two-match series, signifying the return of Test cricket to the country after a decade. The March 2009 terror attack targeting the Sri Lankan side in Lahore was the lowest point for Pakistan as a host country. It resulted in Pakistan’s national sporting teams participating in almost all of their international events overseas.

But in the wake of the attack, it wasn’t merely cricket, or sports, that saw global stars pulling out from visiting the country. Among the segments impacted by the security turmoil in Pakistan was music.

The 2009 terror attack had come at a time when musicians, especially live performers, had already been pushed into a shell. The 2007 Lal Masjid siege in Islamabad, which saw the Army under then-military dictator General Pervez Musharraf clash with militants in the capital, resulted in jihadist attacks spilling into urban centers.

Attacks like the one targeting Islamabad Marriot, a surge in suicide bombings in Lahore, and multipronged militancy in Karachi turned the hubs of music concerts in Pakistan into battlefields at the turn of the previous decade.

Following counterterror successes in the last five years, however, public events have gradually returned to Pakistan. And along with the cricket-headlined return of global athletes to the country, the resurfacing peace in Pakistan has also led to a resurgence in what was once the go-to sources of entertainment for the nation’s urban youth: rock bands.

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The decade and a half between the late 1980s and mid-2000s witnessed the birth and expansion of rock bands in Pakistan. The predominantly pop group Vital Signs became the poster boys of this band culture, with Junoon being the trailblazer in the rock genre.

Rock band Strings, a contemporary of Vital Signs and Junoon, saw its revival at the turn of the millennia with the advent of cable TV and the launch of Pakistan’s first music channel, Indus Music, in the year 2000.

As Strings released their third album Duur, the growing television exposure saw the rise of a whole new wave of rock bands headlined by the likes of Noori, Aaroh, Entity-Paradigm (EP), and Mekaal Hasan Band (MHB).

The latter trio exploded onto the scene as the top three bands from the Pepsi Battle of the Bands in 2002. After a lull of 15 years, marred largely by the deteriorating security in the country, the Battle of the Bands resumed in 2017, looking to give Pakistan its next generation of rock stars.

Seasons 2, 3, and 4 have taken place over the past three years, crowning Kashmir, Bayaan, and Auj as the winners of the 2017, 2018 and 2019 editions, respectively. With the seasons being aired on multiple TV channels and YouTube as part of Pepsi’s marketing campaigns, all participating bands have garnered viewership across the country.

“Most of the credit [for the resurgence of rock bands] goes to the Pepsi Battle of the Bands, which allows bands to try their luck as a unit on merit with equal, fair chance – this was really needed. [As a result] the current scene of rock bands in Pakistan is booming, with so many new bands getting recognition from PBoB,” Zahid Qureshi, Tamaasha’s guitarist, said while talking to The Diplomat.

Tamaasha, which rose to fame as one of the standout participants of Season 3, has over the past year held multiple concerts. The band has also released two of its music videos amid growing coverage on mainstream and social media.

“More and more bands will emerge across Pakistan as brands seek to do campaigns with them. Tamaasha has a few concerts and campaigns aligned with a few brands, [we] did a jingle recently as well. So yeah, the scene looks pretty good,” Qureshi added.

After having survived the security turmoil over the past, Pakistan’s rock bands are now faced with their next challenge: sustenance.

Tamaasha’s first single was released on social media with the #PaisaPhenk hashtag. The title and the track’s lyrics “Paisa phenk tamaasha dekh” a South Asian adage that loosely translates to “money makes a mare go” – or the literal “throw money and watch the show” – aims to underline the financial challenges for aspiring musicians.

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“These challenges aren’t limited to young musicians. Even those that have been there for a long time struggle for self-sustenance,” Mekaal Hasan, the founder and lead guitarist of MHB, told The Diplomat.

The Mekaal Hasan Band finished third in the inaugural Pepsi Battle of the Bands, and went on to garner a massive following for its blend of Sufi and classical rock with folk elements. Becoming a major hit with their debut album Sampooran in 2004, the MHB had to look for alternatives when terror attacks made it difficult to organize concerts in Pakistan.

“When the security situation got worse, I decided to work away from Pakistan, because it was impossible to do shows. I worked in India, and then when the situation with India got tense, we started touring North America. International tours are still there in our annual schedule, but it’s hard to manage that out of your own pocket. The artists who have been successful in doing this, they already have international bookers,” Hasan said.

The upcoming rock bands say that growth in music is bolstered by mentorship. Just like the first Battle of the Bands featured members of Vital Signs as judges, the recent seasons have seen vocalists from Aaroh and EP Farooq Ahmed and Fawad Khan be a part of the adjudicating team.

