Can you separate Coke from Coke Studio?

With season 15 of Pakistan's most beloved music show under way, fans are grappling with the question — to boycott or not to boycott?
Updated 29 Apr, 2024

Coke Studio, once touted as Pakistan’s biggest cultural export, is facing a dilemma. At a time when major brands and corporations around the world are facing calls for boycott for being even tangentially linked to Israel, the music platform hasn’t addressed the complex geopolitics it finds itself at the centre of. And that’s affected how people view it.

Coca Cola has been facing calls for a boycott even before October 7, but ever since Israel began its military offensive in Gaza, those calls have grown far louder. And they ring resolutely in Pakistan, where local brands have seen unprecedented support in the face of pro-Palestine boycotts. That Coca Cola is not actually on the official Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions list is immaterial as the strong sentiments surrounding the boycott in Pakistan have led to widespread calls to shun almost all foreign-linked products.

But Coke Studio is a brand in itself, one that has always been believed to be inherently Pakistani. It has launched the careers of many young artists and propelled some to global fame. ‘Pasoori’ — the Ali Sethi-Shae Gill mega-hit — was dubbed a tune that united India and Pakistan. Research papers have commended Coke Studio’s role in promoting “cultural diplomacy” and “trans-culturalism”. The platform has contributed to Pakistan’s music industry in ways that platforms before and after it have failed. It is, to put it plainly, a phenomenon.

But fans of both the platform and the artists who’ve contributed to it are now grappling with a new challenge — whether or not to listen to the songs produced by their favourite platform.

Coke Studio 15 — to stream or not to stream?

Coke Studio 15 released on April 14 with ‘Aayi Aayi’ after a delay of about six months without any promotions, marketing gimmicks or explanations for its overdue return. Sources told Images that the show had to return sooner or later because of payment delays for the many, many Pakistanis who had worked tirelessly on the season well before October 7.

The season’s producer, Xulfi, shared a video announcing its return on Instagram without addressing the reasons for the delay.

“Two years since ‘Phir Milenge’, the promise that we made to you, the promise that we closed Coke Studio Season 14 with. Today, with hope, love, humility and gratitude in our hearts, we begin another journey with you, for you,” he captioned his post.

Three songs have since been released and others are on the way, featuring both new and established artists. The platform has not, however, issued a statement or addressed the circumstances leading to its rather muted reception this year. Images also reached out to Coke Studio for a comment two weeks prior to the publishing of this article and is still awaiting a response. As Nadeem Farooq Paracha writes for Aurora, brands facing boycotts cannot pretend it’s not happening and instead must connect with their audiences in a more meaningful manner.

Sources confirmed to Images that the show was in its post-production stage when the October 7 attacks happened, meaning that artists had already signed contracts, recorded their songs and no longer had the option to disassociate from the label.

There is also the element of monetary support that Pakistani artists, and the Pakistani music industry at large, has gotten from Coke Studio over the years. The project, initiated by Rohail Hyatt back in 2008, was begun with the intention to reimagine and promote Pakistani music, as opposed to selling Coca-Cola.

A recent change to Coke Studio’s payment policy has allowed for artists to receive royalties as well as lump-sum fees, according to someone with insider knowledge of the process. Those royalties are divided between the multiple people who worked on the song — the singers, writers, producers and other stakeholders. The structure is informal and often decided case by case, but it is understood that artists have the power to negotiate their contracts.

The lump sum varies based on the artist, but, generally, it is a reasonable enough amount.

That means the artists benefit both monetarily from when a song’s popularity soars and from the publicity. The introduction of royalties is a newer addition to the policy — brought on by Xulfi — but even before this change, Pakistan has seen several artists’ popularity soar after a hit song on Coke Studio, which puts them on the path for more shows and tours.

And it’s not just the artists who benefit from the exposure — Coke gets more than sufficient mileage from the virality of the music too.

Coke Studio itself has not disclosed its profit-sharing policies and artist fees are not public knowledge.

