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.
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.