Here's Why The Music Scene In Pakistan Today Is No Lesser Than What It Was In The Past

By Shayan Naveed | 28 Jul, 2018

The music scene in Pakistan is seldom about the music itself. It is deeply intertwined with the multi-layered fabric of politics, society, time and age – politics, arguably, being its strongest determinant. In this sense, music in Pakistan becomes an act of rebellion when Nazia and Zoheb dance in space-age dresses against Zia’s puritanical ideologies. It becomes strategic propaganda when only nationalism gets a pop band past the censors with Vital Signs’ anachronized leather jackets flapping to ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’. It becomes a patriotic anthem with ‘Jazba e Junoon’ as the official Pakistan team song for the Cricket World Cup, still wildly relevant decades after its release. Most importantly, it becomes resistance in a society where ‘kanjar’ and ‘mirasi’, colloquially meaning ‘performer’ and ‘singer’ respectively, are regarded as the highest degree of insults.


It is rather fashionable today to allude to the 90’s and the early 2000’s as eras peaking in music and its performances

This is mostly followed by avid expressions of disappointment over the lack of a ‘music scene’ today. While nostalgia is a sentiment perfectly aligned with Pakistan’s music, it is important to understand the evolution of our music industry. Practices related to music then are hardly relevant now. Or find it very hard to remain relevant. Disregarding contemporary music as simply ‘not as great’ is an act ignorant and insensitive in itself.


Political situations and the inevitable social and cultural shifts that follow have greatly altered the musical landscape. The recent wave of underground gigs and live concerts that had blanketed Pakistan in the early 2000’s suddenly disappeared amidst the great turmoil Pakistan found itself in, throughout 2007. Terrorism grew, becoming more frequent and threatening and the lawyers’ movement; a hard-hitting response to Musharraf’s undemocratic actions, created a political rift on a scale not witnessed in Pakistan in the previous eight years.

In a country where basic safety and survival were suddenly enormously endangered, everything else became secondary

‘Ye Hum Nahin’ rose as an anthem against terrorism in 2007 where it distanced Pakistani citizens from terrorist acts in a world where such a distinction was often seen as indiscernible.

It featured Haroon, Hadiqa Kiyani, Ali Haider, Shafqat Amanat Ali, Ali Zafar, Strings, Deeyah and Shuja Haider and served as a consolation to Pakistan at a time when it was pariahed on an international level.

Music channels started disappearing in this time where art was naturally not allowed priority. The ones still prevalent played Indian content in response to the sudden plummeting local music. Record labels were already anachronistic, holding concerts was unthinkable and internet piracy rose to its fullest.

It seemed that Pakistan’s music industry was in its ‘death throes’

Until Coke Studio, orchestrated by Rohail Hyatt in 2008, resurrected Pakistani music. To attribute this act of resurrection solely to Coke Studio is perhaps factually and ideologically incorrect but it did play an important part in reviving the music industry despite the cold claws of corporate motive tugging behind.


It played on polarity and discordance and used it as a sphere for musical harmony. Coke Studio today is known for its Sufi Rock, Classical Grunge, Pop Folk fusions with Ali Azmat and Attaullah Esakhelvi sharing the same stage just like Meesha Shafi and Arif Lohar, despite being starkly different in musical genre, tone, and rhythm. It challenged puritanical ideas related to music and succeeded in congregating an audience wider and vast than ever before.

Following Coke Studio’s success, music shows became the new rage

Nescafe Basement, Ufone sponsored ‘Uth records’ and Cornetto Music Icons being among the prominent ones. These allowed a rampant increase in independent musicians and this trend continued. Today, a large chunk of popular ‘youth-oriented’ music consists of independent artists and bands. Indie bands such as Poor Rich Boy, Sikandar ka Mandir, and Red Blood Cat are especially prominent. Nadir Shehzad, the lead man of SKM, has raging vocals that reverberate for hours after his songs end. In ‘Badshah’ the individual musical genius of every band member gets refreshingly equal space. From Ali Suhail’s subtler yet powerful voice to Zahra Piracha’s wildly multi-talented forays into guitar, vocals, and other instruments, Sikandar ka Mandir becomes a force to be reckoned with.


Umer Khan of Poor Rich Boy sings intelligibly in a mellower tone. It is hard to imagine how one could possibly sing ‘intelligibly’ but Umer Khan does the unimaginable. Sameer Ahmed plays the bass for the band and in a 2017 live performance, completely jolted me with his intensity. Stealing the show from an overlooked corner on a forgotten bass is an art in itself.

The lyrics to PRB’s music are almost always a treat

Umer Khan believes his ‘songwriting ability isn’t quite where my ideas are. So a lot gets completely lost in the translation’ which is perhaps what lends his music a strangely unique authenticity.


Ali Suhail, Janoobi Khargosh, Khumariyan, Shajie, Red Blood Cat, Keeray Makorray, Lyari Underground, Slowspin and Sounds of Kolachi are only a few names in an emerging music scene that is enormous, infinitely diverse and evolving.

The problem then lies not in the existence of music but in its distribution

In its access. In its audience. With a total scarcity of record companies and record labels, artists are increasingly challenged. Independent musicians face different challenges than their commercial counterparts, with solo acts of handling their own promotions, funding, and distribution in an age where credit is rarely given to artists and the internet disallows the trend of paying for art. Moreover, with a heavily prolonged YouTube ban, accessibility and promotion became even harder.

Thus, music festivals like the Lahore Music Meet and Storm in a Teacup are absolutely essential

Bands and artists realize then that they do not need to be dependent on corporate sponsors for their continuity. When audiences are inclined and prepared to pay for shows and gigs, endorsements no longer drive performances. Instead, musicians become empowered; to strictly perform as should be the point of music, and to not be consumed by distribution and production. According to Mekal Hassan ‘music festivals can do what nothing else is capable of doing as far as the institutionalization of a music industry in Pakistan is concerned’


The music industry has inarguably changed. It is barely consistent with what it was decades ago. But a different music scene should not be translated to a lesser one. The cynicism here becomes synonymous with ignorance. Perhaps greater acceptance and attention is all that is required to bridge today’s gap between music and recognition.




cover image via SoundCloud

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