Nine years down the line, what makes Coke Studio work is not just musical acumen but also quite a bit of marketing expertise.

Consider the way this year’s season kicked off with the heartrending 'Aye Rah-e-Haq Ke Shaheedo', timed closely around Independence Day. It then proceeded to undulate through troughs and peaks, culminating with a poignant collaboration between maestros Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the tragically deceased Amjad Sabri.

The audiences were hooked, waves were made on social media – mission achieved. This drink may have gotten a bit tepid and the bubbles may have waned, but it’s still being guzzled down.

One has to give credit to the Studio for trying to shake things up. The six ‘guest’ music producers that were taken on-board this time were meant to bring new flavours to the platform. This didn’t always work though; the smorgasbord of songs that emerged varied from the very forgettable to the unfathomable to the hits. It lead to umpteen online tirades and the inevitable contradictory opinions from audiences.

And herein lies CS’s success. People may love specific songs or hate them but they talk about the show as if it’s their own – and as long as they do, the show will go on.

“I sometimes think that this show is so much like a Pakistani cricket match,” ponders Bilal Maqsood, who helms the show along with his Strings’ band mate Faisal Kapadia. “If the team loses, it is inflicted with insults and if it wins, it is showered with love. CS inspires similar reactions but ultimately, people feel a sense of ownership towards it.”

This would not have been the case had the show not been a labour of love for music. For nine years now, it has persisted; the concept taking birth in Pakistan and now, having extended to other parts of the world. This year, according to a Google search, the show was watched by 188 countries across the world.

From song selection to artist selection and placement to masterminding collaborations, set design and the final editing, there are many layers to the show that finally filter down to the screen. “We work along with the sponsors, of course, but since Faisal and I are mainly responsible for the show, the final decision lies with us,” says Bilal.

Behind the scenes

“As many as 120 people are working on the show during a single recording,” says Bilal. “Each song is shot in a single live recording; there are no pauses or retakes in order to cover up glitches. The recording studio has myriad cameras and we shoot across the studio.”

The tragically deceased Amjad Sabri with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the Coke Studio team during the rehearsals for their join performance of 'Rang'
The tragically deceased Amjad Sabri with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the Coke Studio team during the rehearsals for their join performance of 'Rang'

Many CS aficionados may not have noticed the many clocks lining the walls, all pointing at 9 ‘o’ clock – for this was Season 9 after all! Beyond the camera’s eye, there are rooms that remain clustered during the eight odd months of production. A lounge area is set up where the artistes can relax or better yet, play a mean game of Atari! “Most of us used to play with Atari in our childhoods and so, we decided to get one for the Studio,” says Bilal.

The kitchen remains stocked with snacks, there is a soundproof rehearsal room, a makeup room and a producers’ room which gives a bird’s eye view of the recording area. The walls are lined with images of CS through the ages and of course, there are refrigerators everywhere, fully equipped with fizzy drinks.

“The rehearsals usually go on for around three months and then the post-production work starts,” outlines Abbas Arsalan, Marketing Manager at Coca-Cola. “It’s a location where so much work is being done and we make sure that it is fully equipped.”

The style quotient, a la Ehtesham Ansari

Also very well-equipped is the show’s wardrobe section; presenting options for the male vocalists and the female, the background singers and the main stars. Stylist Ehtesham Ansari has now, for three years, been successfully tackling the CS wardrobe behemoth.

“Last season I had an artist who wanted to perform wearing bridal wear,” he recalls. “She told me that she wanted to look like Deepika Padukone in Ram-Leela. It takes a great amount of diplomacy and patience to devise looks for singers depending on their personality, their comfort level and the kind of song that they are performing.

“Once the line-up of artiste has been decided, I come on-board and listen to the songs being recorded and mixed. Then, I come up with a mood-board, discuss it with Strings, forward it to the musicians and work on it until we come up with a look that we mutually like.”

