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Until quite recently, musicians and the press bemoaned the lack of ‘original music’ in the Pakistani industry.
A simplistic generalization, this view ignored a growing cadre of new musicians making waves on Instagram and YouTube.
It over-indexed heavily on Coke Studio, where redoing old songs was a stylistic element which had backfired, especially so in Seasons 10 and 11. By Season 14 this year, this stylistic element from Coke Studio is all but gone. Waves of other corporate shows, which similarly indexed on Coke Studio also began to wholesale borrow the overt stylistic elements. Pepsi Battle of the Bands for example, had contestants cover songs as well.
In this context, a number of calls were made to bring back “original music” to the scene. Among them, was an initiative by the name of Bigfoot Music. Which, over the last two years and change, has released a steady stream of funk-pop, often laced with some eastern fusion. In the second half of last year, I had a chance to talk to Sohaib Lari, who along with Hamad Khan, founded Bigfoot. Over a lengthly email exchange, we shared thoughts on how Bigfoot works, its motivation, and marketing in today’s industry.
Most music series have one main function: marketing. For corporate shows, the link is clear. Music series serve essentially as a branding and advertising campaign, which the companies hope eventually leads to elevated brand value or increased sales. (Whether these things actually happen is not completely clear). For musicians, the shows offer budget, audience and infrastructure to present songs to a wider audience. The bigger shows have spending budgets that get songs to eyeballs, the smaller shows aggregate infrastructure and artist following to generate a new product that hopefully leads to a win-win for all musicians, video producers and engineers participating in the project.
To stand out, music series must present a unique selling proposition. Which is to say that if the only thing different about the series is the name it is unlikely to attract new audiences on its own. To get around this, you may blast money behind initial releases to get it to show in people’s feeds and on billboards, but this audience growth is likely short-lived. So, each series must present some idea of what is different about its music. This ties the songs presented together, and gives the audience some way of understanding what is happening.
Coke Studio began with the differentiator of recentering North Indian Classical Music in the frame of modern pop. Over time, it became really big, and decided that it was this bigness that was in fact, now its core differentiator. And so the slogan changed to ‘Sound of the Nation’. Which is to say Coke Studio’s selling point is that it captures a cross-section of the industry at any given time. Pepsi picked rock bands, and Smog City Sessions presented new artists singing acoustically in yet-to-be-constructed Lahore, and Kashmir Beats presented non-singers singing.
I thought Bigfoot’s proposition was on familiar fusion lines, but Sohaib disagreed. To Sohaib, the core focus was on letting artists bring their own influences and finding common ground while jamming. This leads to some of the stylistic patterns I noticed, but Sohaib insisted that there was no inherent desire to stick to a particular genre or type of music.
This is loosely tied to how Sohaib places Bigfoot in comparison to corporate shows, “With corporate brands, their target market is the audience where their goal by the end of the day is to be more visible and sell more products. Whereas our impact strategy is to benefit the artists as much as we can by allowing them to explore their own style of music, for Bigfoot Music there are no limitations to experimentation in fusion music and we are exploring as many genres as we can by allowing all the collaborating artists to bring forward their peculiar style of music such as we did in ‘Charasazi’, by fusing ghazal with modern pop.”
I challenged Sohaib – isn’t it in the interest of artists to get to larger audiences? Why does that place them in opposition to corporate music shows who want to reach as many people as possible. My read of Sohaib’s answer suggested that he did not believe corporate shows come with just a pure desire for audiences, but also with creative control that limits artists’ choices. Whether this creative control is because corporate marketing machinery thinks better to overrule artists on creative choices, or whether they have different goals on audience is worth further investigation. My understanding is that marketing budgets are used to exercise creative control to assuage risk. The choices made here may or may not be correct, but artists always feel like these choices should be left to them.
This conversation left me with the difficult job of figuring out how to place Bigfoot musically. I had a similar challenge with Bisconni Music, where the pitch was remarkably similar to Bigfoot. I don’t know how to characterize this music and understand its impact as a whole.
Sometimes, it’s easier to understand a product by the process with which its constructed, rather than its marketing pitch. So I asked Sohaib to tell me a bit about Charasazi.
“Hamad & I were at an open jam where we heard Ali Hassan sing classical improvisations, we liked his vocal tone quality and singing style, so invited him to our studio to create something together. Ali Hassan and Sohaib Ali Khan brought in a rough sketch of one of their melodies, it was Jaun Eliya’s poetry, Ali sang the melody for us and we instantly loved it. We jammed together and finalized the melody, Ali then gave us demo vocals for it. Hamad & I started arranging the song, played a lot of mini instruments to draw a rough idea of the track. Our very talented drummer Ajay Harry came into play, we gave him a sketch of our expectations from the track, Ajay played the song while integrating his own ideas as well. Hamad & I then mixed and mastered it, finally the whole team came together to film a video for it and we released it on March 28th, 2019 making it BigFoot Music’s first official song.“
Critical to framing this method of music making, is that music projects are often reflective of an underlying music community or culture. These communities develop their own practices which are not visible at large, and social media or broadcast series offer a chance for audiences to see an image of these practices underneath. Bigfoot is reflective of Karachi’s jam culture, and once you see this music as emerging from that, it begins to make a lot more sense. Of course, series like Bigfoot or other branded shows are not marketed as ethnographic pieces, and so what makes up the marketing USP is not the underlying community practices but rather the market positioning of the music, which in this case is less obvious.
The goal to let artists produce without any creative control is valiant. And there is something romantic about the idea that creatives should be let loose on their work without money exerting its influence. There are times when this viewpoint is naive. In this particular industry, I find that there are even less threatening ways out of this conundrum. Which is that marketing money and musicians want the same thing, bigger audiences. Both have brand images to protect, and ideally these will not be in conflict. I find that the recent generation of artists which has cemented its position during the pandemic, has exercised this to perfection. They’ve built loyal audiences over social media, they find corporate partners on projects where their goals are aligned, and overall identify market inefficiences where corporate money has missed where the audience is going. As a result, today’s music scene is younger, more active, and a better representation of what modern Pakistan wants to listen to.
Creative outlets like Bigfoot will continue to retain an important place, and I hope taht collaborating with young artists and modern marketing will provide them an easy way to communicate their unique proposition – the hook that pulls audiences in. Until then, a reflection of Karachi’s jam culture is welcome.