Pakistan's Spotify? How one streaming site is trying to revive local music

About a year ago, a select group of music lovers across Pakistan began hearing about a new, invite-only streaming service. It was called Patari. Not only would it release albums and promote live events, but also while Spotify is not available and unlike local competitors such as Taazi, Patari would be the first digital platform […]

About a year ago, a select group of music lovers across Pakistan began hearing about a new, invite-only streaming service.

It was called Patari. Not only would it release albums and promote live events, but also while Spotify is not available and unlike local competitors such as Taazi, Patari would be the first digital platform to pay royalties to artists who signed with it.

Pakistan’s fraught security situation, moribund live music scene, a ban on YouTube (only recently lifted) and the lack of labels releasing new albums made a project like this even more challenging.

After the invites were sent out, Patari (Urdu for a snake charmer’s box) went viral on social media. It amassed an extensive library of songs from almost every era and now has up to 25,000 from about 600 artists, making it the largest streaming platform in Pakistan. Its interface and smartphone app are also user-friendly.

“We have noticed that increasingly, Pakistani music is again being recognised as a cultural force to be reckoned with,” says Patari co-founder Khalid Bajwa.

“The one thing we initially observed … was the perception that Pakistani music wasn’t ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ enough or that people don’t listen to it anymore.”

According to Bajwa, neither radio nor TV played it. The main focus was always on Indian/Bollywood music or western music. Homegrown music just wasn’t getting the platform it deserved.

The service became available to the general public a few months ago and Patari says it has 60,000 monthly active users. But can a streaming site single-handedly revive a country’s music scene?

E Sharp, a Karachi-based rock band, were the first to release an album through Patari. Bahadur Yaar Jung was released when Patari was still in its invite-only stage. While the band’s following was mainly in Karachi, releasing their debut through the site helped them to gain a diverse fan base across Pakistan.

“We have been in all of their top playlists and the response to our music has been great from Patari users, which has now encouraged us to come up with newer music,” says Ahmed Zawar, the band’s lead vocalist.

“The whole idea of this sense of ownership for Pakistani music is so fresh and cool.”

Ali Suhail, another Karachi-based musician, has released albums independently as well as two EPs with Patari.

“A lot more people were made aware of the EPs because of Patari, as opposed to how it would’ve been received had I put it on Bandcamp or SoundCloud,” he says.

“I don’t know if Patari is a game changer or not but it’s definitely made experiencing local music and discovering new music slightly easier.”

When Patari launched, one of its most interesting claims was that it would pay the artists that sign with it – something not unheard of in Pakistan but very rare. While cheques have started going out, some musicians have still not been paid. According to Bajwa, the process was slow because of tax issues and the collection of the artists’ financial details.

“We have initiated the process and in the next few weeks we aim to send out all the cheques.”

E Sharp recently resolved payment issues with Patari, and Zawar claims the service will roll out more cheques soon.

While Suhail is also awaiting payment, he added that the service has sponsored live gigs and paid artists to perform, “which is pretty cool for a music streaming service”.

Mainstream bands such as Noori have also released new music through Patari, and they have helped them by holding launch events in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Patari is also releasing a series of albums featuring local artists called Patari Aslis.

So on the surface, Patari has brought some new opportunities for local musicians. Pakistan has no real music infrastructure. The reason for this is because there was little investment and musicians could not keep the scene thriving from their own pockets. An increase in religious extremism and political unrest in the country resulted in interest shifting away from music and improving the country’s music infrastructure was not on people’s minds. So to be able to have a platform where their music can be streamed and to earn money through it is a step forward.

Meanwhile, local indie musicians continued to create music and make EPs which resulted in a small but family-like cult following of fans. But to what extent is this helping the new wave of indie musicians that Patari has been attracting?

In conversations with a few indie artists, the frustrating part has been a lack of updates regarding payments. While Patari claims it is paying artists, how many is it?

The musicians, who do not wish to be named, feel that there could be more transparency on Patari’s part. Despite being sent guidelines by Patari on how artists can be paid, some feel it is neither clear nor convenient.

A solution to this could be an automated system for musicians to sort out their finances, like Bandcamp and SoundCloud.

Another concern from some artists is that the most popular songs are given priority on Patari, which results in the same songs getting more and more attention.

This arguably discourages the discovery of new artists and is a conflict of interest between what artists want and what generates more traffic. For example, songs for the Patari Aslis (Patari original) series will be selected on how well they are performing on the site.

A third issue with EMI Pakistan over music rights developed after Patari was officially launched. But according to Bajwa the incident was blown out of proportion.

“We had a dispute with them over the rights of some of the music they said belonged to them. We took down the stuff they identified, then negotiated with them, and came to mutually-agreeable terms and that was that.”

Patari is free to use but there are plans to introduce subscriptions in the months ahead.

“There is a long, long road to go before we can claim that the [music] ecosystem is alive again, and most definitely we are not arrogant enough to believe that when it happens it will be entirely our doing,” says Bajwa.

“Patari has definitely been a trigger for the revived interest [in Pakistani music] that, I think, I can humbly claim, and we will continue to do our part.”

It is too early to claim that because of Patari there has been a noticeable rise in live shows and new releases, but it is promoting events and new music – something which was not happening in Pakistan for many years.

Zahra Salahuddin is a journalist based in Karachi who writes on music and art.

Source: art & life

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