The Curious Case of Metal music in Pakistan
Editor's Note: Well, metal in Pakistan, that's one niche subject our team admittedly didn't know the first thing about, which is exactly why Turyal's pitch to us was successful! Keep surprising us, keep making us curious about how the music industry works in your corner of the world, keep pitching to us! And be ready to dive head-first in some head-banging tracks!
Turyal Azam Khan is a Pakistani writer, blogger and journalist. He primarily writes on culture and entertainment. Turyal has been writing about Pakistani music since 2017. He has covered topics relevant to the music scene such as Coke Studio, a popular music show in Pakistan and Strings, one of Pakistan’s most popular bands and pioneers of the Pakistani pop music scene. His articles have appeared in Daily Times, The Nation, Asia Times, The Diplomat, Orato World and Mashable Pakistan. His aim is to promote
Pakistan’s culture and arts through his writing on an international scale.
Metal is a subculture in Pakistan. It has a limited but dedicated audience. Corporate entities have often ignored it due to its non-commercial status in favour of genres like pop, rock, classical and folk, which are considered mainstream in the country.
Metal acts are passionate about the genre. Unfortunately, passion is not enough for them to make ends meet, and many performers have day jobs. Due to the genre being ignored , it has inspired a DIY approach. This is not limited to individuals making music on their own but also planning their own gigs and releasing music independently. One could argue that the latter has become easy with the advent of the digital age, but it was the standard before it.
Dusk, a Pakistani metal act started in the early nineties, is considered as the first metal act or as frontman Babar Sheikh puts it, the first extreme metal act. Dusk's contribution to the metal scene is significant. It is not limited to the introduction of the genre in the country but also inspiring the DIY concept and connecting with the international metal scene earning cult status abroad.
The band's DIY ideology can be best explained by their debut demo tape Casketsize in 1995. According to music writer Ahmer Naqvi, the demo tape was made using a cassette player with two decks and a unidirectional microphone put up together by Sheikh's former bandmate.
When Dusk started, According to Sheikh, the world was connected through demo tapes and sending letters. He would send out his demo tapes and letters to people in the underground metal scene abroad, which led to the band's debut album My Infinite Nature Alone being released by a record label in Portugal Hibernia Productions. The band's second album Jahilia in 2003 and third album, Contrary Beliefs, in 2006 was released by a Czech-based record label Epidemie Records. The band also performed in the Czech Republic, earning a cult following abroad. Dusk plans to release their fourth full-length album this year.
Dusk not only introduced metal to the country but also inspired a DIY concept and how one should not limit their music geographically, especially in the case of metal, which has a niche audience in Pakistan and cult status globally.
Record Labels and Releasing Music Independently
Record labels in Pakistan have often ignored metal music. This is why many metal acts would either release their music through foreign labels or independently. The genre was seen as unconventional.
In two-thousand and four Sadaf Stereo became the first commercial record label to release a metal album in Pakistan. Mizraab’s album Maazi Haal Mustaqbil was not without problems, however. According to Tayyab Khalil's book Rockistan, no Pakistani record label was ready to release it, and the album had been ready since two-thousand and two. The album was not a critical success in Pakistan. The label expected that it wouldn't be a commercial success either since only a limited 15000 copies were available at first. However, Sadaf Stereo had to produce another batch due to popular demand.
Gas Mask Holocaust (GMH) Records was an independent record label that started in 2008. According to the founder, Shaheryar Popelzai, the venture was launched exclusively to support extreme music in Pakistan. Dusk and Singapore-based crust punk band Distrust's split album Eastern Assault and metal band Odyssey's album Ghosts of Yesterday, released by the label, were sold out twice.
GmH Records did have issues since Popelzai was the sole runner behind the venture. He cites ‘logistics and a lack of interest’ as the main problems. It was challenging to ship CDs abroad, and Popelzai recalls how a shipment to India, a country Pakistan has tense relations with, landed the distributor into trouble. Running a passion project alongside a day job became tough for Popelzai, which led to the label ceasing operations.
There are currently no plans to bring back GmH Records. According to Popelzai, the music industry no longer needs record labels. Because musicians self-release their music now, what they need is PR teams and promoters.
Rearts is an arts company and a record label founded by visual designer Azeem Hamid and Najam Ul Assar, who hails from an engineering background. The record label has currently more than 50 artists signed with them. BlackHour, Tabahi and Wisdom Salad are metal acts signed with Rearts, but Azeem Hamid, who is also the creative director, says that they plan to include more metal acts.
Hamid says the distribution of music is not a difficult task, but what differentiates them is ‘the outlook, the support they give to musicians, how they curate their music, help produce their music, and work with them on a day to day basis.
When asked about how many people listen to metal music in the country every year. says they get roughly around thirty-thousand listeners monthly. Rearts distributes their music through different streaming services. On the popularity of streaming services in Pakistan, Hamid commented that they are not massively popular, but they are picking up pace. Local apps Bajao and Patari have a subscriber base of approximately 2 million and 3 to 4 million, respectively. Spotify Pakistan is about to reach a million subscribers.
Regarding the popularity of metal acts on Rearts' roster, Hamid said Black Hour is popular in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Scandinavian countries. However, Black Hour is also picking up a dedicated audience in Pakistan due to the band participating in a popular music show, Pepsi Battle of the Bands.
Tabahi, on the other hand, is more popular in Germany and the United States.
