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Artists struggle to survive as piracy flourishes

Media piracy and police corruption are sucking millions of dollars out of Burma’s struggling music and film industry every year, says a Burmese musician.

Hip hop icon Thxa Soe says Burma’s local artists are suffering because fake copies of CDs and DVDs are undercutting album sales, draining more than $US1 billion from the industry each year.

“Media piracy is killing our industry,” Thxa Soe says.

“In Myanmar, people love to listen to music, but because of piracy our music and film industries are dying,” he says.

A popular musician and celebrity, the hip hop star is renowned for his style of combining the beats from historical Burmese spiritual music, called nat doe, with original rap lyrics.

The 31-year-old studied audio engineering in London and says he grew up listening to hip hop icons Dr Dre and the Beastie Boys.

He says local artists miss out on the revenue from their movies and album sales, which is pocketed by vendors selling cheap bootleg copies and the police who protect them.

Thxa Soe says corruption is rampant among the police force that, instead of protecting local artists by targeting and arresting those selling pirated copies, benefit from the proceeds of piracy.

“The government needs to control the police. Because right now, there’s no law on the block,” he says.

He says media piracy is a major obstacle to Burmese artists, who are also controlled by strict government censorship which dictates artistic expression, from what they can sing to what clothes they wear on stage.

And the majority of Burmese artists whose songs and films do gain government approval rarely make any money from their works.

[pullquote] “The government needs to control the police. Because right now, there’s no law on the block” [/pullquote]

Despite Burma’s President Thein Sein announcing a series of recent reforms, freedom of expression is not guaranteed by law and publications, including newspaper articles, song lyrics and movie scripts are subjected to strict censorship by the Burmese government.

While the government has said in the past that it would draft new intellectual property legislation, the Burma Copyrights Law, enacted under British colonial rule, is still on the books, which does little if anything to curb the country’s piracy scourge.

The 2012 Index of Economic Freedom states corruption in the impoverished country is rampant and continues to be a serious barrier to sustained economic development.

“The government controls everything which we sing through censorship, then even if we are approved and release an album, piracy and police corruption takes our money,” says Thxa Soe.

He says the restrictions on freedom of expression have widely discouraged artists from writing their own lyrics and instead the music industry has been flooded with western cover songs.

Thxa Soe has experienced firsthand the frustrations of government censorship, after nine songs were from his recent album were rejected and an MTV screening of his live performance banned in the country.

His debut album in 2001 sold more than one million original copies in Burma; however, his newest release in 2010, sold less than 6,000 copies.

“But when I walk around the streets, I can see pirate copies of my CD on every corner,” he says.

The musician says fake copies of his CDs are undercutting sales of his album, which retail for around US$2, while makeshift stands on street corners sell pirated copies for around $US50 cents.

“The music industry is going downhill because the real artists cannot survive, so they’re leaving the country,” says Thxa Soe.“People need money to survive, they need to eat and feed their families. If they can’t sell their art, what can they do?”

The hip hop star is part of a group of artists who plan to lobby Burma’s President Thein Sein and demand intellectual property laws as well as a crackdown on corrupt police.

“The president needs to control the police and stop media piracy,” he says.

“I’m going to vote for whoever can stop piracy and guarantee us freedom of expression.”

– Victoria Heather is a pseudonym for a journalist working in Burma


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