When Swedish audio streaming giant Spotify launched in Pakistan in February 2021, it created a massive buzz in the world’s fifth-most populous nation. For a country that has given birth to South Asia’s biggest music legends — from Abida Parveen, Mehdi Hassan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Ghulam Ali to Atif Aslam — Spotify’s entry was seen as an avenue that could help young and new talent reach a global audience and monetize their art in a country with weak local intellectual property laws.

“It was a big moment for us because it felt like Spotify was acknowledging that we exist,” said Rohail Hyatt, a record producer and founding member of Vital Signs, one of Pakistan’s first successful mainstream rock bands. Over his 35-year career, Hyatt has seen firsthand the challenges and pitfalls of trying to make a living in Pakistan’s music industry. “The four albums we’ve made along with a hundred odd songs that I’ve produced and should own, we own nothing; we’ve not seen a single rupee of royalty coming off of that.”

In the last year, Spotify has had some positive impact on the industry, said Faisal Rafi, a music producer, recording engineer, and 25-year industry veteran. The pandemic “has been one of the most productive times for Pakistani musicians because they had nothing else to do and were making new music. Spotify’s launch did really well for younger musicians. It did great for the proliferation of music,” Rafi said.

While Spotify hasn’t yet released any figures on their user base in Pakistan, the app’s most popular 2021 Wrapped lists in the country offer a sense of user engagement in the region. Hot Hits Pakistan, one of the top-three Spotify playlists for the year has over 20,000 likes on the app, and the All-Time Pakistani Hits playlist has over 18,000 likes. Spotify Pakistan on Instagram has 60,000+ followers as of February 2022.

However, many of the music creators and industry experts who spoke to Rest of World say that the company will need to do a lot more to truly tap into Pakistan’s music potential.

Pakistan has one of the most diverse and vibrant music cultures in South Asia, ranging from Sufi qawwali folk tunes to rock and electronic music as well as a recently booming underground rap scene. This year, classical and neo-Sufi musician Arooj Aftab became the first Pakistani artist to be included in the Coachella music festival’s lineup.

But Pakistan’s few remaining record labels have been slow to invest in new music or artists in nearly three decades. Rather, record labels have doubled down on monetizing their back catalogs and handing out copyright infringement notices to artists who have legal ownership over their own music. 

“Right now, marketing is something no one has the resources or infrastructure to do in Pakistan.”

“Groups and record labels like the EMI production house usurped many of the rights of the artists by keeping them in the dark about their claims over the music,” said Alizeh Bashir, a partner at Kabraji & Talibuddin law firm, who is working on intellectual property claims in Pakistan for trademark registrations and copyrights. “A lot of talented artists have been found, in their final days, alone or driving rickshaws around the country because no one has supported their talents, and they were deprived of their entitlement to copyright claims because they simply didn’t have the funds or access to go up against these powerhouses.”

Creators say that platforms like Spotify can empower them and offer a route to monetization.

Singer-songwriter Natasha Noorani said Spotify’s algorithms and statistics are helping her gauge her growth and audience reach along with that of other artists, allowing transparency in different artists’ positions in the industry.

“In the past, corporations would consider the same 7–8 artists because no one ever bothered doing any market research as to which artists were popular,” Noorani told Rest of World. “Spotify is doing what most labels aren’t, which is marketing you. Right now, marketing is something no one has the resources or infrastructure to do in Pakistan.”

But not every musician has had equal access to Spotify in the country.

A Spotify playlist from Coke Studio, a Pakistani television and music franchise, featuring a variety of music from their artist roster.

Noorani, who is a co-founder of a local music festival Lahore Music Meet, has had her music available on Spotify since 2018, before the platform officially launched in Pakistan. To gain access, she borrowed a friend’s American credit card and set up an account for herself on DistroKid, a U.S.-based digital music distribution service that charges $19.99 a year to upload music across various platforms, like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, among others.

“You require some amount of privilege, where you have access to different avenues to start distribution,” Noorani said. “There are a whole host of artists that do not make it to Spotify, even though they may be far more credible or bigger artists in terms of listenership on other platforms.” This entry barrier means that any Spotify playlist of new Pakistani artists does not capture the diversity of music currently being made in the country.

Spotify needs to do better at engaging with grassroots musicians, singer-songwriter Wajiha Ather Naqvi told Rest of World. Those who “come from privilege and have an education that they can rely on in case this doesn’t work out,” are currently leading the pack for Pakistani indie music on Spotify, Naqvi said. “Traditional artists may not benefit from being on Spotify because their audience isn’t there.”

“These companies are here to make profit, not to protect the rights of artists or to democratize music.”

Naqvi is skeptical of Spotify’s ambitions in the country. “These companies are here to make profit, not to protect the rights of artists or to democratize music,” she said. “In the process of commodifying products and services, there could be byproducts and benefits that emerge for the artist, but those aren’t really the key intentions that these platforms have come with.”

Spotify did not respond to requests for interviews from Rest of World.

Hyatt told Rest of World that Spotify could help address the country’s piracy issues. In 2006, Pakistan’s music industry lost an estimated $25 million to piracy.

The lack of accessible software and platforms in Pakistan is a main driver of piracy, Hyatt said. Many international online stores and services don’t accept Pakistani credit cards, or may not be available to download at all. Cost is also a factor: legal music downloads cost several times more than bootlegged or illegal versions, which are much more readily available online.

Services such as Spotify can go a long way in addressing some of the issues around accessibility. “From a user perspective, it’s done a lot because someone who would otherwise be pirating music or downloading an illegal version off the web can legally listen on Spotify, either as a paying subscriber or through Spotify’s unpaid subscription,” Hyatt said. Spotify’s subscription starts at 299 rupees ($1.70) per month in Pakistan.

A year after the Pakistan launch, music industry insiders say Spotify has had some positive effects in the nation. “I think it’s an interesting time for technology to be intersecting with new markets in Pakistan, so this is an interesting space that maybe a lot of investors will look into and benefit from,” Naqvi said.