Therein lies the problem

But while Coke Studio has done a lot for the Pakistani music industry, it still bears the brunt of the boycott this season and there is a conflict in the hearts of Pakistani fans of the music platform. Do they continue boycotting the platform for its ties with Coke or do they celebrate the Pakistanis behind Coke Studio and leave Coke out of it?

Many argue — albeit quietly — that Coke Studio and the many Pakistanis behind it shouldn’t suffer the consequences of a global boycott when it is inherently a Pakistani entity. The producers, singers, technicians, writers, mixers and everyone else involved are Pakistani.

Is the celebration of Coke Studio not a celebration of Pakistani music, they argue, or is it a celebration of Coca Cola, which, on the surface, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the music at Coke Studio.

The other side is conflicted and grappling with the idea of supporting a brand that is subject to a global boycott even if it means disregarding the work of local artists.

That the brand is being boycotted in solidarity with Palestine should be enough of a reason to boycott the platform, they reason, regardless of who worked on the songs. The other brands being boycotted in Pakistan also employ Pakistanis, after all. What’s so different about Coke Studio?

Coca Cola is, at the end of the day, a corporation that wants to make a profit. By patronising Coke Studio, consumers are inadvertently helping the brand meet its bottom line — which is something that those boycotting brands in support of Palestine don’t want to do.

Pakistanis now face a troubling moral dilemma — whether to continue their boycott or support a platform that has, since its inception, been labelled Pakistani. Can you separate the brand from the many Pakistanis who have worked and continue to work on it?

So the argument remains, can you take the Coke out of Coke Studio?


