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Whatever Happened To Pakistani Bands?

Whatever Happened To Pakistani Bands?

The last 5 years have seen the sad decline of rock/pop bands in Pakistan. Here’s why it happened.

Things have gotten so bad for bands in Pakistan, there’s pretty much only one left: the new incarnation of Noori, who’ve snatched up the survivors from other bands, adding Zeeshan Parwez from Sajid and Zeeshan and Faraz Anwar from Mizraab. Sure, there’s a few still soldiering on (the very talented Qayaas and the old warhorses in EP), but at the end of the day, the music scene is dominated by huge solo artists (Atif and Ali Zafar) or old duos like Strings.

photo courtesy Wahaj M.Khan

photo courtesy Wahaj M.Khan

So what happened along the way? We’ve had a pretty rich history of bands in Pakistan, from the iconic Vital Signs to Junoon and a host of other talented groups that came and went, including Aaroh, Jal, EP, Roxen, Siege and Mauj. Bands were great not just for the music but for the entertainment value, it’s just so much more news than a boring old solo artist. When the Beatles were around, young fans loved them because they could pick their favorite character out of the lineup, the band member they most identified with.  You could be like funny, sarcastic John, cute and charming Paul, quiet and introspective George or lovable buffoon Ringo.

You could see the same thing happening in Pakistan. If you liked Noori, you were either a fan of Ali Noor, the charismatic showman, or if you were a pseudo-rebel (until Coke Studio when it became the norm) you liked quiet, soulful Ali Hamza. (“He’s the real talent yaar…”). It was either Sufi Salman Ahmed or Crazy Ali Azmat, High Pitched Bilal Maqsood or Deep Voiced Faisal Kapadia.

Why then has the appeal of bands in Pakistan waned? Well, for one I think the appeal of bands as a group of colorful individuals (much like the Pakistan cricket team) has declined all over the world. You just don’t get the cartoony-larger-than life personalities in bands anymore. If anything, it’s become cooler to eschew that kind of cult of personality. Let’s see you name more than one member of Maroon 5, Mumford and Sons, Arcade Fire or any of the modern day big bands.

Then there’s a whole bunch of things that are specific to the Pakistan industry.

Bands Can’t Hold On To Good Drummers And Vocalists

Apparently there are only three drummers in Pakistan. There’s Gumby of course, and Farhad Humayun who replaced him on Coke Studio. Finally there’s Ahad Nayani, the drummer for Strings who must have kidnapped his family or uncovered his sex tape to keep him playing exclusively with them for so long. Drummers are the heartbreaking sluts of the Pakistan music industry. There’s high demand and not enough supply so its in their interest to jump from one project to the next, never committing to anyone.  This alone inspires massive antagonism towards them — it was pretty much the reason Noori and Gumby initially parted ways due to his refusal to remain exclusive.

Sadly, there are only two things a band in Pakistan is judged on: the quality of the lead singer and the skill of the drummer. Frankly everything else is replaceable. There is no “band” without a drummer or a singer. They’re the most exciting part of the band; they play the instrument we are most likely to respond to emotionally.  Without either of those two, the band limps along, trying desperately to find a replacement but never do.  Having an amazing vocalist too is a double-edged sword because eventually, they’ll give in to the oversized chunk of the attention they receive from Pakistani audiences and go solo. Once Coke Studio offered a spot to Meesha Shafi instead of her band Overload, it was the kiss of death for them. Same thing with Shafqat Amanat Ali after he left Fuzon.

Bands Make No Money:

Being in a band is like having to provide for a family without receiving any of the unconditional love or personal fulfillment.  I can’t speak for other bands, but when I was in ADP, we split all our money equally five ways. Nothing breaks a band apart faster than money and I suspect not all bands out there were as egalitarian as us. How could they be, when TV shows are usually only interested in the lead singer, or the main guy behind the band feels hugely entitled since he lugs around all the equipment, does all the business dealings and writes all the songs? It’s hard not to feel justified in asking for a bigger cut of the money but it invites instant resentment.

To make matters worse, there just isn’t enough money to go around anyway. Upcoming bands get paid peanuts, especially at venues that are supposed to be their bread and butter, college concerts. Organizers will refuse to pay more money for a band, so you get the same amount as a solo artist, but now you have to divide it five ways. The final sum you earn is pitiful. That’s why the ideal money-making model for musicians in Pakistan is to be someone like Bilal Khan, just show up with your guitar, plug in and perform.

Bilal Khan clearly enjoying his pile of money

Bilal Khan enjoying his pile of money

Bands Hate Each Other:

To be clear, you’ll end up fighting with anyone you spend a whole lot of time with and like family band members inevitably get into it with each other.  For the most part in ADP, we all got on reasonably well with each other but there was nasty fights breaking out between individual band members all the time. This is true for all bands, not just Pakistani ones but I feel that in Pakistan, they haven’t quite figured out the secret to staying together, which is to stay apart.

I’m going to be challenged on this but I think the phenomenon of getting overly familiar with people is a desi trait. We bond quickly as desis, we’re not as polite or concerned with offending people or being politically correct amongst ourselves. It allows fast friendships but it also means we’re way more vulnerable to getting offended by each other and creating drama. I’ve seen this happen so much within my own band and others in Pakistan that I realize really the only solution to keeping a band together is to keep it absolutely professional, like a job. Don’t socialize with band members in your downtime; keep your friends and interests separate and only meet to rehearse. When people are strangers, they’re much less likely to fight and it’s really hard to maintain that distance in Pakistan when everybody is your “yaar”

Coke Studio:

This one may come as a surprise but I feel like nothing has accelerated the demise of bands faster than Coke Studio. Make no mistake, it’s a wonderful platform that single handedly keeps our music industry vibrant, innovative and alive but more so for solo artists than bands. One of the producers of the show even admitted to me that the show isn’t really a platform for bands.

This isn’t because Rohail Hyatt has some deep-seated hatred of bands, far from it; he’s given guys like me a huge break by featuring us, along with Qayaas, EP and Jal on the show. But the format just doesn’t lend itself to the band dynamic.  Its easier to work with one singer, one personality and have him focus on his own performance while letting the in-house band take care of the rest. It’s better for collaborations to bring two solo artists together or feature a duo with a solo artist. Think about your favorite hits from the show and unless you’re a die-hard fan of the bands that were featured, you’ll admit the best stuff came from solo collaborations.

When a band comes in to Coke Studio, there’s very little Rohail can do with them in terms of experimentation. Band musicians are not like the musicians in the Coke Studio band who are session players, skilled at adapting to different styles. They are skilled at playing their own stuff and they take up too much space on the stage, leaving little room for collaboration. Hence their performances, while technically good, offer little in terms of that Coke Studio x-factor of something new and exciting being born through an unconventional union. They’ve tried it, but it just doesn’t work. Bands don’t collaborate well with Sufi dudes and when they pair up with other vocalists it just sounds like X-band featuring Y-singer, with the same sound as before. As a result, the public’s appetite for bands just isn’t there anymore. Bands are the new boring.


About Omar Akhtar

Omar Bilal Akhtar is a business writer in New York and former singer/guitarist for the band the "Aunty Disco Project". He plans to contribute media, culture and business pieces for FiveRupees as well as fresh insults for any member of the Akmal cricketing family.

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