Coke Studio: Emperor's New Clothes

Coke Studio: Emperor's New Clothes
After having opened with the latest in that year’s Coke Studio, the 30-something neo-ghazal artist, offered us some wisdom and perhaps justification for what now seemed to be his eternal place on Coke Studio’s roster. To his credit, he did bring a certain joie de vivre to the ghazal genre. His opinions were always expressed politely with his signature quirkiness.

The Royal Palm crowd swooned to his rendition of, alas, another Coke Studio product of 2011. In Raag Malkauns,the modern Qawwal Bachay; Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammad and sons performed  the bandish Ae Kangana as it came together with bits and pieces of poetry from Bedam Shah Warsi and Mirza Qateel.


For the aforementioned artist to open with the same was a peculiar choice but well-received by many nonetheless. Many in the audience would not have been able to understand the Persian verses nor the excruciating difficulty with which the qawwal party stayed on beat in the jhap-taal arrangement. He sheepishly grinned and said that getting a call from the Coke Studio was comparable to having someone from the mafia call you. Whatever you did, you never said no. And while his was a comment made in jest to put a diverse Coke-Fest audience at ease, it let on far more than the audience initially grasped.

Hear Justice Asif Khosa! Coke Studio resembles the Sicilian mafia much more strongly than our Punjabi ruling class ever will. And there is many a crime behind this fortune, mostly intellectual property crime that does not really have a theoretical infrastructure in Pakistan but a crime nonetheless. Rumour has it that this last season was truncated after one record company came down hard on Coca Cola’s reckless and frankly stupid copyright infringements.

But this opinion of mine soon softened as I spoke to Omran Shafique of the Mauj, Coke Studio House Band, and Chaand Taaray Orchestra fame. As a regular feature on the house band, Omran provided us with an extremely level-headed perspective. He opined that the nature of desi music, especially kalaam, is such that it is passed on generationally within a particular gharana that is responsible for just one mode or method of presentation.

In such an environment, says Omran, certain groups (we would be remiss not to mention EMI Pakistan here) saw Coke as an easy target. With a reputation for being good pay masters and meticulous record-label substitutes, Coke had nothing to gain by having its fast-spreading music suffer a copyright strike on YouTube. But the relentlessly sinister intentions of those that essentially abused Pakistan’s nascent intellectual property law domain must not go unnoticed. Desi music’s unique fibre coupled with a lack of clarity on who actually owned the copyright made it exceedingly difficult to navigate the rugged legal terrain. This, in a country where Shafique himself says that he has made no money from TV or radio plays is expected but not fair.

As a Coke insider, Omran alongside Takatak band member Yusuf Ramay both offered a compulsive take on what seems to be a lack of originality from Coke Studio. Omran clarified that some artists discovered that it became a convenient hack to feature on Coke Studio via a Sufi-themed cover.

This is a result of shortcomings on both ends. Yusuf pointed out that he would disagree that there is a lack of original music. He remarked that one would be surprised at how many bedroom artists exist here in Pakistan. He pointed to Ali Suhail, Natasha Noorani, Janoobi Khargosh, Sikander Ka Mandar, Poor Rich Boy as just a few of the bands existing right now. However, the amount of exposure these original artists get is close to none, argued Ramay. He pleaded with platforms like Coke Studio to bring these artists into the spotlight so that the masses know of their existence as well, and in turn result in the growth of the music industry. Omran was quick to point out that the lack of originality in Coke Studio is often decried only because the hit songs are seldom the 50 % original compositions. Omran commented that it is a cyclical process in which the cover songs that now fetch hundreds of millions views on YouTube. The disruption of the scene via streaming services was also pointed to by Shafique.

We would be remiss to not mention Rohail Hyatt in this conversation about Coke Studio. Shafique showered him with lavish praise calling him the Michael Jordan of music, given he was just watching the Last Dance on Netflix.

Much is owed to Rohail as Coke Studio was his brainchild. He may have been later painted as the enfant terrible by Coke’s top brass but the admiration that his peers on all levels have for his work ethic is admirable. But did we really need to see him back? Did we really want Munir Akram back as our ambassador? Do we really want to see a fourth Nawaz Sharif premiership or another General Bajwa extension? I will leave that for the reader to decide.

Fareed Ayaz, being his eccentric self, once commented at a concert in New York that

“Coke pee ke seenay mein jalan hoti hai, humaray gaanay se rooh ko sakoon milta baj

Coke maghrib ki ilaamat hai, iss mein hum ne mashriq ka rooh afza daal diya hai"

Ayaz once called Rohail Hyatt a modern day Sufi. The manifold issues with that comparison are a topic for another time but I must concede that I began this article trying to vociferously criticise Coke Studio on all fronts. I still am no fan, but am now cognizant of the common-sense problems that plague the industry. An industry with a vacuum for record labels that is being filled up with coffees and cold drink brands. The obvious pitfalls of entrusting our music industry to a corporate behemoth like Coca Cola are just that; obvious.


To me, watching a film in an empty cinema is an exciting proposition. You take as many seats as your heart desires, can text and make calls at whim and basically just enjoy the benefits of a home theatre without the mortgage. This wintry 2015 night was different though. I showed up at The Village East Cinema in Downtown Manhattan where I was a sophomore at New York University to an empty hall. The indie cinema had two shows per day of Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Song of Lahore. An ode to the Sachal Studios orchestra’s literal and figurative trek to New York to perform with the famed Wynton Marsalis at the coveted Lincoln Center, the documentary shows just how little support independent artists enjoy. But then again, "taali do haath se bajti hai" (it takes two to tango).

Zarnaab Adil is a graduate of the Wagner School at NYU. He is an author and a political risk consultant based in Brooklyn, NYC.