jsav12 Apr 29, 2024 02:00pm
I'd be interested to know if the production team trued to explore removing Coke as a sponsor and seeking others before the season went to air. Branding on set could have been blurred out. One can't boycott Coke and then stream Coke Studio. That makes the initial boycott pointless.
Dk Apr 29, 2024 02:44pm
If we are to boycott things then start with apple dell tesla mc donalds kfs and so on and so on but in long run it doesn’t work out because the owners or ceo’s are not killing anyone or the workers but the people who are affiliated with them in any way are surely responsible but do we have any proof regarding those tall claims I doubt that btw ayi ayi was awesome and I don’t drink blacks be it cola or peosi
NYS Apr 29, 2024 02:58pm
We shall reserve our comments till Coke Studio poll
AR Apr 29, 2024 03:05pm
It is rather unfortunate that the artists and everyone associated with it has to suffer. But then this suffering is minimal in comparison to the genocide. If artists can't get out of the contracts, they can still go on social media and tell the truth, ie. they did it before Oct 7 and post Oct 7 they don't have anything to do with this, they can opt to donate their royalties for the people of Palestine. So many options yet none taken which means atleast the artists and platform do not care, they are self serving only. Which eventually justifies the boycott even further!
Masood Habib Apr 29, 2024 03:37pm
Concur 100% with AR
Wahab Ahmed Apr 29, 2024 03:46pm
suppose it is a separate entity with no link with the Coke brand. Change the name to Gaza Studio, people of Pakistan will support it such that the sponsor of Coca-Cola will not be required.
maliha Apr 29, 2024 05:37pm
people who think that boycotting products will stop the war are stupid! people who can actually stop it are least concerned.. and those who can’t do anything are invested in these mindless things
Fundamentalist Apr 29, 2024 05:43pm
People these days are getting paid subscriptions of Spotify. Perhaps there is a market for an actually local music studio to explore idk. But I would be happy to see a studio without coke.
GD2901 Apr 29, 2024 07:24pm
Coke studio has done great service to Pakistani music. Killing it because it is funded by Coca Cola is like Cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. Such over reaction due to extreme emotions and ideology stalls the progress. Be it art, sport or trade. Remember to create something beautiful takes initiative, energy and resources of human beings. Default is chaos and entropy. Both Beautiful Creation and beating entropy takes leadership, initiative, energy and resources. And killing anything does not take much time.
Amina Saad Apr 29, 2024 07:32pm
If 'I alone cannot make a difference' says millions, then yes you alone can make a world of difference to the Boycott movement. It is not the destination but the journey one takes that one day we will be accountable for. I hope the Coke Studio Team looks beyond.
Aamir Apr 29, 2024 08:08pm
You can't. It is just a whitewash
Maria Malik Apr 29, 2024 09:20pm
The dilemma can be resolved by adhering to the principles of honesty and integrity. This involves remaining truthful to the audience and consumers to gain their confidence, as ultimately they hold the power to determine the outcome. To avoid such a dilemma, Coke Studio can be differentiated from Coke by seeking sponsorship from non-Zionist companies.
Wahid Apr 29, 2024 09:41pm
Maliha, I thought the same, but have been proven wrong. Here, in the UK, companies are panicking about being boycotted. Profits are being hit. They are seriously worried. We do make a difference. Also, we have to answer to our Lord. Why should we give our hard earned money to companies that back genocide, when we can give that money to others who don't.
hamza khan Apr 29, 2024 10:31pm
@Maliha- no one thinks that 'boycotting' alone can stop the war- it is a spear in a bag of weapons that you have to fight a very well funded and organized entity in the Zion** machine. You fight how you can, and boycotting them economically is extremely effective and if you follow what companies like Starbucks and Coke itself have reported in quarterly results, they are fully aware that they are being hurt by these boycotts, even mentioning it on their investor calls. So its working. Money talks.
Panini Apr 30, 2024 02:13am
Those who are calling boycott of products silly or stupid are saying so from the comfort of their homes where the blessings of The creator are endless. I hope they at least get the spine to talk about the genocide and support our muslim brothers in need, be it through boycotting or beyond.
Yaqoot D Mir Apr 30, 2024 02:27am
Palestine is a separate issue what is more important is we promote OUR culture through music. Coke Studio has NOTHING to do with Coke the business enterprise, sorry to be blunt. May be the Arabs should try and boycott Coke first did they?
Yaqoot D Mir Apr 30, 2024 02:29am
How about Boycotting the USA first from its internal affairs before these hollow sloganeering around Coke Studio is discussed, Pakistan CAN end the program with a Short number declaring Solidarity with Palestine no harm in that and that would be a fitting tribute to Pakistani masses. Music is Music regardless of sponsorship.
Helping Hands Apr 30, 2024 08:08am
After reluctantly listening to two songs of the season 15, I can thankfully say this season of Coke Studio is as crappy as it could get. It makes boycotting Coke and consequently, Coke Studio easier.
Shakeel Mahota Apr 30, 2024 12:00pm
In addition to Coca Cola's linkage with Jews/Israel, the unhealthy fizzy drinks should not be promoted or celebrated. Music which is good for soul should not be used to spoil physical health of one of world's most diabetic nations.
Pro West Apr 30, 2024 01:25pm
To those who say "what about Apple, Dell, etc?" - that is the typical "do nothing" reply. No boycott campaign is 100% in its reach, but the point is to make a start, and start with all non-essentials. All forms of pop-culture these days are subversive, and must be viewed with an eye of caution. If we cannot forsake silly entertainment as s how of solidarity for our suffering brethren, then shame on us.
Assad Apr 30, 2024 03:36pm
@Maliha, You have no idea the damage BDS is doing to Israel. Don’t underestimate the value of boycotting. In the US, there are states that have passed laws banning BDS since it’s hurting Israeli economy so much. Boycotting those in the bigger ecosystem like Coke etc helps. Every little bit helps.
Hakim Sikander Apr 30, 2024 06:07pm
Remember all: It is very difficult to create something beautiful and delicate accepted by all, but easy to destroy it with one reckless stroke, never to have it back. What we have in Coke Studio Pakistan is the intense dedication and hard work of many over a long period which must not be risked or rejected on an emotional impulse to boycott. Besides, I do not drink Coke, it is unhealthy, but what Coca-Cola has helped create in Pakistan is something we all should appreciate and rejoice!
Taj Ahmad Apr 30, 2024 06:22pm
No matter what action we takes such as boycotting products made by Israelis, nothing will work to stop the current war in Gaza. Only solution is to have two states solution in the region.
Black Hawk Apr 30, 2024 07:07pm
Isn’t it hypocritical to ban Coke but celebrate getting American money via IMF loan?