The whole world has succumbed to the pressures offset by COVID-19, and like all other professions and vocations, for most practicing musicians, this has also brought many adverse consequences. However, for them, the struggle must go on and new strategies be sought to keep the ball rolling. When the crisis was announced by WHO, many musicians and artists took to coming live on their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds, struck by the idea that since people had nowhere to go to, they could gain more traction. Even industry stalwarts saw it as an effective means towards a communicative end. However after a few weeks, you could sense that most had run their repertoire out, or were simply fulfilling cover requests to keep the conversation rolling on their live sessions. Frequently going live for free does not make much sense for serious musicians whose only means to subsistence is music. In the same stream, the bread and butter of many musicians was live shows in the pre COVID-19 world along with giving lessons. Concerts and private mehfils are not going to be held anytime soon so those avenues stand closed.

On the other hand, a strange controversy has emerged on Pakistani social media feeds. One of the country’s most skilful shred-guitar players, amongst other things, Faraz Anwer put up an ad on the freelancing website Fiverr, suggesting he could play guitar solos for a certain return per project. Online musician communities reacted strongly, pointing towards an extremely unfair environment in the mushroom music industry which compels such virtuosos to resort to such a platform. However, the extremely erudite Mr Anwer responded by telling the world that he did not need anybody’s sympathy and was doing the needful to pay the bills at home which is very natural in these circumstances. He is cognisant of the fact that the state of affairs is extremely chequered where coffee and cola corporations dominate the setting through their gargantuan budgets and monopolistic tendencies. He also asserted that there were mixing, production and arrangement gigs that he could also work with. He also pointed towards the fact that an unfair class equilibrium exists, and it is easier for serious hobbyists and people indulging in music for art’s sake, rather than those whose main profession is music – something determined by the mighty weight of material conditions. Some online users drew parallels with Amir Zaki, another phenomenal melodic guitar player, who spent his last days under economic hardship. Faraz Anwer’s friends suggested to me that such a comparison does not exist, pointing to Zaki’s bohemian lifestyle, whilst Faraz Anwer has a family to tend to. Most guitar players have done sessions for artists in a country where there is an unfair focus on vocals in popular imagination whilst musicians assume a supporting role. For any serious music practitioner however, it is easy to understand the role instrumentalists play in driving the harmonic and rhythmic spine of a performance, and often being the main composers and arrangers of songs.

With doubts about when Coke Studio will be broadcasted, if it is indeed released this year, musicians need to find alternate avenues for selling their craft. If there is one thing people need to admit in a pandemic setting, it’s the fact that most of their otherwise dull experience in self isolation has been lightened up by artists of all sorts. Most of us turned to music to find some solace and catharsis in such chaotic times. It is easy to say that the best art is produced in times of hardship and chaos, but it seems a bit rich as well as all creative processes are not the same. There is no need to fetishise human suffering and pain by drawing such parallels. While countries figure out the COVID-19 exit strategy, musicians need to wait it out. For the ones with production capabilities and experience with modern recording studio equipment, this time is not as hard because they can sit at home and keep churning new material. For the ones not well-versed with production technology or lacking equipment, there is a new obstacle. For vocalists, they need to get access to a good microphone and a treated room where they can record themselves, and send over stems to producers, if online collaborations are to be done. Basic collaborations where phone recording is employed results in a weak and lifeless signal that is quickly found out by even lay listeners, whose ears are now used to impeccable production. It is easy to enjoy the emotional and imaginative experience of music, but one needs to be aware of the building blocks and background processes where all the hard work comes together so as to be able to empathise with artists in real terms and understand the phenomenon in its completeness.

It seems like new remuneration methods are required to be developed by social media platforms so as to monetise the procedure in an artist friendly manner universally. It seems like everybody is becoming a socialist in this pandemic setting and #UniversalBasicIncome is doing the rounds. In a similar stream, maybe it is time for Pakistani musicians to unionise and campaign for a basic minimum wage and regularisation of the industry. Many artists around the world are giving up their craft due to the need to make ends meet. Only the state can play an effective role in regulating what can be extremely inhumane circumstances for artists, on a macro scale.

Irtiza Shafaat Bokharee

The writer is a Visiting Faculty at FC College University.