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A bittersweet synchrony

Credit: Abu Sirkhel
While technological influx appears to have taken the human element away from Pakistani music, it is also bolstering the musicians’ repertoire and sustenance
by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

Andholan, which means movement in musical terms, signifies oscillating a note while touching the periphery of an adjacent note. For the Mekaal Hasan Band (MHB), not only does the word represent one of its most popular tracks from 2009, many of the band’s aficionados believe it also accurately describes the band’s own journey over the past two decades.

Today, the song battles with new music realities. This includes keeping up with the digital trends to reach a younger audience, and prompting the band to maintain its presence across social media platforms including Facebook and YouTube.

While the new technologies gradually made recordings flawless, veterans like Tahira Syed argue that the complete removal of the musician’s error became a major flaw.

“You need to be on digital media, because conventional media isn’t interested in any art form, whether it’s theatre, music, poetry or dance. The only music  that TV channels promote nowadays, is corporate sponsored ad campaigns, which are one-dimensional and inorganic,” said Mekaal Hasan while talking to MIT Technology Review Pakistan.

Hasan adds that while social media has provided more avenues for artists,  it has diluted the effectiveness, given the sheer volume of music there. To him, live events are the only solution to create organic engagement: “It is the sole benchmark that defines a good artist, who can actually play and sing.”

The MHB has been actively doing live concerts in recent months, including collaborations with the Pepsi Battle of the Bands and Koblumpi Music Festivals in Lahore and Islamabad. These events also helped the band unveil its newest vocalist, 18-year-old Rassab Mir.

Fittingly, the music video for Mir’s rendition of an MHB classic Chal Bulleya was shot entirely inside the studio, giving glimpses of the technologies used in modern day production, which many feel have led to the plunge in the quality of live music in Pakistan.

Technological milestones in music

Music recording has flourished since 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. By the 1920s, microphones had been introduced to capture sound, significantly bolstering sound quality. The BBC was the first to use magnetic wire recording in 1932. Use of magnetic tape recorders increased on either side of the Second World War, with 2-Track recording first introduced in the 1950s, followed by 4-Track recording in the 1960s. The 1980s ushered the digital recording age with the compact disc and Digital Audio Tapes, before computer software were introduced at the turn of the century, further elevating the century old journey from vinyl records to CDs.

The Pakistan Television (PTV) and Radio Pakistan have showcased this evolution over the decades. Starting off with only real-time telecast, local musicians gradually saw the recording systems helping them do retakes with music producers splicing the magnetic tape together to edit tracks.

Veteran ghazal and folk singer Tahira Syed recalled her journey over the past five decades, while speaking to MIT Technology Review Pakistan.

“A major revolution came when you could just record and lip-sync on TV. Similarly, from doing solely real-time performances at one time, I started doing up to 10 takes while recording audio at EMI. They started with using the two or three best takes, cutting them with scissors and joining them together.  Then came a time when you could do a little bit, record it and fill in the places where you had not done well – that was a huge difference. Later there was a phenomenal leap, because you could even change a syllable in the song.”

While the new technologies gradually made recordings flawless, veterans like Tahira Syed argue that the complete removal of the musician’s error became a major flaw. For many, the music became more mechanical and less human. If there are auto-tuners which allow you to sing in perfect note and tone, to her it is the end of singing. What is the point of learning to sing if you can make it perfect through machines?

Are computers rendering human artists superfluous?

Pakistani music has witnessed the far-reaching effects of the influx of technology, including, in its production for the film industry. Historically the film industry has been a significant chunk of the overall musical output from the country. The dozens of musicians, who were once employed full-time with a single film studio, have now been rendered surplus to requirement with computer technologies. Virtual Studio Technology (VST) allows all kinds of modifications but given that music isn’t being played live anymore it means that even early technological tasks — like overcoming signal losses, eliminating noise and synchronizing notes — are no longer needed.

Furthermore, the growth of Electronic Dance Music (EDM), has allowed traditional melodies to be easily synchronized with electronic rhythms. Not only does this reduce the manpower involved in production, it limits the number of brains combined to create sangeet (music), which emanates from the word sangat meaning companionship. Even popular shows that depict orchestras or bands playing in tandem, have their final sound assembled with the help of monolithic technology.

