With heavy censorship and no copyright laws, being a musician in Iran is a thankless job. But that doesn't mean there isn't a thriving scene - even if it can spell serious danger for performers.
The presidential elections in Iran four years ago and the waves of protest they unleashed remain on the minds of many, particularly with the country's elections on June 14. Four years ago, songs relating to the Green Movement sprang up again and again. Musicians both within and beyond Iran released new material inspired by the political protest movement on a daily basis.
Singer Arya Aramnejad from Babol in northern Iran was among them. His song "Ali Barkhiz," which he put out during the religious Ashura festival in 2009, became his downfall. In the music video for the track, he sings, "What sin have the people committed? / We just want freedom," while showing scenes of bloody street fighting between the militias and demonstrators.
Aramnejad goes on to call upon the imam Ali, considered by many Muslims to be the very first imam, to rise up and do something. As a result of his video, the musician was repeatedly jailed and experienced many forms of backlash. It was not until early 2013 that he was released.
Repression of musicians
Arya Aramnejad's case is not unique. Another Iranian musician who became world famous within a day is Shahin Najafi, who lives in Cologne, Germany. His song "Naghi" drew much attention in 2012. Iran's religious leaders blamed the singer for what they considered to be offenses against the same imam Aramnejad sang about.
Their disapproval led to the issuance of four fatwas - Islamic legal judgments - from various ayatollahs. They are fatwas that justify any Muslim in the world in killing Najafi, and a Shiite website even offered a bounty of $100,000 (75,000 euros) to anyone who did so. As a result, Najafi felt compelled to go into hiding for months, received police protection, and feared for his life.
However, the musician said in an interview with DW that his situation was far from simple even before he left Iran.
"A singer who wants to take the stage in Iran has to stand there like a piece of dead wood and is not permitted to move to the music," commented the now 32-year-old.
He said he wanted to have the kind of stage presence that his Western role models do: "Why are musicians like Bob Dylan or Metallica allowed to thoroughly enjoy their performances on stage, but we aren't?"
Since he chose not to abide by the rules, a militia stormed one of his illegally organized concerts in September 2004. Najafi faced criminal charges, but was able to flee to Turkey before his sentence began. He applied for political asylum in Germany eight years ago.
Few legal musicians
On the other hand, musicians whose trade is sanctioned by law in Iran have it much easier. They typically perform traditional songs, making sure not to step on the toes of Ershad, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
If they remain uncontroversial, they can receive permits for album productions. With pop musicians, though, things are different because they often draw on Western musical elements, which the government regardswith suspicious. The lyrics are not allowed to be critical of Islam or the government, and they cannot sound too modern or too much like their counterparts in the West.
At the concerts, people neither dance nor clap. The general atmosphere of prohibition leads many Iranian musicians to put out their music illegally and without any permits. Pop musician Alireza Bolouri, for example, has been playing a game of hide-and-seek with the authorities for over 10 years.
"Although we are operating within the legal framework of an Islamic country, many of us cannot give any public concerts," said the 37-year-old from Tehran. As a result, Bolouri generally cannot appear at major stages and earns his living instead by performing at company parties or wedding ceremonies.
Foreign concerts unite fans with artists
In order to earn the money for Iranian musicians' expensive videos and album productions, a huge market has developed within the last year - but outside the country. Artists with ties to the West are performing more often in Europe and the US, including Alireza Bolouri. For the Persian New Year in March 2013, he gave his first European concert in Bonn, Germany.
Exiled Iranians have also organized concerts with greater frequency in recent years for wealthy Iranians, hosting the shows in neighboring countries. In Dubai, Turkey and even in Iraq's Kurdish region, pop concerts take place headlined by favorite Iranian stars like Googoosh, Ebi or Darvush. Fans from Iran travel to the concerts abroad in order to hear their idols live on stage.
Another catch: No copyrights
There's one further problem that faces Iranian musicians: Bootlegging and unauthorized copying are rampant.
The country has no copyright laws familiar to those in the West. Songs can be reproduced on the Internet with little work, and this puts artists in a difficult financial situation, says Siamak Khahani, violinist in the Iranian pop band Arian.
"We used to not really feel that, and we were breaking sales records in Iran with our albums," the musician recalled. "But those days are over even though we are still the same band, making the same music."
Siamak Khahani hopes that Iran will soon introduce a new copyright law that ensures musicians are able to live from their art.
"We all have other jobs," he said. "Music can only be our hobby."
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