Only one Pakistani musician had three songs in the top ten streamed local songs on Spotify last year – Abdul Hannan. In fact, only one other artist has more than one song on this list: producer Rovalio, whose two songs happen to be collaborations with Abdul Hannan.

To understand how big of a deal this is, it’s good to look at the company Abdul Hannan is in. For context, Spotify reports that the most streamed local artists in Pakistan include the likes of Atif Aslam, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan - and Abdul Hannan. The other artists on this list are also the stars of a new golden age of Pakistani music: the Young Stunners, Umair, Rovalio, and Asim Azhar.

For many born in the 90s or earlier, and especially those that disconnected from local cultural scenes after adolescence, the arrival of this new golden age of Pakistani music is still news. It’s time that the transition is acknowledged and understood.

I spoke to Abdul Hannan to understand his meteoric rise, and wish to tell one of the many stories of this rapid and large cultural change taking over our country.

Article Image

Hannan spent his school and college years playing the guitar. He uses the word “escape” when he describes what music means to him. And amidst the pressures of education, then work, that’s what music remained. As Covid hit, Hannan released his first song. Three more followed in 2021.

Bikhra – released in February 2022, and produced by young producer Rovalio – was the breakthrough. To date, this song has over 66 million plays on Spotify. While Hannan had released popular songs prior to this release, this one increased his audience by an order of magnitude.

There are no gimmicks in this song. The video is basic, without much plotline or elaborate visuals. The production does not have a zillion instruments. The lyrics: simple. But the melody? A classic.

Perhaps this simplicity of melody, and the prominence of the vocals, both of which embrace a sweet melancholy, is the safest explanation for why Hannan’s music is so appealing to Pakistani audiences. I asked Hannan if he has a theory, a system on how to repeatedly make these hits. Because I know for sure that most musicians are trying to figure out the very same. I also know that no musicians have ever really answered it, and music critics like myself have had even less success.

The truth for Hannan is also that there is no real formula. But he concentrates on the fundamentals as we theorize: good vocal melodies, music that compliments it, words that are simple to understand.

While in some sense I went into this conversation digging for creative tactics, I returned with something different: Hannan’s sense of gratitude at his great fortune for landing here. As is the case with most super hit creative work, even the artists themselves can’t really predict success. Hannan hadn’t either, and he looks back at his rise to the top of this industry as in large part a story of luck and circumstances. His humility is clearly sincere, and in my view somewhat unnecessary. Because while there is luck behind most success, it is surely not the only factor here.

Article Image

The proof of this is that Hannan did not stop at Bikhra. His next song, Iraaday, outdid Bikhra. To this day, it has been listened to over 76 million times on Spotify. From that point Hannan has continued to regularly release singles, and late in 2023, his debut EP of four songs by the name of Diya.

Through these songs, the same kernels of creativity remain: good melodies, memorable words, simple music. But the sound has also matured. The songs no longer just stand on their own, but as a body of work. This is not an artist that made it big with a few songs, but one that has a discography that will be remembered for years to come.

Post-pandemic, the Pakistani music industry has entered a new era.

Of course, these transitions do not happen instantly. Covid represented a tipping point that allowed many transitions to peak together. Many stars of this generation of Pakistani music started performing and releasing songs between 2015 and 2020. These include the Young Stunners, Maanu, Abdullah Siddiqui, Hasan Raheem, and Shae Gill. As public venues and big productions shut down, social media equalized the reach of audiences between old names such as Strings & Noori, and the new names. Being internet native, the new musicians were better attuned to global trends and started producing hip hop, RnB, and electronic music. Though Covid eventually waned, the popularity of these artists had been cemented.

With these changes in the music industry, artists can reasonably consider music a full-time profession. Economic opportunities from traditional advertising, social media endorsements, and sponsored songs offer opportunities in addition to concerts and streaming royalties.

Of the most-heard artists in Pakistan, Hannan stands out for continuing music part-time. During our conversation, Hannan and I bonded over our training as software engineers and day jobs in technology. It became clear that Hannan’s motivation for continuing to work as a programmer was not purely financial. Instead, not relying on music for a living gives Hannan the ability to explore it at its own pace. Without needing to make music that makes money, he can make art that he likes. That core of music remaining an “escape”, a “true friend” as he describes it, remains still.

