Our Only Nightclub for Performing is Our Website: the Internet’s Role in the Dissemination of Unofficial Rock Music

Download as PDF


Although scholars argue there is nothing in the Quran to validate a ban on music,[1] music and Islam have always had a complicated relationship. In countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Islam is inseparable from systems of governance, this disaccord has had dramatic consequences on the musical scene. Music was banned following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The hard line Islamists, who had seemingly snatched away the rewards of a populist movement for themselves, considered music to be a western construct, a residue of the shah’s totalitarian monarchy. Perhaps, considering that Khomeini’s campaign had actually been bolstered by anthems sung en masse in the streets of Iran,[2] the new authorities were aware of the power of music, and were afraid of its potential to derail their momentum in the fragile first years of the Islamic Republic. Although music was banned following the revolution, these anthems continued to be sung and promoted across all levels of social life as the Islamic Republic of Iran was ushered in. As one particularly politically embittered young musician suggested in a focus group interview in Tehran on July 9, 2008 (my emphasis),

[After the] revolution they announced a total ban on music. A song had been written for Khomeini’s return to Iran that went ‘Khomeini oh Imam, oh fighter, oh sign of honour, oh sacrificer of thine life for the purpose.’ We all sang it in school. [The Islamic government] came out and said music is a sin and forbade everything to do with music. One of our great and quick-witted composers asked boldly, ‘so how are we supposed to perform “Khomeini ey Imam” then? With our farts?’ But of course performing that song was ok, because the government decided that it wasn’t really a song

Gradually Iran’s classical and folk music enjoyed resurgence in popularity as spaces opened up for their performance. And this music played a crucial role in rebuilding the nation in the years following the Iran-Iraq war, whilst Iran was reconstructing its decimated population. But pop and rock music, which had been relatively abundant prior to the revolution, remained hidden until well into Khatami’s presidency when certain pop groups began receiving permits to perform and record music. The reappearance of pop and rock music coincided, not coincidentally, with a time when the Internet was becoming available to a larger proportion of the Iranian population through public Internet cafes. As Shahab argued (interview with the author, July 10, 2008), “Rock music was always in Iran ... Maybe it was in bedrooms for fifteen, twenty years, but it was always here.”

In Iran, any music that is heard in the public domain has been approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Vezarat-e Farhang va Ershad-e Eslami).[3] The ministry comprises many different departments and, like all of Iran’s governing bodies, is overseen by the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Khamanei, Khomeini’s successor) and the Council of Guardians. Iranian musicians must navigate a lengthy application process if they are to release their work in the public sphere, applying to both the Council of Music and the Council of Poetry.

There are three sets of forms comprising twenty-four sheets of paper in total. One set of forms is for a permit for lyrics (for either a recording or for a concert), another is for a permit to hold a concert, and the third set is for permission to release a recorded work. While applying for permission for their lyrics, musicians must sign a declaration stating that they have observed “all applicable laws, rules, requirements, regulations and directions” and accept that they “will be held accountable for any instance where violation and indictment has occurred.” The permission request forms for staging a concert are even more comprehensive. Musicians must submit three copies of a high quality CD or cassette, a typed copy of the pre-approved lyrics, a photograph of the group with their respective instruments, and the appropriate forms, which include the Form for the Information Bank of the Country’s Musicians. This form requires applicants to disclose a great deal of personal information this is a very specific mode of surveillance (as well as being a frustrating and time consuming procedure). Unofficial rock musicians do not want to disclose their personal details to a system that will most probably reject them, especially when they can be held accountable at a later time.

The rules regarding what is and is not acceptable in terms of musical content are not delineated, and only a very select few rock and pop musicians have received permits to perform and record music in the public domain. It is not clear what sets these musicians apart from others attempting the same feat but one prerequisite seems to be that the music should not provoke audiences to dance or to think about anything more than banal topics like unrequited love and nature. Another criterion seems to be that the lyrics should be in Persian, but considering that many of Iran’s unofficial rock musicians play introspective music and there is an increasing trend to sing in Persian (O-Hum’s rejected album from 1999 was entirely in Persian), it is perhaps that their lyrics tend to include social critique that is the problem. In any case, bands like 127 and O-Hum were subjected to heavy state surveillance after being rejected by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.[4]

Thankfully, modern technologies have enabled unofficial rock musicians to bypass the government’s time-consuming and demoralising system. While it takes a number of hours to fill out these forms, deposit money into the ministry’s bank account and post the forms to the appropriate places, followed by months waiting for a verdict, musicians are technologically equipped to write, record and distribute their music via the Internet in the space of a day. In a focus group interview with his band, Hassan described why they would never consider applying to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for permission.

We don’t even try to get permission [to perform]. The culture minister said something really interesting recently. He said, ‘Our recent successes are reflected by the fact that an author who knows that their book won’t get permission to be published is no longer bringing it to us.’ And he said this as if it were a good thing … well, in many ways he was right. When, as a musician, I’m certain that my work won’t get permission, why even bother trying?

The first Iranian rock band to ‘surface from the underground’ was O-Hum, and in 1999 they released their first album online and became instantly popular with young, middle-class (and higher), urban intelligentsia living in Tehran. Then, in 2002, TehranAvenue.com, a website hosted by a group of journalists and activists, hosted an online music competition called ‘TehranAvenue UMC [Underground Music Competition]’. Three recording studios pooled together and invited a handful of groups to record tracks, which were then released online for an audience to vote on. The competition was an immense success, with the 21 songs reaching an accumulative download total of 126,000, but it drew a lot of unwanted attention from the authorities, not least because of the use of the word ‘underground’ in the competition’s title.