In the case of Black Hour being popular in those countries, he said it is due to the band having cult status abroad because of articles being written on their music in those countries and those countries having an underground metal scene. As for Tabahi, he said guitarist and founder of the band Annihilator Jeff Waters praised their music which benefited them.
Hamid says that Rearts plans to hold gigs, sign more acts, including metal acts, and work with international artists as part of its future plans.
Prognostic Records is an independent record label founded in 2015 by guitarist Sherjeel O'Neil. According to O'Neil, the record label was a necessity. He and fellow musician Ali Khan Niazi started it when they realized that record labels in the country were not active anymore due to digital piracy and weak copyright laws. Its main goal was to release and distribute the music of their metal outfit Kaan Phaard. Bassist and music producer Jahangir Hashmi later joined them, and the three have been central in running the label and their band.
Prognostic Records has since then released a lot of different genres apart from metal. O'Neil says that, due to the internet, there are not many problems for the label, although he does cite return on investments as a major concern. He is not concerned about metal being a niche genre in Pakistan as he considers it to be an acquired taste.
There have been acts that have released music independently. Safyan Kakakhel, lead vocalist and the founder of the band Marg from Peshawar, released his entire music on Facebook, YouTube, and SoundCloud. Kakakhel did not want to deal with any ‘commercial record label or sign binding contracts’ and just wanted to ‘put his music out there.’ It was released independently on online platforms. Saeed Rehman, lead vocalist of the band Skehlaaj from Quetta, says that it did not cost him anything to make, so ‘it shouldn't cost anybody to listen.’ In due course, the band's debut album Komi Taranay was uploaded for free for download on MediaFire. As of now, there have been seven-hundred and thirteen downloads.
Venues, Events, and Gigs
Hellfest, which takes place in the country's capital, Islamabad, at the Lok Virsa Open Air Theatre, is Pakistan's biggest metal event. It was started in 2012 by Faisal Imtiaz, rhythm guitarist for the metal band Inferner who had already organized smaller events at different venues. Although the event has no connection to the French Hellfest, Imtiaz claims he was inspired by it. Five-hundred and seventy people attended the first Hellfest. In twenty-thirteen, it was attended by more than seven-hundred and eighty people, and in twenty-fourteen, more than a thousand.
According to Imtiaz, there were no problems in organizing the event, but getting sponsorship proved difficult. The niche genre attendance numbers are not enough to convince many sponsors. Return on investment concerning Hellfest is a major concern for sponsors, which is why it was not held after twenty-fourteen. Hellfest was supposed to be held last year and would have also included international metal acts, but due to disagreements with sponsors and investors and the Coronavirus pandemic, things came to a halt. Imtiaz says he plans to bring the event back once the pandemic is over.
However, the management of Hellfest did hold similar events at a smaller scale, such as Undertow Sessions and Psychlock. The latter took place at Classic Rock Coffee Co., a popular venue for rock and metal acts in Islamabad. Classic Rock Coffee Co. shut down in twenty-seventeen due to a dispute over music volumes being too high. There are plans for the venue to open up in another location once the pandemic is over. 12 Bar Blues was another venue in Islamabad where musicians would come to perform. According to lead vocalist of the band Rebel Club, Aaiz Khan, it shut down due to poor management. This does not mean that there is a lack of venues for metal musicians to perform such as Club 432 and District19 in Karachi or Lahore’s Strictly Social and The Colony (none of these venues are exclusive to metal musicians or musicians only), although the shutting down of such popular venues does raise concerns.
Hellfest and artist management company Shor Bazaar also organised a concert of Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, the former lead guitarist of Guns N' Roses in Islamabad, which more than 700 people attended. According to Imtiaz, there was an unrelated protest against the government the same day, but they still managed to gather that many people.
Organising gigs is a difficult task in Pakistan, especially for a metal or even rock act. Aaiz Khan, the lead vocalist of the rock band Rebel Club and formerly Ehl-E-Rock, says that it is ‘a hectic procedure,’ with many steps involved. While discussing a show for his band, Khan says that the first step is to get permission from the local authorities because the music is very loud. Most of Khan's band's performances have been held in Bahria Town, an affluent Islamabad neighbourhood. He had to get permission from the authorities of the area. They were told to perform at a Sheesha Café away from the local neighbourhood. Then there was the problem of renting equipment. According to Khan, there is very little know-how when it comes to sound. People managing the sound equipment are used to weddings and not used to loud, metal acts. There is also the problem of selling tickets. Khan says if the tickets were sold at 500 Pakistani rupees (3.23 USD), no one would show up because it was too expensive for an underground act, so they had to sell the tickets at a lower price. Getting sponsors for such shows is also a tough ask because it does not earn them a lot of money.
Despite metal being a niche genre in the country, we have seen local efforts to commercialise it. Metal act Takatak's performance in a corporate-sponsored music show is one such example. If there are more successful attempts like this, we can foresee sponsors and music professionals will start taking an interest in the genre, which has so far been mainly ignored by the mainstream.
April 2021. Written by Turyal Azam Khan in Pakistan and edited by Compass Music in London, UK and Paris, France. At Compass Music, we commission articles on the music industry for our blog The Logbook, about how it works in different corners of the world. Our articles aim to be first and foremost informative in form and content, and to open our reader's minds to diverse viewpoints in the sector. Author views are their own, not Compass Music's.