Article 9 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the right to life. This provision has been continually expanded by the Honorable Supreme Court to include various facets of human existence. I say we read it to include the right to music; after all, humans are the only known species with an ear for it! In any case, what is life without music? The Supreme Court has already recognized the right of the citizenry to reasonably uninterrupted television viewing. Acknowledging that ‘life’ must necessarily include art generally, and music in particular is, thus, not an unreasonable stretch.
The current legal framework pertaining to the music industry poses strong disincentives to entry into the market, and hence, availability of original music.
The music industry, worldwide, has been forced into a live performance model. That is to say that artists depend on live shows and concerts to make profits. The death of physical record sales at the hands of digitization and piracy has contributed to this. Pakistan is no exception. Record sales in the country are next to zero. It is true that platforms like Patari have helped monetize the provision of music; however, this is still not enough to sustain artists or the industry.
While the law does protect copyrights, enforcement is often found lacking. In any case, digital piracy has been an elusive menace to deal with internationally. Thus, expecting Pakistani law enforcement to posses the capacity and sophistication to eliminate piracy might not be reasonable.
“Artists may still make money from live shows?”
“Artists may still make money from live shows”, you say? Well, that’s where the problem lies. The Punjab government imposes a 20% ‘entertainment tax’ on admittance fee to concerts and music shows. While the 20% figure is an improvement on the 65% tax that organizers were subject to prior to 2011, it is still excessive. Subtracting a fifth of all revenue as a predetermined overhead cost renders the business unfeasible. If we read the ‘Right to Life’ to include music, such excessive taxation must be struck down as a violation of the right. In any case, it may already be argued that the exorbitant tax is a violation of the fundamental right to do the very legal business of organizing music shows, and also the right to the hard earned property of those in the aforementioned business.
This fiscally imposed constriction of the music business has subjugated the artist to corporations, who have established exclusive dominion over the industry. They have done so in two ways.
Firstly, the tax mentioned before may be avoided when the event is not-for-profit and no tickets are sold. For such shows, since no revenue is raised from selling tickets, overhead costs are often passed on to corporate sponsors. In return, the sponsors then often demand that particular artists be hired, or in the very least, their funding is contingent on the artists being marketable.
Secondly, and more visibly, brands like Coca Cola, Nescafe, and Pepsi use local music as a marketing ploy. While this does inevitably result in the provision of new music, it must be understood that all of this music is made with the sole purpose of selling more product. Consequently, the music that translates into higher product sales is the music that will be passed on the listener.
Governments should ensure maximum availability and propagation of artistic expression
This situation is not ideal, particularly from a theoretical point of view. Governments should ensure maximum availability and propagation of artistic expression. This is for the reason that art serves as a medium for socio-political expression, and is thus, indispensable for democratic progress. As more artistic expression enters into what John Stuart Mill called the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’, the more popular, and perhaps wise, ideas may be chosen for effectuation. The idea may seem outlandish, but it has been enshrined in Article 19 of our constitution. It is contained specifically with reference to art in the constitution of the USA, and serves as a basis for its copyright laws. When the only musical expression that reaches the masses is that which serves corporate interests, the exercise of societal development through art ceases to occur. At the nascent stage that the Pakistani democracy finds itself in, such restriction on thought and expression is not in its best interest.
What, then, can the government do about this situation? Obviously, the tax regime needs to be revisited. Levying taxes on profits instead of revenue may be a good first step. It may also like to subsidize the industry. Such subsidization would not be unprecedented, since both the KPK, and Punjab governments have instituted programs providing monthly stipends to deserving artists. Expanding this program to subsidized, or perhaps, free recording facilities may also help the cause. The state television and radio can also set aside airtime for local artists. State funding may even serve to bring regional music to the masses, and also help build the country’s ‘soft image’.
“While I maintain that music is the need of our nascent democracy”
While I maintain that music is the need of our nascent democracy, the citizenry can also use more of it to dull the pain arising out of the incessant chatter of doomsday scenarios racketing out of every television set in the country. Directing a fraction of the tax revenue to this purpose shall be in the benefit of all.