Promoting Outlawed Music in Uzbekistan’s Culture Cold War

A safe venue, strong brand and Facebook ads are your best friend when the secret police don’t like what you listen to

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If you’re an agent, promoter or booker and think you’ve had a rough day try doing your job in Uzbekistan where rock music was unofficially banned by the government, the KGB sits in the front row of your shows and there’s only one venue to play in, of a country of 31 million people. This is the story of Никита Макаренко (Nikita Makarenko), an Ukrainian — Kazakhstani promoter of Ilkhom Rock Fest in Uzbekistan who has built the rock scene while sticking two middle fingers up to the Old Regime as they tried every effort to shut him down.

I met Nikita in his hometown of Tashkent before one of his shows and he graciously explained the political situation of Uzbekistan, how sanctions affected music and what sets Uzbek rock apart from the rest of the world. He is a fascinating, sharp-witted and creative marketer.

Nikita runs the monthly Ilkhom Rock Fest held at the famous Ilkhom Theater — the first independent theatre in the USSR and the only non-State run alternative music venue in Uzbekistan. Ilkhom Rock Fest is a rock/theater hybrid show where the bands come up with daring ideas and produce the show themselves, and attendees remain seated throughout the show as if they’re watching a stage performance. The structure is very intentionally designed — for the performers it is very confronting and for the audience they hear the music in a different way

He does everything soup to nuts — curating the line-up, booking local and foreign talent, and marketing shows. He has been doing this for 6years and through this has cultivated a strong underground rock scene in the country.

Since 2016 Uzbekistan is experiencing the “Uzbek Thaw” — a massive liberalization following President Islam Karimov’s death who reigned for 27 years. Borders are opening, screws loosening on press freedom, thousands of students freed from picking cotton in state-owned fields for no compensation, and some of the eccentric laws imposed by the previous regime lifted.

Everything is cool. But, up until then he was in a Cold War with the government, which as you can imagine, made it damn-near impossible to market music. Government-controlled TV outlawed rock music stating it was “satanic music” not to be listened to and most of the rock clubs were closed but Nikita didn’t budge, continuing to book bands. For years, only the Ilkhom stage was the place to hear live rock music in Uzbekistan.

The government’s reaction? Try to control his bands.

Nikita’s band ‘United Taklif’ performing “Ishq” at Ilkhom Rock Fest, 2015

They sent the Secret Police to every show, sitting them in the front row to transcribe every single lyric performed and report back to the State. They created a rating system of the World’s most dangerous bands where Nikita’s very own political satire group Truth of the East sat firmly at #1 of the list, according to his insider sources. Prosecutors sent letters to shut them down, but he continued to play, as the pressure mounted Nikita kept going.

He credits the reputation of the Ilkhom theater as a major reason they survived. Ilkhom was founded by Mark Weil in 1976 at the height of Soviet Russia and has become a counter-culture institution in Uzbekistan. Weil was tragically stabbed to death in 2007 by 3 men for allegedly blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad in his production “Imitating the Koran”, which continued to show after his death.

Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

The theater has been a meeting spot for Uzbek progressives for art shows, political discussions and productions that touch on radical subjects (to the trepidation of the more conservative Uzbek society). The Ilkhom Rock Fest stage is located under the theater through a long corridor that takes you to an intimate venue of 150 seats, where bands play to a seated audience. The old regime has fallen and they survived.

Uzbek deathcore band ‘Moment of Clarity’ performing “Disposed” live

Building an alternative scene in Uzbekistan

The Uzbek rock scene is unlike the West because they exist entirely outside show business. You cannot make money as a touring musician there, nor can you on the business side and Nikita himself works for free and the bands play for free. People get into rock music for self-expression, which affects the type of music being made in a huge way and the ways it is experienced.

This is a beautiful thing for art, but yet another challenge for business. Imagine trying to book shows with a talent budget of $0.00. Sometimes it works, Joss Stone just recently played there, but a lot of times it doesn’t for foreign bands.

Joss Stone performing Ilkhom Rock Fest, Tashkent 2018

Scarcity and reputation are the main elements in Nikita’s marketing mix. Each show has a very limited 150 tickets available, where all attendees are seated and watch the show start to finish, usually 2 hour sets. With 150 places, it’s usually no big deal to attract punters, but the scalper market booms selling overpriced tickets second hand. He’s built the festival brand for over a decade and now able to sell out shows with only Facebook posters on the Ilkhom Rock Fest page.

He says it’s easy to attract local bands to play because it’s such a significant a stamp of legitimacy for bands but foreign artists are more challenging because the theater is non-profit and there is no talent budget.

Typical Facebook promotional poster of Ilkhom Rock Fest

Go deeper on Uzbekistan rock

If you want to find out more check out this short documentary that chronicles Uzbekistan’s alternative rock scene including how it was all started by an earthquake in the 60’s that destroyed the capital of Tashkent, the major venues, festivals and artists that developed the sound and how Ilkhom theater is continuing the legacy built from the bold artists before them.

TeaROCK documentary that delves deep in Uzbek rock music

One last recommendation for Uzbek rock music

This video is simply amazing by the legendary Yalla band.

Ялла (Yalla) — Учкудук

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Music marketing consultant. Downtown Records & Big Spaceship alumni. Writes about music, strategy and feels at Deep Cuts