It’s worth noting that while musicians can imagine supporting themselves through music only, the profession remains financially challenging. An illustrative comparison is to look at what young Pakistanis may earn if they obtain high-skilled jobs abroad. This is an avenue young Pakistanis, especially from somewhat affluent backgrounds that have access to networks abroad, are increasingly considering. Earnings from a music career that are comparable to these expat incomes, are accessible to only a handful of musicians. The rest must continue an elaborate dance of booking concerts, chasing endorsements and being selected for sponsored work. All of these avenues remain fickle – musicians cannot rely on them to pay consistently. Add to this the significant costs of running a music business: paying musicians and producers, buying or renting equipment, marketing and agency costs, as well as services such as legal, accounting and security, all add up to make this a tough business. Which is why those that remain and succeed within it should be recognized as having given up a lot for their art. This commitment to expression is the defining feature that unites this new generation of musicians.

Another challenge is that many Pakistani musicians find big audiences in India, whom they are unable to monetize due to the political climate and resulting economic barriers between the two countries. Hannan himself has over half a million listeners in Delhi, and hundreds of thousands in Mumbai, Pune and other Indian cities. Alas, unless they are in Dubai, they will not be able to see Hannan live. And Hannan’s ability to make a livelihood performing for these audiences will be limited to streaming revenue which forms a small fraction of overall earnings.

Article Image

What has also changed in this era is the pace at which music is released. Hannan has released 11 songs in under 2 years since the release of Bikhra. For comparison, the band Aaroh, one of the well-known bands from the early 2000s, took 4 years to release an album with about as many songs after their debut. Others from that generation followed a similar pace. Hannan and his peers, even those that make music part-time, often release an album’s worth of songs every year. It is in part due to the prolific output of his peers, and in large part his humility, that Hannan still considers his releases a “very limited discography”.

One trend accompanying this quick pace of releases is the industry’s general shift to electronic production. A small fraction of the sounds heard on modern songs today are actually recorded by artists playing instruments in the studio for each song. Instead, a combination of pre-recorded sample libraries, digital audio workstations (audio software that helps musicians record, clip and edit sounds), and some acoustic recordings such as of vocals and guitars, are used to make most of the songs released today.

Hannan’s collaborations with producer Rovalio use primarily electronic production. Like other electronic producers of this generation, such as Talal Qureshi & Abdullah Siddiqui, Rovalio produces entire songs of music on his laptop using the methods described above. These songs have layers of samples, often very varied, stitched together into an instrumental undertone. Producers then share these recordings with songwriters who lay down a vocal melody and lyrics on top. This is roughly the process that led to Bikhra and Iraaday.

The other mode Hannan works in, is to collaboratively generate each layer with a producer from the start. His partner in crime here is Shahmeer Raza Khan, Hannan’s GIKI roommate with whom he used to play covers. Shahmeer was one of the voices that encouraged Hannan to not let his musical talents go unnoticed. Shahmeer is now listed as a co-artist on Hannan’s EP Diya. Hannan describes the process of making this EP as very fluid. Starting with no specific structure in mind, the songs flowed. By the time they recorded Khulasa, the last song on the album, it took the two of them just a day: just a few quick recordings, and a “gari test” to ensure it sounded right in the car.

From the outside, Hannan appears a prolific hit-maker climbing the charts at an incredible pace. In our conversation, I see a young star drowning in simple humility, wonder, and a heartwarming practicality. While we see pace, he considers his discography as small still. Works out for us, because when I ask Hannan what we have to look forward to, he teases more new songs in 2024.

Zeerak Ahmed is editor of the Pakistani music publication Hamnawa. Ahmed has been writing about Pakistani music for over a decade. He is also known for his work on Urdu technology, which includes the new Urdu keyboard, Matnsaz. He is on Twitter, Instagram and Threads as @zeerakahmed.

woman avatar