Why do we depend only on Coke Studio to bring us new talent?

Why do we depend only on Coke Studio to bring us new talent?

The show has been criticised for becoming too commercial. But hasn't it earned the right to find a new direction?
05 Sep, 2016

Usually, when one writes a column, most of the questions raised are often rhetorical and the rest are often left open-ended enough to take some time to resolve. However, the central question asked in my last column was fortuitously answered a few days later. The question was about the identity of Coke Studio, and whether having one still mattered to the show.

In an interview, the singer Qurutulain Baloch (QB) said, “With Rohail [Hyatt], you had the freedom to be creative. There was a support system, as far as content is concerned. Now, even with creative giants on board, everything is pre-planned. Music is already penned down for the ‘vocalists’ and it has become more commercial than ever, since it’s one of the most viewed programs all over the world.”

That insight certainly resolves the question of identity.

As QB indicates, the show’s current identity has been designed to remove Rohail-era experimentation and focus more on appealing to the widest possible audience. Of course, ‘widest possible audience’ is often code for low-brow work, but in this situation, those running Coke Studio have a loophole to work with.

After eight full seasons, there is a certain sound associated with Coke Studio, and it is possible to mimic that in itself. In other words, the show can produce songs that are self-referential and thus avoid a widespread perception of producing purely commercial music. Take for example 'Par Channa', released in last week’s episode.

The song took a famous folk track, added a large orchestra of house musicians, threw in some famous voices and produced an elaborate track that went through several movements of contrasting, fusion sound. There are of course lots of subtle details that go with it, but this is generally the established structure for a Coke Studio song that the producers can keep turning to. In that sense, it has a huge advantage over other corporate-sponsored shows, that struggle to make their own sound 'different' enough and yet still be accessible.

What the quote above also implies is that Coke Studio will continue to double-down on its strategy of featuring big names and headline-act duets. As noted last week, it has displayed a tendency in the last few seasons to reduce lesser known acts. While it would be an overstatement to say that even before Rohail left, the show was a regular source of introducing new acts, the fact is that it still had a bit of a track record of doing so. It seems unlikely, however, that it will continue to do so.

When I thought of that, I was reminded of a conversation from a few years ago, when an underground artist had said to me that he felt Coke Studio was destroying the music scene because it was narrowing the circle of artists who received mainstream exposure. This took place before Strings took the show in season seven, and was thus before that circle became even narrower. For that artist, this latest turn of strategy would only mean a further exacerbation of the problem he had earlier identified.

Back then I had replied to the artist that even if he was correct, the onus wasn’t on Coke Studio to offer an alternative – and I believe the same holds true when we seek to critically evaluate the show in light of QB’s quote.

If Coke Studio chooses to embrace a more commercial route, it is only because it can afford to do so without losing out (at the moment at least) on its audience. But even if that audience begins to lose interest, then it isn’t for granted that they would turn to an alternative Pakistani music program or scene. If anyone, or thing, is to displace Coke Studio, it would require creating something that has a different appeal.

Every year, several major corporations have been spending millions of rupees to create music-related content that fails to have the sort of impact Coke Studio has. The primary cause for this failure has been quite simple – the corporates have been obsessed with the broadest possible appeal, while leaving the music secondary.

You can look at the star-studded flop that was Pepsi’s 'Chand Sitara', or the same brand’s short-lived show Pepsi Smash as examples. Cornetto’s efforts have also had a similar lack of impact, with the brand having launched several formulaic campaigns that are yet to establish themselves.

What these brands need to embrace is what the example of Coke Studio has shown, which is that you need to build up something before you can afford to go totally commercial.

Patari Weekly Top Charts

Taking a look at the charts this week, and Coke Studio season is fully in swing. Starting with 'Afreen Afreen' at number one, the show has thirteen songs in the top twenty. Telenor’s 'Rawan' and Cornetto-backed 'Pyar Wyar' take up two of the free spots, and film OSTs take up three more. The remaining two are quite interesting. Underground superstars Khumariyaan have a bewitching cover of the Game of Thrones theme, while the 'Azaadi' series by the Dastangoi project sees its narration of Gulzar’s short story Khauf take up no. 9 on the charts.

