The contradictions of independent music in Egypt
Rami Abadir - 11/02/2015
If we randomly ask 10 people interested in it, “What is independent music?” the answers will vary, for this is a relatively new, almost unprecedented, experience in Egypt.
So to be able to get generally acquainted with this scene in Egypt, its weight, contributions and contradictions, it is necessary to research the origins of independent music and how it started in other countries with original independent scenes. This will lead us to the ultimate question: Does the “independent” label serve any purpose?
The origin of independent music as a subcultural product
Independence here refers to being independent from mainstream or popular music. In the US and west European model, a mainstream culture leads the audience, and parallel to this a cultural form called subculture emerges. Independent music is a natural byproduct of subculture, which is characterized by idiosyncratic looks, fashions, lifestyles, ideas, art forms and jargons.
As a direct result of this culture, independent artists use alternatives to the traditional channels that follow the lead of the state, business world and giant record labels in terms of music production, promotion and performance venues. Independent production takes a low-budget DIY form through small record labels, away from the large promotional campaigns, retaining the exclusiveness of independent music. Among those endeavors are: punk rock, the most radical independent music scene in the 1970s; gothic, rave, acid and madchester music in the UK; and no wave, early hip hop, industrial rock and grunge in the US.
The disintegration of the concept
The concept of independent music started disintegrating after the major record labels (the six major labels were merged into three companies: Universal Music, Warner Music and Sony Music) absorbed grunge after Nirvana’s 1991 album “Nevermind.” Bands based on subcultures gave up their independence, including Brit-rock bands in the UK like Oasis, Blur, Suede and Pulp. Just a few remained semi-independent, only depending on major record labels, or the small labels they partially own, in the distribution process. As a result, indie music became a mainstream genre, despite its nonconformity. After the genre gained popularity among listeners and new bands, the large production companies made use of it, and it was played in the most common live performance venues — it was no longer non-conforming.
There are still some models of independent production in Europe and the US — some post-rock bands and record labels, for example — yet they are no longer related to subcultures. The concept of indie has apparently disintegrated, and music’s independence is no longer exclusive to subcultures, having become instead a production choice made by a band or the artist regardless of the product. In addition, there are many genres of music which can be considered as “different” from the mainstream, yet are produced and promoted by the major labels. And bands are usually indifferent to whether they are independent, mainstream, exclusive or categorized.
Egypt’s indie scene
“Independent” became a common term here at the beginning of the millennium due to the emergence of spaces and foundations supporting independent artists and bands, such as Al Mawred Al Thaqafy (Culture Resource). The term was never associated with any subculture (for subculture has almost been non-existent in both the past and present), and thus started where indie music in other countries has ended up, with the exception of mahraganat music. The latter can be considered a mixture of popular culture and subculture; it started with independent production, and was quickly assimilated by the major producers into the mainstream. It’s hard to determine whether we are going through the same phase that music production and its relationship with subculture underwent in Europe and the US in the 1970s, or whether we skipped that phase altogether.
Many bands that were actually independent came onto the scene, such as Wust El Balad, Resala, Massar Egbari, Nagham Masry, Cairokee and bands from other Arab countries that were recently featured in Egypt. Those bands started out as independent in terms of production, promotion, publicity and live performance venues. As for the structure of their music, it relied on western music, mainly rock, and western instruments, mixed with some oriental, accompanied by traditional or contemporary colloquial lyrics, sung in a style crossed between the western and the oriental. This kind of music received a lot of attention because it was different from that of pop singers such as Elissa, Haifa, Sherine, Tamer Hosny, Amr Diab and so on.
Assimilating indie into the mainstream
This scene changed rapidly, and many of its bands were invited to enter the commercial world. This can be observed, for instance, in Coca Cola’s and Pepsi’s sponsorship of Cairokee and Wust al-Balad respectively. Those bands, and others, have participated in large advertising campaigns in order to promote their music, which has become a product in the process, not to mention the fact that their sales depend on large retailers such as Virgin Megastore. The participation of those Egyptian bands and bands from other Arab countries (like Mashrou’ Leila and Autostrad) on the TV show Al-Bernameg, hosted by Bassem Youssef first on ONTV and later on MBC, illustrates clearly how those bands have proliferated on commercial channels, which simultaneously host mainstream entertainment and talk shows, including, for example, one hosted by Fifi Abdou and Hisham Abbas.
These bands have also taken part in other commercial corporate events. Wust al-Balad and Cairokee have played at a Red Bull event, Massar Egbari and other bands have played at a Pepsi event, and Mashrou’ Leila have played at Porto Cairo Mall, owned by Amer Group. Those are the channels used by commercial artists and bands for publicity and profit, so there is nothing that distinguishes them but the music they make.
The independence of music seems to be just a transition or interim choice that qualifies artists to enter the mainstream and produce popular music — with exceptions, of course.
This explains why many artists and bands choose to participate in live performances in state venues like the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Cairo Opera House, and other venues owned by the Ministry of Culture, although some bands would argue that those spaces belong to the “public” and not to the state.
Yet many of those bands and their audiences still cling to the “independent” label, only because the music is different from the mainstream. The difference in music alone makes it a genre, and presenting a different genre does not necessarily mean it is independent, otherwise Mohamed Monier would be considered independent, which is not the case.
Clinging to the term independent
There is nothing wrong in a band giving up its independence and going through the commercial channels, totally or partially. What is strange, though, is clinging to an equivocal and adaptable term that is full of contradictions. Bands that cling to this term probably do so to maintain the loyalty of their audience, while some listeners hold onto it because it is exclusive and different from the mainstream and commercial, augmenting the individuality and uniqueness of their personalities and taste. Some are constantly on the lookout for new unknown “independent” bands, losing interest in old bands that have received more publicity — although any band seeks publicity, and this should not discredit it. In the midst of this categorizing and the perpetual debate around it, the listener may actually be disregarding the real measures for evaluating art: originality, creativity and quality.
One argument used to justify independent bands using traditional production and advertisement methods is that it helps “spread indie culture.” But this is a contradictory argument, for spreading “indie music” through commercial channels makes it a parallel mainstream art. This argument disregards the process by which mainstream music absorbs “indie music,” whereby the latter gradually loses its independence and becomes widespread and popular, which is exactly what happened to grunge in the early 1990s in the US. The inevitable evolution of “indie music” is to become part of mainstream music, which is fine, unless the artist chooses to adhere to the radical notion of independent music.
At the audience’s request
Having identified this contradiction, we come upon another: the interplay of independent and non-independent production companies and art spaces, audiences and mainstream taste.
The best example is mahraganat. In the beginning, folk and mahraganat were only popular in certain circles and communities as totally independent art forms, but before long they found their way to the big cities, forums and social networks. This made the big production companies race to sign those artists, use them in film and advertising, and subsume them, as a natural reaction to the attention they received. On the other hand, though, alternative organizations were also rushing to host those artists in concerts, like Al Mawred Al Thaqafy at the Geneina Theater, and 100Copies and D-CAF, and they were promoted as a product combining popular and high culture, presented at the audience’s request.
Both cases illustrate how those bands were promoted as a commodity for the audience. There is no difference in content between what the mainstream and independent entities present, and they both share the same objective. It is worth mentioning, though, that mahraganat artists are indifferent to whether they are labeled commercial or independent. The same pattern applies when dealing with other independent bands. Thanks to social networks, the mainstream audience is now requesting “indie bands,” so commercial entities attempt to appropriate and present them. Meanwhile, “independent” entities are doing exactly the same thing. Eventually, both audiences are assimilated into one, leading to the gradual disintegration of the “indie music” concept. The internet is another helping factor in this, since all the artists, mainstream and independent, use it as a means of production and publicity.
Assuming the role of commercial production
Music is already presented through the internet, yet the independent production companies, record labels and organizations such as Al Mawred Al Thaqafy (all of which play an effective role in sponsoring “indie bands”) assume the role of commercial production companies: presenting what the audience requests, as mentioned, as well as granting validation to new artists. So all artists strive to take part in events and festivals held in such venues, and to sign contracts with these entities, which are supposedly open for everyone. They do this in an attempt to gain the trust of the listeners, who might evaluate them on this basis. As a result, the relationship between those companies or venues, the bands and the audience becomes complex, in a manner similar to the commercial scene.
The main reason behind this is the limited number of art spaces in Egypt, for those organizations and production companies are the sole or dominant manipulators of the independent scene, and one large entity, Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment, is the sole owner of those spaces in Cairo’s downtown area. No other entities serving the same purpose can be found in different areas and cities. There are, however, some small-scale endeavors to break free from that monopoly and open the public sphere, such as the Hal Badeel (Alternative Solution) festival held last year, and El Fann Midan (Art in the square) events.
A uniform pattern
After examining the assimilation of indie music into the commercial mainstream scene, it is due to discuss the process of setting a uniform pattern or formula for indie music. Such a formula exists already in a large part of commercial music, which follows the same musical structure no matter who performs it. With time, and with a considerable number of bands on the scene, it has become obvious that indie music has fallen prey to this uniformity. If the vocals in an indie song are muted, what is left in many cases is a uniform pattern, with very slight variations. We are presented with a unified musical structure, producing the same sound and qualities apart from the vocals. As for the lyrics, they often tackle the same, relatable topics, mostly of a rebellious nature, which explains why many listeners are drawn to this kind of music. This generalization does not apply to some works of course, which have a unique structure, such as those of Kamilia Jubran and Alef Band. But it is safe to say that there is a common structure within “indie music,” and the vocals are the only thing that sets most works apart, as is the case in commercial music.
Letting go of the label
In the end, the evaluation process of any serious work should be based on its originality, identity and novelty on the one hand, and on the listener’s accumulative taste on the other. Indie music is not necessarily serious music. There are numerous indie songs that lack any kind of originality and creativity, which are mere copies of other works, or which rely on the abovementioned art spaces to gain credit and validation. Hence the lack of diversity in the indie scene, in terms of lyrics, melody and structure, with very few exceptions.
Originality and creativity are not exclusive to independent art, though. There are many commercial artists in other countries who have transformed music production and recording, like Brian Eno's productions for other artists, and the works of David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, the Beatles, King Crimson and Nine Inch Nails; as well as those of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, which transformed classical music from an elitist into a mainstream art, and left a great impression on both mainstream and independent artists. Nationally too, many serious works have survived by mainstream, non-independent artists, such as Oum Kalthoum and Mohamed Abdel Wahab, as well as independent works by Sheikh Imam and others. Regardless of how we evaluate their work, one cannot deny how serious they were, whether mainstream or independent.
The concept of independence is a disintegrating and contradictory one, serving an ambiguous purpose. It would be best, then, either to transcend it and steer away from labels and classifications, or to look for a new term, if necessary, which overrides the old one.
Translated by Amira Elmasry/Mada Masr
Originally published in Arabic on Ma3azef