Just past noon on a balmy late-spring day in İstanbul, the somber sounds of a solitary clarinet waft out of an empty storefront in the formerly bustling heart of Turkey’s music industry.
In the 1980s and 90s, dozens of music producers and record labels were busy churning out successful recordings of Turkish folk music and Arabesque from the İstanbul Manufacturers’ Market (İMÇ), a sprawling, modernist complex located between the Golden Horn and the iconic fourth-century Valens Aqueduct in İstanbul’s Unkapanı neighborhood. Today, mere remnants of the once-lucrative industry remain.
When İstanbullites wax poetic on the music industry of yore, Unkapanı is always mentioned in the past tense. But while many assume that the old industry has dried up completely, a handful of remaining producers trudge on through mountains of difficulties. Though business was booming in the era of LPs, 45s, and cassettes, the practical obsolescence of music in a physical format has taken its toll.
“In 2006, 100 million cassettes and CDs were sold in Turkey. Nowadays, annual sales have fallen to three million,” says Halit Nart, a singer with numerous recordings under his belt who doubles as the producer and chief executive of the Mert Müzik label. While sales figures for hot releases used to hit seven digits, nowadays a label is lucky to sell 5-10,000 physical copies of an album.
Turkish logic dictates that one will continue until death
Turkish musical taste was changing along with the means of distribution. Western pop influences reasserted themselves in mainstream Turkish music, and the distinctively Anatolian-rooted traditional Turkish folk music and Arabesque genres took a backseat, largely relegated to cultural festivals, taverns, dank bars, and cassettes on dusty shelves. And Unkapanı—known as the hub for those styles—took a sharp dive.
But a handful of labels and producers persist. Although shuttered shops outnumber active businesses in Unkapanı, there are still a handful of establishments that bewilderingly resist closure despite unfavorable odds.
“Turkish logic dictates that one will continue until death. If a guy has no money in his pocket, he still puts on a suit and sprays on some cologne. He might even dress better than a rich man. So there are firms here but most of them are ‘sign companies.’ Outside there might be a sign hanging, but inside there is no production,” says Nart.
Halit Nart poses inside his Unkapanı office. Photo: Paul Benjamin Osterlund
An industry veteran, Nart sports a pearly white set of teeth and his build belies his 52 years of age, perhaps a result of his long stint as an amateur football player. Nart first encountered the music industry as a nine-year-old newspaper salesman in the early 1970s, when Anatolian rock—a psychedelic fusion of Western rock music and Anatolian folk styles perhaps best embodied by Erkin Koray—was at the height of its popularity. The uncontested queen of Turkish pop music, Sezen Aksu, had not yet emerged on the scene.
Nart was hustling papers inside an arcade in İstanbul’s central district of Şişli. An adult competitor who had a table set up outside the arcade caught Nart working “his territory” and smacked the young boy in the face. As Nart sat in tears, a man approached him and asked why he was crying. Nart says it was Erol Büyükburç—the Elvis of Turkey—who was then at the height of his popularity. Büyükburç consoled the young boy by buying two newspapers and giving him TL 200 ($75). It was the most money Nart had ever seen.
After completing his mandatory military service in the mid 1980s, Nart saw an ad in the paper for a counter clerk position at Sembol Plak, one of the premiere labels of the time, which had released records by the era’s biggest stars, including Aksu, Bülent Ersoy, and Kibariye. He took the job at the label’s Unkapanı office, and within six months, Nart became a managing director. At one point, Büyükburç came by the office on business and Nart recalled his encounter with the singer from years earlier.