As I argue in my forthcoming book, Iran’s rock music is not underground in the common understanding of the term; this music is not going against a current art movement, it is simply forbidden.[5] Yes, Iran’s rock music is very often performed ‘underground,’ in spaces of temporary autonomy snatched away from the state (car parks, cellars, basements, disused gymnasiums in apartment complexes), but the terms unofficial music (musique gheir-e rasmy) or illegal music (musique gheir-e ghanuni) better describe the scene.

TehranAvenue.com’s music competition became a biennial event but over time its popularity dwindled. What happened was that TehranAvenue created a niche, whereby Iran’s unofficial rock musicians became aware of the potential the Internet offered for the dissemination of their craft, thereby making itself effectively redundant over a period of eight years and four online festivals for unofficial music. As bassist Arya expressed, “Now you can make connections with various people in the business all over the world from the comfort of your rehearsal room” (email communication with the author, February 15, 2009). Sia, a guitarist and lead singer argued, “In Iran you need three things to be a proper band. First, you need band mates, then you need a practice space, and then you need a Myspace page.”

127 band’s drummer Yahya told me,

[Before the Internet] there was no way of getting your band known. Not for us, not for any group. The year that the first underground music competition was held in Iran, it was the Internet that made it possible. There weren’t any real live shows. They put a bunch of songs on the website and people went to it and voted. The Internet started this scene. And that’s with the Internet speed of that time! At 2 kbps it took two days to download one song![6]

There is no doubt that these online music festivals and competitions have helped young Iranian rock musicians to build a community for them. In fact, without them, I strongly believe the establishment of such a vibrant unofficial music community would not have been possible. Unable to network in the public domain through an absence of fora to perform in, and unable to release their albums to a paying public within their own geopolitical borders, Iran’s unofficial rock musicians had no choice but to turn to the Internet. Over the years the possibilities proffered by the Internet have secured Iranian bands such as 127, Hypernova, the Yellow Dogs and TarantisT performance slots at SXSW, the world’s largest festival for independent music, which is held annually in Texas. Hypernova would not have received visas to travel to the US if it were not for a high-ranking senator reading of their plight on the Internet and making contact with the American Embassy in Dubai over email to personally recommend the visas should be issued. On June 25, 2009, SXSW published an email they had received from TarantisT, a plea for financial support in the tumultuous time following the controversial presidential elections: “Iran’s government has beaten one of our band members badly in Iran so he can’t walk; also they threw tear gas into the basement where the guys were practicing” (www.sxsw.com/node/1853).

The Internet has become an understudy for a live stage in the absence of officially sanctioned settings for performance. The Internet mobilises unofficial rock musicians, enabling them to present new works and interact with their audiences, whether through TehranAvenue’s music festivals or through their own websites and Myspace pages. The Internet is a mediator, a platform between the musicians and their audience, just as a stage does in a concert. As Sohrab, 127’s singer, argued in a documentary following the participants in the UMC, “Our only nightclub for performing in is our website.”[7]

Using the Internet to disseminate their music is not unproblematic. The government engages with these musicians online in the soft war (jang-e narm), filtering websites that become too popular (like Myspace, Facebook, and the websites of popular bands), and surveilling the populace. At least half of the musicians I worked with while I lived in Tehran from July 2007-2008 have since left the country, but they maintain close ties with their peers in Iran via the Internet. In November 2011, King Raam (the lead singer of Hypvernova) and 127 released new albums online, and when they did so they ensured free download of the tracks would be available for their peers who remain inside Iran, beset by international sanctions that make purchasing items online nigh on impossible.[8]

The Iranian government now speaks of nationalising the Internet, purifying it, and reinventing it as a ‘halal’ technology for the Islamic Republic, but if this happens the unofficial music scene and Iran’s hoards of other minority communities who rely on the Internet for cohesion and community-building will suffer. We need to continue to provide young Iranians with technologies they can use to evade censorship if we are to continue to see social and political change inside Iran. Music played an immense role in the unification of reformist voters during the 2009 presidential elections and it helped them to mourn their multiple losses in the months following the announcement of the controversial result. The most popular song from 127’s new album, which is spreading like wildfire through social networks as I type this piece, is “Jang” (war). Sohrab, who is known for his lyrically gymnastic verses and simple sing along choruses, repeats the hook “nemijangam” (I won’t fight) throughout the song, which is ironic, seeing that is exactly what these young musicians are doing.[9]

[1] See Amnon Shiloah, 1995. Music in the world of Islam: a socio-cultural study. Aldershot: Scholar Press, page 32.

[2] Elton Daniel and Ali Akbar Mahdi, 2006. Culture and Customs of Iran. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, page 192.

[3] The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s official website is available online at http://www.iranculture.org/. The site’s introductory video features still shorts of prominent clerics and politicians. The music that accompanies the slide show is that song that is not a song––an instrumental version of Khomeini Ey Imam.

[4] O-Hum’s website is available online at http://www.o-hum.com and 127’s Facebook page, through which they share there news and tracks, is available at http://www.facebook.com/official127.

[5] Bronwen Robertson, 2012. Reverberations of dissent: identity and expression in Iran’s illegal rock music scene. New York: Continuum.

[6] Personal communication, July 11, 2008

[7] Saz-e Mokhalef, dir. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2004, 28m15s

[8] Raam’s album is available from http://kingraam.bandcamp.com/. Those outside Iran were urged to pay for the album if they could, but were also advised that they could enter ‘zero’ in the amount field and still download the tracks.

[9] The song “Jang” is available online at http://www.soundcloud.com/127band/02-jang-127

Download as PDF