In response to Rami Abadir: On independent music, too

After reading Rami Abadir’s “The contradictions of independent music,” I wanted to offer two alternative ideas. The first concerns the confusion between independent and alternative music.

While Abadir writes that if we randomly ask 10 music fans what independent music is, the answers will vary, I believe there’s nothing obscure about the term. Different answers may result from lack of experience, interest or clarity among this random sample. This isn’t unusual: they may find it difficult to define much simpler terms, such as “music” or “standard meter.” But this doesn’t mean a definition does not exist, for the articulateness of individuals has never been a measure of a definition’s clarity.

“Independent music” is commonly defined as music that is financially independent, where capital has no control over musical decisions. In my opinion, you can be independent and sponsored by Pepsi if it does not stipulate lyrics like “Oh Pepsi, I love you with all my heart.” Brands do not impose certain lyrics for a song just because they are financing it.

If an artistic choice is made by a financial backer, the product is not independent. (An example is a 2010 ad for phone company Etisilat, in which Mohamed Mounir sang “They said it was crazy to try and convince people who are already covered about a new network.”) But paying a singer or band for a concert or ad to perform the same music played without sponsorship does not take away their independence. Hypothetically speaking, if Amr Diab makes the final decisions in his music he is independent, despite having the largest production companies behind him, especially if promotion and distribution focus on him, not the companies. But if a small band is asked to make a song celebrating “the glorious October victory” pro bono, it’s not independent. Nirvana and the Britpop bands remained independent even after they began depending on large production companies, as long as they made their own musical choices.

Independent music does not mean independence from mainstream or popular music, as suggested by Abadir. There is a clear mix up between “independent music” and “alternative music,” which is a different idea altogether. This leads to the confusion of that random sample of music fans. Independent music is not a genre, and does not indicate a sub or a peripheral culture. But alternative music is not a genre either.

While “independent” refers to financial independence, “alternative” music is what seems to be the subject of Abadir’s article. Alternative music defines a taste that is dismissive of mainstream music and impervious to the market. Most alternative music starts out as independent, but not all independent music is alternative, for arguably all kinds of music set out to be popular. This is where the confusion between the two terms originated.

Rock is identified by certain beats and instruments, and under it fall more specific sub-classifications which have those key features. Metal is also a genre, hip hop is a genre, and blues, funk, reggae, country and jazz are genres, with all their overlaps and sub-classifications, of course. Experimental music, however, is not a genre. Nor is pop. And alternative music, too, is not a genre, but an indicator of market standards at a certain point.

The Black Keys, which won the best “alternative” album Grammy in 2011, received a Grammy for best “rock” album in 2013. Nothing had changed except what was alternative — what used to be outside the market had became part of it. This does not undermine the product; it just makes room for a new generation to shape alternative taste. So saying you listen to alternative music like the Black Keys in 2011 is different from saying you listen to alternative music like the Black Keys in 2013: In my opinion, the latter is inaccurate. “Alternative music” does not need to be surrounded in controversy over definitions, but it will if we maintain that it is a genre.

On a side note, I understand that some are annoyed by the fact that their favorite alternative bands have become mainstream, that the band they discovered after strenuous searching many years ago is a guest on the TV show Al-Bernameg. But this should not lead us to accuse those bands of treason, or claim that Al-Bernameg is exploiting their need for money to become more popular. We can only admit we’re getting old and have become part of the renewal process, that we should always be on the lookout for alternative music and update the contents of our “alternative music” folder every year at the least.

Independent production companies and Al Mawred Al Thaqafy are implicitly criticized in Abadir’s article, from being described as playing the role of commercial companies, presenting what the audience wants and granting validation, to assuming that they’re supposed to be open for everyone.

Since commercial production companies’ search mechanisms are slow and their experimental nature minimal, they don’t risk presenting new names for which success is not guaranteed. So the non-profit institutions, after scouting and refining the selection, prepare some bands to enter the market. They present what exists, so are not responsible for producing art. Of course, there is a constant search for alternatives, as those institutions receive funds to support alternative art. But a real alternative takes much time and effort to form, for in Egypt there is nothing like the constant interchange between alternative and pop music in Europe and the US. This is a different market with different circumstances, and introducing new blood to the scene here is an arduous task.

Non-profit institutions introduce alternative art to a new audience and make it popular so it will survive. Finding alternative music and promoting it is not something to be ashamed of, but a measure of success — There’s no success in producing alternative music without an audience that listens and evaluates.

As for presenting what the audience wants, the order of stages is mixed up. Most formerly independent bands that are now relatively commercial, such as Wust El Balad, Autostrad and Salalem, started out from these institutions, which played a significant role in promoting them at an early stage, from presenting them onstage, to promoting their concerts and contacting TV shows and newspapers to cover them. This is the role of commercial production companies, but no one is doing that here.

An example is Salib Fawzy, in my opinion one of the best and most important voices on the independent scene. Yet last year, at the Geneina Theater, only 40 people attended his concert. Fifteen of the 50 artists and bands presented at the Geneina Theater last year — some playing for the first time in Egypt — did not create much of a buzz, as it’s difficult to promote such early-stage art. I think this ratio is fine, because if institutions only present names they deem good, with no consideration of market and audience needs, they’re playing a condescending role.

As for opening the door for everyone equally, this role is assumed by institutions such as El Sawy Culturewheel, because its resources and venues mean it can hold over 40 events per month. This is a different, though necessary, promotional policy, and I do not believe all programs and festivals should do the same thing, otherwise they would have no identity or direction. But having an identity or direction, like 100Copies supporting electronic music, or Bayt al-Oud supporting oriental music, does not necessarily make an institution a source of validation.

Abadir writes that there’s no difference in the content presented by independent entities — such as Al Mawred Al Thaqafy at the Geneina Theater, 100Copies and D-CAF — and mainstream entities, and that both indie and mahraganat groups are presented as commodities.

Another clarification is due here. Mahraganat music first became known in 2012, before it took its current mass commercial form. As I recall, the hype started with a 2012 article by Ahmed Naji in Akhbar al-Adab, in which he explored mahraganat as something his readers hadn’t heard of before. The rush to host mahraganat might not last long, as it has already become popular and does not need support. I can’t claim that non-profit institutions were the reason behind its popularity, but they did open the door for those artists to earn a living. The same thing happened with metal in the mid-1990s and rap in the early 2000s. Each genre took its own path and formed circles and fans. Similarly, the light rock accompanied by swift lyrics and a smile currently played by most new bands will find its own way, too, and Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Etisalat will race to sign and then later neglect them, as part of the consumption cycle. The fact that a band like Autostrad appeared on Al-Bernameg, and that Dina al-Wedidi and Ali Talibab are popular, does not discredit them as artists who started from scratch to get where they are today. At this stage, the non-profits will not nobly grant them their freedom; they will let go of the institutions whether they like it or not.

I’ll refrain from making accusations against institutions or audiences, and thus partake in the vicious circle of accusations in the scene: institutions accuse audiences of ignorance, artists accuse institutions of failing to promote their art like commercial companies, and audiences accuses both institutions and artists of failing to present art of the usual quality. Some are still hung up on the form alternative art took in the beginning of the millennium, like Rim Banna’s and Lina Chamamyan’s music. Some would go further and reminiscence about Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Om Kalthoum and Sheikh Imam. They don’t see that what they’re used to is no longer alternative, and does not need support. It is indeed difficult to determine what is alternative nowadays, and what should receive support. We won’t step out of this circle unless we take risks and experiment: artists with their product, producers with artists, and audiences not sticking to what they know.

Charles Akl 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism