Can the Band keep playing?

Hanniah Tariq talks to a number of voices from Pakistan about the impact of COVID-19 on the arts and entertainment

Can the Band keep playing?
The post-COVID-19 world is experiencing immense social, cultural and economic disruptions. The impact of this period will extend to all vital sectors of society and perhaps irrevocably alter them. Standing on the faultline is the cultural and performing arts industry. Although not considered by many to be a mainstay of society, this sector is an irreplaceable pillar of civilization.

Mindful of this, countries across the world are extending support during this crisis. In late March, the German federal government announced a bailout package of USD 54 billion to aid self-employed artists and small businesses. The Arts Council of England stated that USD 190 million would be available to support the arts. At the same time, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in the US has allocated $300 million to Arts-related organizations. The Swedish Ministry of Culture has similarly allotted a large sum, and the ‘To Artist COVID Response Fund’ (TAC) in Canada is offering grants to arts organizations, collectives, and professional artists. In Pakistan, however, as stages, theatres, and performance venues close their doors, it is hard to see how we will be able to keep our cultural institutions alive in the same manner. As is the case with many developing countries, there is a multitude of other more urgent problems here, at any given moment. However, when it comes down to a time when there is overwhelming fear, panic, and uncertainty, the arts have always provided solace to perturbed citizens.

Arieb Azhar

Since the beginning of the lockdown the arts and culture sector has been instrumental in relaxation, as well as boosting optimism and morale in housebound citizens. Mindful of the beneficial effect it can have on socially isolated and concerned citizens, artists, and performers across the world are stepping up to play a constructive role. In late March, Sir Elton John hosted a concert called “iHeart Living Room Concert For America online” and was joined by various singers and artists from their homes. The initiative has raised over one million dollars for charity. In Iran, painters are auctioning their work to contribute to medical charities, and street artists across the US are spreading awareness through their art.

Pakistani artists are also rising to the occasion. “A lot of artists are doing a great job of giving people comfort. In a lot of ways, we are like the band playing while the Titanic sinks,” jokes standup comedian Shehzad Ghias. Musician Haniya Aslam has been uploading a new cover on her Instagram every day during the lockdown. “Being a socially isolated introvert, I felt it an obligation to help everyone else cope with what’s normal for me,” says the reserved artist. Jamal Rehman, CEO at True Brew Records, feels that music through social media has proven to be the glue in keeping people together. “Musicians are doing Podcasts, online collaborations, covers, and using Instagram live, and Facebook live to talk to their fans. It is great to see them contributing to raising morale and allowing people a break from this overflow of information about COVID-19, which has overwhelmed social media,” he points out.

This, unfortunately, is also an existential moment for artists around the world. With all public space closed to varying degrees, art in every form, especially performance art, has been immediately impacted. What will the future arts and culture landscape look like in Pakistan? According to the Economist, “streaming services are the most obvious beneficiary of a populace cooped up indoors. A recent report from Nielsen, a market-research firm, suggests that the crisis could lead to a 60% increase in the amount of content streamed”.


Artists around the world are scrambling to provide access through digital platforms and using this time to take valuable steps towards strengthening their career, brand name, or connection with their fans. The creative process is alive and well online with people streaming, creating new content, producing covers, or doing collaborative work. In Pakistan, the community is attempting a similar migration. “Some Youtubers have an arrangement where they sell tickets to a show on a specific date and time which people can stream with a code. It’s like being able to go to a performance from your living room. It also gives that artist a way to generate some income and tap into their audience. I think this is one way forward as we evolve”, says Tulin Khalid-Azim, Co-creator, and Director at Insolent Knights, an independent theater company. However, Zain Ahmed, Artistic Director of the NAPA Repertory Theatre at the National Academy of Performing Arts, is skeptical. “I know that there are some people who are moving to digital platforms. Comedians and musicians can, but I don’t see how theatre could do the same. Theater, by its very nature, is live performance before a live audience. If you aren’t doing that, you are just doing television or film,” he ruminates.

Additionally, while some stand to benefit from this chance to evolve, many will not be able to reap similar rewards. “For filmmakers, screenwriters, composers, etc. it’s a good time to create. But, people in production and post-production have been affected with work coming to a complete halt” divulges Rehman.

Subsequently, as far as the very grave question of financial vulnerability is concerned, the people who will most suffer are the freelance actors, mid-tier artists and session musicians, according to singer-songwriter Zeb Bangash. These are the people who are living paycheck to paycheck while playing the supporting role for the industry stars. They are the backbone of the industry, but their lives are dependent on touring. During this crisis, they have been left with no means to make ends meet in the months ahead.

So, as one segment of the industry initiates an exodus to cyberspace, another segment will be left behind. Session musicians, freelance performers, folk artists, qawwals, individuals performing at weddings and festivals - they are all artists. But they do not have the fan following to go digital and no work to sustain them currently. Many freelancers will temporarily or permanently lose employment across the country. “I am thinking about all the young actors and directors we have trained at NAPA who depend on performing for their livelihood. They will probably survive for a month or two, but after that, they have rent to pay. I worry about them. It’s something we actively have to think about right now”.

In March, the German Culture Minister Monika Grütters assured struggling artists that “the cultural sector, in particular, is characterized by a high proportion of self-employed people who now have problems with their livelihoods[…] We know the hardships. We know the desperation”. In the UK, freelance artists can apply for grants of up to £2,500. It is not realistic to expect the same response on a national level here. “We don’t have systems in place in Pakistan where musicians are able to collect their royalties. Therefore musicians are forced to earn from live concerts which are of course not happening at that moment”, explains Sufi musician Arieb Azhar.

In the face of an unstructured art and entertainment industry, it will have to be the community bailing itself out. As put by Azhar, “music will continue to be created, but how that will be monetized for artists is a different story. Right now, we have to figure out how to get monthly rations to those musicians who are unable to feed their families during these critical times. The solution to these problems lies in working together as a community”. Mohammad Ali Shyhaki, veteran Pakistani pop singer, agrees. “Whatever the government will do, they will do, but we have to take care of our fellow artists. The people who have done well in the industry should help the artists under pressure now,” he asserts.

Online and streaming services are helping to keep the creative process alive in many artists, and their patrons are grateful for the injection of joy into life under lockdown. However, the artistic community needs support for this mutually beneficial arrangement to thrive. Even when this blows over, the aftershocks will still be shaking the foundations of this industry for a while. Recovering will take time as the inertia accumulated in this period will prove laborious to break out of. “All those projects which have come to a halt will first of all have to resume, finish production, then go into post-production and then finally release” prophesizes Rehman. Haroon Rashid, musician, composer, and producer, believes that it could also have a long-lasting impact on the audience. “People will be less willing to go to a movie theater and being stuck inches away from a person coughing into their popcorn. And when it comes to live concerts, people will be concerned about being jam-packed in crowds,” he says. Ghias agrees, mentioning that “even when government restrictions are lifted, people will be very skeptical of large crowds. The future of live entertainment is up in the air at the moment.”

Solutions will have to be found both in and outside the industry if we want to keep enjoying human creativity and joy. The way we consume music, film, and theater, and will have to change. “Streaming platforms will become stronger, and more people will prefer to stay in their homes instead of going to cinemas. It is the same with live concerts. We will have to figure out ways for people to enjoy live concerts in an environment where they can feel safe from infection,” says Rashid. “I think globally a lot of people are asking the right questions on welfare, healthcare, and what needs to change in light of this pandemic. I don’t think it will really have any effect on Pakistan because we are about 50 years behind the rest of the world”, laments Rehman.

Let’s hope we, as a society, can understand that if artists can’t perform, they can’t exist. I shudder to think what will happen if we have no music, no art, and no theatre to see us through future dark times.