The first time it truly felt that Patari had arrived in the Pakistani music industry was in the summer of 2015 outside Ali Noor’s house in Lahore. At that point, Patari had launched as a beta website a few months ago in April. The beta website was not open to the public, but over 20,000 people had signed up to register for access through a digital campaign which had gone viral. We had been covered in the press and were well received by musicians, and had developed a strong, distinctive brand identity already.
But this was the moment that we were about to deliver on the hype. Noori had been planning to launch their third album – their first in a decade – and we had just secured the exclusive digital rights for its release. For months in conversations with us prior to this moment, the members of Noori, and Ali Noor in particular, had been skeptical about the value of an un-launched startup and the impact of digital music services.
That night, we had presented a launch-plan to the band that covered events and digital marketing and we had also promised to cover most of the cost. When the band incredulously asked us how, I said I’ll sell the car I had come in if need be.
It was to Noori’s infinite credit that they decided to trust in us and waive their performance fees, and twelve months later when they specifically thanked us while accepting their Lux Style Award for Best Album, we knew it was worth it. Especially because that car, which I hadn’t actually owned, never needed to be sold.
The main reason I had the confidence to make that claim was the belief that all of us at Patari had always shared – the belief in the power of music in Pakistan. In a country as relentlessly diverse as Pakistan, we often see that we find it difficult to get a consensus on our identity and our image. But music transcends those boundaries of age, class, ethnicity, faith, gender and much else. Music speaks to each of us in our own way, and helps us speak with one another. Music is the true national language of Pakistan.
When I had started to work with Patari, I was confident that we had found the solution for what was ailing Pakistan’s music industry. The platform let users listen for free (which had become the default option in the post-download era) while paying artists royalties. But what I hadn’t quite contended for was the decline of music’s relevance in pop culture, particularly in the urban, upper to middle class segment that formed its core.
The most striking example of this came during the aforementioned Noori launch. We were holding concerts in different cities where the entry ticket was a commemorative t-shirt. At the venue in Islamabad, I noticed a large crowd of young people all dressed in commemorative shirts, but not those of the concert. Instead, they had organised a viewing for an English Premier League match and were wearing the (expensive) replica shirts of their favourite club teams. Indeed, since the last hey-day of Pakistani music in the mid-00s, music has now been replaced by many other interests in the lives of Pakistanis.
There are now cinemas to go to and malls to spend in and new smartphones to buy and mobile phone balances to replenish. Unlike ten years ago, there are a lot more places for young people in particular to spend their time and money. And while these areas have grown, music’s space has shrunk and broken up into many different niches. There is little left of the mainstream, and the famous musicians of the last boom-era are now famous for being actors, while concerts have largely become a memory.
But despite this apparent challenge, the antidote is quite easy to provide. I have had many experiences of sharing Patari with random strangers – policemen stopping me at checkpoints, taxi drivers, people in queues for cinema tickets – and watching them revive a forgotten love in front of my eyes. There is often an initial hesitance or skepticism followed by a wave of wonder as they find the artist that they always connected to. What always works in my favour in such encounters is the diversity and depth of Pakistani music – there is something for just about every taste, from every era and every genre.
Perhaps the strangest such interaction that I had was in the offices of a brand we were looking to get into a partnership with. Midway through the meeting, one of the senior executives of the company walked in and was told we were from Patari. He immediately launched into an excited anecdote over how he had recently bonded for the first time with his father-in-law over our Qawwali playlist, and went on and on about how much he loved our app. After he left, his team still rejected our deal.
That incident showcased another important learning; the contemporary Pakistani music scene requires dealing with corporates as much as musicians. The collapse of concerts and record labels has left corporates as the main patrons of music, and rather than sponsoring music-related efforts they are now more likely to commission the creation of music instead. Most of these efforts end up conforming to an MBA’s idea of good music, which often isn’t very good. This ‘corporate capture’ of music creation has led to the same old faces being trotted out by each company, with only a couple of brands releasing critically and commercially successful music.
However, it’s too easy to blame the brands and corporates. In their defense, there hasn’t been much of a scene to build upon, and so many turn to assuming control of the entire process. It also doesn’t help that the absence of the industry has left many artists underselling themselves, having to worry about sustainability rather than making the music they might want to. It is one of the things we are looking to change, starting by treating artists with legal and personal respect of their work.