Amongst those songs that didn’t make the charts but deserved to, check out this absolutely wonderful piece of Urdu poetry by Alea Rizvi titled Nostalgia. There is also a really funky Sindhi song out by Arif Ghumro called 'Soor' that gets better with each listen.

If you’re at work, put on your headphones before listening to Lala Loya rap on 'Singlan Da Chakka'. And finally, in line with the column’s discussion on commercialism, a song that is meant to rail against “the man”, defined in the lyrics as someone called Jhumra (or at least that’s what the artist explained to me). Featuring the vocals of Duck and Rachel Viccaji, it’s a song called 'Jhumra' by Sibti.


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zee Sep 05, 2016 07:08pm
Some of the best music from Coke Studio, Shilpa/Nirmal and others..Thank you Strings and thank you OUR new stars...
Muhammad Arshad Sep 05, 2016 09:42pm
for me, if coke studio can just produce one hit fusion song each season, its worth it.
nibedita Sep 05, 2016 09:43pm
Bollywood is not the only industry in India.they must also try the Marathi industry,the Bengali industry,Tamil,Telugu and the other regional industries. These produce awesome movies each year.
Saad Kaana Sep 05, 2016 10:23pm
Coke Studio without Rohail Hyatt is like coke without fizz!! Bring him back pkease!!!!
Shakil Sep 05, 2016 11:03pm
This is what I had suspected all along as well.... In an interview, the singer Qurutulain Baloch (QB) said, “With Rohail [Hyatt], you had the freedom to be creative. There was a support system, as far as content is concerned. Now, even with creative giants on board, everything is pre-planned. Music is already penned down for the ‘vocalists’ and it has become more commercial than ever, since it’s one of the most viewed programs all over the world.”
JY Sep 05, 2016 11:19pm
No Pakistaniat or subcontinental flavor left in such Coke Studio music. Do I have to listen to this - I could play western artists directly - I do. Maybe it titillates those who have never heard such sounds. Whom are the musicians trying to impress - Rock Stars from America?? Jayiae - appni Ghiardelli ka Mocha Choco drink peelajiaye.
Cinephile Sep 06, 2016 08:00am
No mainstream media outlet gives Pakistani music the kind of exposure that Coke Studio does. That is the simply answer to your question about "why we depend on Coke Studio." Pakistani artistes used to have a platform in from 2000 to 2005-ish, which resulted in many artistes like Noori, Ahmed Jahanzeb, Aaroh, EP, Atuf Aslam, Ali Zafar etc. gaining prominence. That is not the case anymore as the channels are flooded with content which cannot be called out owing to this paper's policies.
Kabir Sep 06, 2016 10:59am
it's coke studio guys, COKE, Coca Cola a commercial entity......
white noise Sep 06, 2016 11:08am
Because you need money to support a talent, and this is not a new talent, the talent has already been there but they did not had a platform before, I don't like fizzy drinks but I respect Coke so much for this platform which has enabled people to showcase their worth, and might I say, Noori has matured so much I bet they can produce future episodes of Coke Studio. its about time Pepsi should bring back battle of the bands, last time they did that over a decade ago, a lot of good came out of that effort.
Commerical what? Sep 06, 2016 11:34am
What do people mean by "getting too commercial"?? The show would be unfeasible to run for Coca Cola if it didn't make them profits in return. It's a an amazing sow that is producing fantastic music in a media environment where independent music production and industry is almost dead. So what if it's getting a bit commercial? As long as coke studio produces great songs, I don't mind.
Curious Sep 06, 2016 03:09pm
Such a random analysis of the entire industry. Everything we already knew has been put together as prose. Please I'd really want an in-depth analysis of the industry not one that is only about pulling punches.
mishi Sep 06, 2016 04:51pm
well.. to be honest.. i have not watched even a single season relating coke studio previously. but this time i am totally surprised with the Pakistani hidden talent..seriously.. so many beautiful songs having different tastes and cultural backgrounds. I was wondering that no one in whole planet can compete with such appreciable voices. .. LONG LIVE PAKISTAN.. HI FIVE COKE STUDIO!!!
MJS Sep 07, 2016 03:50am
I am a big fan of Coke Studio and the material that it has been producing. However in terms of creative independence and ingenuity, Nescafe basement has surpassed Coke Studio.