In multiple interviews with the MIT Technology Review Pakistan, musicians affiliated with Coke Studio, Pepsi Battle of the Bands, and Nescafe Basement, revealed that despite the shows self-portraying as live performances, the final sound is treated. The voice notes are often tuned, and music arranged through software.

Along with the recording technology, the evolution in music consumption has also shaped musicians over the decades. After vinyl records and CDs, the previous century had ended with the introduction of electronically encoded music and mp3.

Critics argue that the inflow of corporate brands has further taken the human element away, with business models now necessitating ‘flawless’ sound and promoting a certain brand of music. This has prompted a few classical music connoisseurs to take matters into their own hands and promote what they feel is ‘true music’.

Technology to teach

One such individual is music and culture critic Ally Adnan, who has conducted 73 seminars on qawwali around the world. These seminars, which have taken place in cities like Karachi, London, Dallas and Hong Kong, are often followed by qawwali performances, in turn promoting the art itself as well.

“We need to groom listeners to listen to good music. People will listen to things that they deem fashionable, but the resulting popularity is short-lived. We have seen Coke Studio die because what was once a novelty quickly became a tired old idea,” Adnan said while talking to MIT Technology Review Pakistan.

Qawwali is one genre that has seen resurgence in the digital sphere in recent years. Ally Adnan argues a lot of it is owing to discussions, lectures, paintings, movies, and books on Sufism being made available online. He maintains that in addition to sparking sustained interest, quality education would make the listeners better equipped to evaluate and appreciate music.

Adnan himself has digitized 80,000 hours of traditional, folk and classical music from South Asia, while ensuring proper labelling and copyrights compliance. 10,000 hours of this collection have also been donated to the National College of Arts in Lahore. He has a presence on social media, including Facebook and YouTube, where he uploads his lectures on music. He maintains that along with the musicians, digital platforms dedicated to disseminating music can also use technology to make their transmissions multidimensional. “One could add education, information and instruction to online music. For example, if listening to Roshan Ara’s Raag Shudh Kalyan, a hotlink can be added on the basics of the raag [along with] commentary on her rendition,” he suggested.

For budding musicians, technology has made it significantly easier to learn the trade. Music lessons are now being conducted online with the teacher at the other end of a video call. Similarly, apps like iLEHRA and iTANPURA have made it easy to learn playing the tanpura and tabla, for instance. However, these apps also mean aspiring musicians no longer need to touch the actual instrument, while learning how to play it.

Credit: Black Parrot Studios

Digital Media

Along with the recording technology, the evolution in music consumption has also shaped musicians over the decades. After vinyl records and CDs, the previous century had ended with the introduction of electronically encoded music and mp3. The past two decades have seen the advent, and prevalence, of internet streaming.

iTunes altered the concept of purchasing music, with the 2006 launch of Spotify shaping up music transmission for the 21st century. Founded in February 2015, Patari has been aiming to be Pakistan’s Spotify. Musician and commentator Ali Aftab Saeed, who hosts the Patari Top Charts, says the charts on the music streaming service showcase that niche musicians are the ones making the most mark in the digital age. “Indie musicians have been the greatest beneficiaries. The Patari Top 5 hardly ever reflects mainstream music. Patari is focusing on indigenous, local art. They have recently introduced a massive library on regional music,” Saeed told MIT Technology Review Pakistan.

For many, apps like Patari and Taazi, have also begun addressing the age-old question over royalties in Pakistani music. Patari has legally purchased music from libraries like the EMI and the PTV and is now eying Radio Pakistan. Its business model, based on subscriptions in addition to ad revenues, splits the income with the artists.

The digital music distribution companies also address question marks over copyrights that were created by peer-to-peer music services like Napster two decades ago. He explains that once an artist registers with a distribution company, they no longer have to check if anyone has stolen a track on the web. So, if a third party uploads the artist’s song on YouTube, it will tell you that the copyrights belong to the artist. Moreover, “any monetization on that video would be shared with them.”