But sometimes it is also a matter of changing habits. One time, our CEO Khalid Bajwa posted a very personal Facebook status on the treatment of minorities in Pakistan. Soon after, he was contacted by a musician who said he had been inspired by that status to write a song. However, the musician informed Khalid of this by uploading the song on SoundCloud, a rival platform. When asked why he didn’t look to send it to us to post on Patari, he said he wasn’t sure if we would want the song. In fact, many musicians still feel almost shy about promoting themselves, or reaching out to us for help with promotion despite that being our stated aim. Rather than viewing it as a personal affront though, it is better viewed as an example of having to change the established norms. Musicians have been so used to being ignored that they are left with very low expectations.
But those are amongst the many things we are changing. Almost all of the musicians nominated in the “Emerging Artists” category in this year’s Lux Style Awards had featured heavily on Patari, while we also received much success and acclaim with Patari Aslis – an EP of original songs by indie artists funded by Patari. Many of the major acts have told us how Patari has inspired them to turn back to making music again, while younger acts have told us of the hope we bring to their aspirations. And contrary to popular belief, our numbers keep showing that audiences are not seeking refuge in older artists but are desperate for new music. After one year, the most played song on Patari remains ‘Bandook’ by SomeWhatSuper, a band that was unheard of when we first featured them.
Perhaps the most important idea that we want to put out there is of taking pride and ownership of our own, Pakistani identity. It is what informed the development of our brand identity, which very quickly distinguished itself for its unique, humorous and decidedly desi style.
It helped us develop a strong brand presence despite spending nothing on marketing and relying on the power of social media. And it is what I genuinely believe helps us create original opportunities and ideas.
Ultimately, Patari is not just a story about Pakistani music, but also of Pakistani tech. There have been several big names who have tried to launch digital music services in Pakistan, but our success has been built entirely on the backs of a very young, diverse team. Working at a startup is ultimately a huge leap of faith, and requires dealing with the stress of a high-pressure job combined with the low-pay of a no-hope job. Having a young team means that many of my colleagues have both the hunger as well as the courage to pursue a dream over a pay cheque. Of course, there are times when a young team makes me feel like a dinosaur – “Ahmer bhai, are you really old enough to have seen the 1992 world cup live?” “Ahmer bhai, did you really use those weird phones that had a circle in place of a keypad?”
More significantly from a tech viewpoint, what stands out for Patari is that everything has been developed in-house. The iOS and Android apps as well as the website, and the analytics backend for all artists have been created completely by Pakistani developers and designers. Its quality has been evidenced in the number of awards we have won, including the US State Department’s Startup Cup, the mBillionth Award in India, and coming second in the World Startup Cup in the USA. Perhaps the most significant achievement was when Facebook reached out to us to partner in their Facebook stories program. The partnership entailed an exhaustive review of both our technological capabilities by one of the world’s largest tech companies, and the fact that we cleared their standards reflected on the international quality of our work.
Facebook’s lawyers also spent several months evaluating our copyright agreements, and clearing that requirement was validation of another major achievement by Patari. For decades, everyone had told us that it was impossible to implement copyright law in Pakistan. The development of corporate shows and commissioned music had evolved out of a belief that there was never any point in seeking royalties, and so it was better to collect a one-off payment.
Shattering that myth was not only essential for Patari but was also very difficult. We spent many long hours messaging artists on Facebook, stalking their friends and asking for contact details or sending emails to any contact info we could find. In many cases, we often served as mediators between band members who hadn’t spoken to each other in years. Given how none of the established radio or TV stations are interested in complying with copyright laws, it would have been easy to abandon our target of 100% compliance. But persisting with it is what allowed us to expand into the global partnerships and relevance we achieved. Most importantly, it showed that it was indeed possible for a Pakistani startup to achieve the impossible not through throwing money or using contacts, but by good old hard work and persistence.
Understanding the influence of Patari beyond music has also informed our future plans. We have had great success in featuring audio-stories and e-books that have showcased both literary giants as well as fairy tales for children. Moving forward, we are looking to expand our base of literature products and reconnecting our audiences with their own culture. We are also commissioning new podcasts and shows on topics such as politics, religion, sport, entrepreneurship, and comedy.
One of the things I often like to say is that our ultimate aim at Patari is for our app to be as ubiquitous as your CNIC. Achieving that would be a natural consequence of what we believe is our ultimate aim – for Patari to become the sublime expression of what it means to be Pakistani. And we’re just getting started.