Mehwish Hayat got a military makeover to differentiate her look from her previous public appearances as an actor
Mehwish Hayat got a military makeover to differentiate her look from her previous public appearances as an actor

The sartorial options vary from clothes that are borrowed off-the-rack from designers to others that are custom-made.

“Natasha Khan, Momina Mustehsan, Damia Farooq and Nirmal Roy all wore Khaadi Khaas and their design team actually sent us sketches that we approved before the clothes got made. Zeb Bangash, in 'Aaja Re Moray Saiyaan', wanted to wear a brand that she feels comfortable in. For her second performance, I recommended that she wear an outfit by Shamaeel Ansari. Mehwish Hayat expressly told me that she didn’t want to look like an actress, which is why we chose to give her a slightly military look with a jacket with Emoji badges. We pondered over whether Meesha Shafi should pair a matha-patti with the outfit by Rohit Bal that she wore in 'Aaya Laariye'. We decided it would work – with Meesha one can really be edgy.”

Aside from the effusion of designer wear, there are colour considerations that may surprise the average viewer. Colours identifiable with the sponsor brand’s many competitors, for instance, are a definite no-no. Even the Coke red and black is avoided because given that the recording studio is in a similar hue, the artist runs the risk of fading into the background.

“Most importantly, the styling needs to resonate well with the music,” explains Ehtesham. “CS is all about fusion and similarly, the wardrobes need to be a fusion of different elements, traditional, aesthetically sound looks with twists to them.”

For the love of music

Beyond the razzmatazz of stars, designer wear and hit (and miss) music, though, CS has played a much more profound role of providing sustenance to a music industry that has long been on the decline.

For instance, violinist Javed Iqbal who has been part of the musicians’ entourage for the past seven years, considers the Studio ‘home’. “I started off with Rohail bhai and continued on with Strings. There really has been no better platform to recognise talent, revive music and bring educated, experienced artists in the spotlight.”

Javed Iqbal
Javed Iqbal

A stalwart in his profession, Javed recalls the early ’80s when he worked on film soundtracks. “Standards were falling in our film industry and simultaneously, so was their music. TV was on the rise then and I found work there, but by the late ’80s, even this avenue was waning. That’s when I found a job at Radio Pakistan and I have been working there ever since. Every year, for one-and-a-half months, I moonlight as CS’ violinist but there are others who come and stay in Karachi for longer periods and the Studio takes care of all their living expenses.”

For many others who are part of the show, wages from a single season are enough to sustain expenses for a year, until the next. “They take care of us, pay us a substantial amount and most importantly, give us respect,” says guitarist Imran Akhund who joined in Season 7.

“It’s an ideal job for any Pakistani musician but, then again, not everybody can be part of the show. For four months, we just practice from 10am till 5pm and we have to be very punctual because Strings are there every morning, before us. When it’s time for the final take, every note has to be on cue because the song is shot in a single recording and there can be no space for error. And a musician has to have the versatility to switch from qawwali music to folk to film songs. It’s not easy, but it’s very satisfying.

Imran Akhoond
Imran Akhoond

“There’s also the boost that musicians get when they are recognised wherever they go,” continues Imran. “I have been playing for 20 years and mostly with Shehzad Roy but it is only now that people recognise me wherever I go. It’s because I am constantly on their screen, playing my guitar.”

Of course, CS’ platform has led to the formation of several similar shows and created recognition for Pakistani music worldwide. Now that film is traversing an uphill path to revival, the future of local film music looks promising. But back when it initiated nine years ago, CS was a beacon of light in a scenario that was pitch dark.

“It was fresh and unique and it reintroduced music into the country with an all-new formula,” recalls Ameed Riaz, executive director at EMI Pakistan, the country’s largest music company before the industry tumbled into decline. “Musical rights are more or less ignored in Pakistan and talented artists lead impoverished lives and die, completely destitute. CS improved the situation to some extent.”


Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 2nd, 2016

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