Veterans Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia of Strings formed one half of the judges’ panel this season along with Meesha Shafi and Fawad Khan.

Similarly, last month, MHB led the Pepsi Battle of the Bands (PBOTB) Tour, which featured leading bands from the last three seasons including E-Sharp, Tamaasha, and two of the winners, Kashmir and Auj. Mekaal Hasan says that while the shows were a success, the increasing “corporate culture” isn’t helping the musicians.

“The audiences are still obviously there because the [PBOTB Tour] shows were packed. Unfortunately, the corporates have started a [free] passes culture, which makes it difficult to sell tickets when we organize our own concerts. People have now become addicted to free shows,” Hasan maintained.

The musicians also reiterate that the government needs to do a lot more to make music economically feasible. Currently, performers are being asked to pay withholding tax worth 10 percent on the shows. If they are sponsoring the event themselves, they have to pay another 16 percent sales tax as vendors. The artists are further asked to pay 20 percent tax on the ticket price to the Excise & Taxation Department, in addition to obtaining the No Objection Certificate (NOC) and approval from the Deputy Commissioner’s Office.

“This is before you’ve even made your first sale. Then because of the passes culture, the halls are filled with those who haven’t paid for their ticket. We live in a country where music isn’t accepted as a part of the cultural life. The government’s general attitude is that it doesn’t really care,” Mekaal Hasan said.

This has meant that without corporate backing, musicians cannot earn enough money to sponsor their own music, prompting many of them to do parallel jobs. Tamaasha’s Zahid Qureshi, for instance, works as a VFX producer and digital analyst. Despite having been a prominent rock star for two decades, Mekaal Hasan also has to cater to commercial and production jobs in his studio.

Similarly, Misbah Uddin from the progressive rock band Keeray Makoray runs his own studio along with teaching music as well. He concedes that where the improved security situation has paved the way for more concerts, there is still a massive question mark over the financial feasibility for upcoming rock musicians.

“Right now the concerts are happening at universities, or are corporate shows – which basically translates into them paying a channel to stop running news for a bit and play music in that time. That’s how people get to know the bands. It’s almost impossible for private individuals to make events happen,” he told The Diplomat.

Keeray Makoray last came out with its Extended Play two years ago. The band’s last performance was at the Levi’s Live show last month, having previously performed for the same event in 2017.

“Everyone else has got busy with other things. The Levi’s Live show was only possible because they were paying us enough money for it to be monetarily feasible for the band members,” Misbah Uddin added.

Where the rise of social media over the past decade has given platforms to bands around the world to gain prominence, the fight for limited attention has made it tougher for musicians to stand out on these platforms enough to make the required money.

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The musicians say YouTube advertising is expensive, while the competition is stiff on Facebook and Instagram. This has prompted a debate in the music circle over creating a mechanism wherein music can be independently created and transmitted to the target audience.

“The following of music was organic [in the 2000s], now it depends on advertisements. When people liked a track [back then] they would call up radio or TV shows and ask them to play it. Now you’re just listening to what is being promoted,” said Mekaal Hasan.

Patari, a Pakistani music streaming service, was created in 2015. While it is helping promote the local bands, for many it doesn’t quite have the reach needed to significantly contribute to the financial wellbeing of the musicians.

“If you’re a musician today, your ambition is to reach Pepsi Battle of the Bands or Coke Studio. Radio and TV refuse to play Pakistani music unless they’re given money. The media doesn’t cover any bands unless they’re backed by Coke or Pepsi. The infrastructure is no longer there. Money can actually be earned through concerts and merchandise. And both those things are totally dead in Pakistan. That’s where the future is,” former COO of Patari and pop culture critic Ahmer Naqvi said while talking to The Diplomat.

“You need a professional music industry, whereby there’s a record label helping produce music, then there’s a distribution platform, and it is ensured that they are following copyrights and providing royalties. In Pakistan, all FM channels work illegally. They run content they don’t pay royalties on. So they just play the Billboard 100, because Rihanna won’t come and ask them for money!” he added.

Naqvi also calls out the state and the rulers for not prioritizing local musicians. “The biggest production house in Pakistan, the Army, has zero interest in developing local stars. So they enjoy getting their pictures taken with Akcent, but when was the last time you saw a local band at one of their events?”

Amidst these challenges, various Pakistani rock bands are looking to end the decade on a high with the Koblumpi Music Festival 2019 in Lahore on December 22, which will feature performances, among others, from Keeray Makoray and Mekaal Hasan Band.

The participants, and the organizers, are hopeful that the local bands will ride the recent wave of resurgence to form a more sustainable music industry, with more frequent rock events in the 2020s.