Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 5, Issue 51, Tuesday January 20, 2008




Rock in a hard place

Rock music is a form of art, in that it can arouse in listeners the feelings that the performers feel. Globally it has a rich history, being born out of earlier forms of music such as rhythm and blues, folk music, and jazz. It gained popularity in America in the 1940s, and many rock songs were an effort to challenge the established order and create a new one. Although in the developed world rock music has been somewhat institutionalised, what with there now being a rock and roll hall of fame, in Bangladesh it is still at a nascent stage.

That is not to say that we haven't already had a strong tradition of rock bands. Bands such as Miles, LRB, Feedback, Rock Strata and Feelings are all part of our national consciousness. These legends have been there since the early 80s, and they were the pioneers who gave the next generation the courage to follow their dreams. And courage is what you need to be a rock star in Bangladesh. There are various social taboos that one has to overcome. For instance, it is a common fear among parents and those close to a person that if he or she went down the rock and roll route it would ruin their future. The band culture has many stigmas associated with it, drug abuse being one of them. There are also religious issues because of which many parents do not allow their children to pursue their musical aspirations.

"Our rock scene is much superior to the ones in India or Pakistan," says Hamid, an ardent fan of Bangladeshi rock. "India does not have a rock culture; all their popular music are from movie soundtracks, and the bands in Bangladesh are much better musically than the ones we see from Pakistan." Some might call it biased optimism, but those who follow the rock music scene in Bangladesh would know that in recent years there has been a boom in the rock culture that has seen numerous bands expressing themselves in their unique ways and winning over admirers.

A question that may arise is 'Why should this boom be apparent only to those who follow the rock scene?' In the answer to this question lies the answer to why rock music in Bangladesh is still at a nascent stage, even when it is so popular. A look at how bands operate and get their music out might be revealing.

Shironamhin is one of the more popular bands in Bangladesh, already having released two albums, which contained hits such as 'Hashimukh', 'Cafetaria', 'Pakhi', 'Hoy na' and 'Shodesh'. Even though they have already achieved a measure of success, they still do not find the going easy. Talking to them, one realises the plight of bands trying to enter the market.

“Obstacles are many when you are starting out. Firstly, our society is such that the band culture is not looked upon kindly by parents and close relatives,” explains Shafin, the drummer. “Also, the cost of starting out is quite staggering. We had to buy instruments with our own money, and even had to arrange the recording and mixing of the album ourselves.”

In more developed countries, all the above expenses are usually paid by the record label that signs the band, and the label also undertakes the marketing of the new album. In Shironamhin's case, however, Shafin had to go to stores to drop off their album.

“Most bands start out by having one of their songs included in compilation albums, and through that they become known and get a record deal from one of the labels, and then release an album. We chose to release an album first. When we got the deal, we were paid a fee by the label, but until very recently we did not receive any royalty from the album sales. Even now, the royalties aren't much, and not available to everyone,” said the drummer.

Rajib, the keyboard player, qualified his band mate's statement, “It will not be fair to lay the blame squarely on the record label's shoulders. Piracy is also a big problem. If the record label cannot sell many albums due to piracy, they cannot pay us; it's as simple as that. It is just that the structure is such that it makes the lives of fledgling bands really tough. If we, who have now created a reasonable name for ourselves are struggling, imagine what bands trying to break into the industry must be going through.”

“95% of bands go through this problem. Long established bands and artists like Miles, Ayub Bachchu and James get percentages from album sales, but relatively newer bands like us do not get that luxury. Our main income is from the concerts we stage,” added Shafin.

In terms of marketing and promotion, both the members of the five-man band agree that the radio is a welcome boon, and that it might eventually save the music industry. It ensures that their music is reaching newer audiences. Shironamhin, a band that has existed from 2002, are in the process of producing their third studio album, and that too in their own studio in a small one-room apartment. They are mixing the album themselves, a specialised task that is done by highly paid producers in more developed countries.

Stentorian, another young band, also faces similar problems. They entered the industry with a single in a compilation album in 2002, and have released an album in 2005. They boast hits such as 'Oddrishsho Juddho', 'Bishanno Adhar' and 'Jolosrot'. Their rhythm guitarist, James explains the state of affairs, "We do not get royalty from album sales nor radio airtime. We are definitely thankful for the exposure we get on radio, with our music reaching new ears, but the fact remains that our main revenue comes from concerts."

Their record label did finance the recording of the album, but that does not seem to be enough. Both these bands and others like Nemesis, to name just one, have immense talent and strong fan bases who look up to them like superstars. It would be fair to say that if they operated in another country, they would have much better lives.

The social stigma that is associated with the band culture lowers the profile of the profession, which in turn leads to the neglect they experience from the prevailing infrastructure. There are more bands finding their unique voices than ever before, but many of them cannot make it because of financial reasons. It is time we, as a society and an economy, give these artists their due and recognise their contribution to our arts, the appreciation of which they do not fully feel.

Photo: Ashraful Awal Mishuk


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