However, Saeed underlines drawbacks of such digitization as well. “All kinds of mediums are now being used to play music, which means we now have to test the sound on devices ranging from TV speakers to mobile phones. Often, we must compromise on the quality of the music, because it might be sounding great on studio speakers, but the bass might be too heavy on a smartphone speaker,” he added.

This draws parallels with how digital media outlets keep multiple devices in mind while designing websites, often compromising the layout to optimize the look on the device where most of the traffic comes.

Impact on business models

Critics argue that the corporate influx, overdependence on technology, and interests of transmitting platforms have collectively made music a ‘marketing exercise’.

“The irony is that at no point in time has so much money been spent on local music. The music scene exists as a subset of corporate marketing. Music apps like Patari have had their own challenges; some similar to those faced by online businesses in Pakistan–given the lack of payment culture–others are exclusive to music, a service few in the country are willing to pay for,” said former COO of Patari, Ahmer Naqvi.

Credit : Patari

This has meant that apps like Patari have had to compromise a few of their founding principles and look to the corporate sector to make the business viable. The platform offers its audiences to popular brands to promote their tracks on Patari’s website and social media platforms. For Naqvi, this meant running Patari as a hybrid company that has had to play multiple roles, from digital marketing, to a record label, to becoming a PR organization and even an event organizer.

Even so, not everyone is convinced that that corporate penetration in music necessarily signifies a bane for the music industry. Many see the likes of Coke Studio, Pepsi Battle of the Bands and Nescafe Basement ensuring the sustenance of local music, while at the same time aiding the revival of many genres.

Where skepticism continues to surround the lack of self-sustenance in local music, many see the corporate brands’ marketing of local artists as providing much needed respite while artists formulate what Pakistan has traditionally never had: a functioning music industry. “Of course [the corporate shows] are marketing campaigns. Once they set their legacy and grow then it’s up to economies of scale. To expect a corporation to think of culture, society and arts – that’s not their job. Given the lack of music infrastructure, the artists now actually work to catch the attention of these platforms. They are there to give opportunities, give budget to amplify and create outreach for good songs,”  says Ali Hamza, the producer of Coke Studio Season 11.

Ali Hamza who rose to fame with rock band Noori at the turn of the century has been the firsthand recipient of the benefits of a digital launchpad. Even during the first ever Noori concert in the year 2000, the crowd sang along to tracks like Mujhay Roko which had already garnered popularity after peer-to-peer sharing on Kazaa. The launch of channels like Indus Music around the same time, made the likes of Noori, MHB and Entity-Paradigm household names.

“We had it easy [back then]. Now the platforms are global, the standards and benchmarks are global. However, the current musicians not only have to compete with one another for attention, they face a bigger challenge from previous artists – who weren’t producing music at the same scale, as it is being done now, but have become big names over the years. But with technology the younger lot have a bigger toolkit now. I feel the skill level of the younger generation is a lot more compared to us,” said Hamza.

Credit: Coke Studio

Where there has been criticism on technology reducing the number of individuals required to produce a song, others see it as empowering the individual. The tools at their disposal have made upcoming musicians more prolific, with global connectivity making it easier to trace the audience for one’s niche than it was in the past. That means that where technology has provided the tools and means for the progress of local musicians, many advise them to stay closer to their roots.

Even so, where the local culture might provide inspiration for musicians to make it up, it also forms a stumbling block for artists to be groomed at a younger age given regressive refusal within the society to accept music as a form of art.

This inertia has been musicians struggle to find voices to echo their dissent against the state’s policies on No Objection Certificate and taxation for concerts, for instance, which many musicians argue is a greater impediment against the growth of live, authentic, music than any technological invasion.

“People with developed minds know that music has played a huge role in the development of culture in a society. That widespread recognition for music is needed,” believes Ali Hamza. “[Meanwhile], the musicians need to work on creating music in more volume, and doing so independently. Senior musicians [should] put their brains together to make a flourishing music industry possible.”


Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist based in Lahore.

 

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