The Bollywoodisation of Coke Studio

June 16, 2024

A far cry from its glory days, the latest edition of Coke Studio has been a major disappointment for Pakistani audiences accustomed to musical innovation. In Pakistan, we have developed a tolerance for below par media, but the lost glory of Coke Studio is too much to bear.

The Bollywoodisation of Coke Studio


oke Studio started in Brazil but only gained international fame through its Pakistani rendition. In 2008, Coke Pakistan’s marketing head, Nadeem Zaman, partnered with Rohail Hyatt (of Vital Signs fame) to create Coke Studio Pakistan. The first season was recorded in front of a live audience. It was interesting but resembled a low-budget local TV music channel entree, common on other music channels at the time. Not many people even knew Hyatt was involved.

After its success, it was decided that Season 2 would be a closed studio format instead. This, I would argue, was the deciding factor in Coke Studio’s subsequent success. Seasons 2 through 13 were closed studio recordings. It felt like being inside a studio. The energy of the performances could be felt through our TV screens as if we were inside. It provided the essence that got through to all of us. Unlike music videos, we could see the musicians creating together, all at once. It was like a concert with studio sound.

Season 2 was where Coke Studio developed its true identity. This time, BTS videos accompanied track videos so we could get a peek at the creative process. Artists, instrumentalists and Hyatt (rarely) could be seen creating each composition passionately. Often, Hyatt could be seen creating a feel for the song and then giving up control to the artist. This is what great producers are all about.

Such was the success of the following seasons that India adopted the show in 2012. However, it was a case of failure to launch. India, despite all its diversity, could not do what Hyatt was doing. The show discontinued after four seasons.

So, what was Hyatt doing? In 2015, Hyatt mentioned that when he started Coke Studio and started meeting with Ustaads of classical music, they pointed out to him that his notes were off tune. Hyatt had grown up on Pink Floyd and other western pop artists. He had been a member of Pakistan’s first major pop and rock music group band, but his notes, it seemed, were off. Having a spiritual and naturalist tilt, Hyatt listened. They taught him about classical scales in music. He said ever since he has employed the principles in his records. He also said that subconsciously most of the songs people were responding to were set on ancient scales.

In this talk at the Harvard South Asian Institute, Hyatt also talks about ancient divine frequencies and resonance of spaces. This points to the fact that Hyatt does not take anything lightly when it comes to music. That he treats music with reverence. This much is clear if you listen to Coke Studio seasons in which he was involved. As someone conscious of the resonance of spaces would be while running a studio, a great example is ‘Kangana’ by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad where Hyatt employs a ‘jhap taal’ beat for the qawwal clap.

In the BTS video, he can be seen training the western styled instrumentalists to do this successfully. Nobody else has the guts or the dedication to try something like that in Pakistan. Another thing that he was good at was cutting out the extraneous elements. Reducing unnecessary elements. Keeping necessary ones on loop. My personal favourite is the bass guitar that animates his songs in his signature style.

However, what is surprising is that Coke let him captain the ship. There was no cheapening of the project for financial gain. Hyatt even posted videos on YouTube with his personal account, something that has since then changed. This is perhaps the perfect metaphor for who had control.

When Hyatt left after Season 6, it was obvious he wasn’t replaceable. Immediately, Coke Studio songs were just like other songs playing on TV. The magic was gone. The newer seasons sounded edited, clean, performative, and anything but organic. After a few subsequent producers failed to mimic Hyatt successfully, he was called back. He brought back the magic as well as his signature backing vocalists with him. Two seasons and he was gone again.
Coke Studio then plunged into an identity crisis, eventually emerging with an unexpected identity: Bollywood.

This didn’t happen gradually but rather all of a sudden. The producers after Hyatt failed to produce anything original. The only songs that caught on were the ones that usually do: dance numbers. Dance numbers that you can play at weddings. Dance numbers you can play on TikTok and dance to. Dance numbers that are put in ads. It doesn’t even matter what the product is; toothpaste, cooking oil or soap. Dance numbers come to the rescue when we can’t think of anything original.

The precipice of this was reached a couple of weeks back when Faris Shafi was seen doing a dance number. I thought to myself: ‘they got him!’ Who knew Coke Studio could turn Faris into Mika Singh. There is, of course, nothing wrong with dance numbers. I am only mourning the loss of something authentic, something that was risky, something that was about more than making money. Our neighbours over in India are so tired of dance numbers dominating their music scene that most of the YouTube comments under Hyatt’s Coke Studio songs are from appreciative Indians. It seems we have yet to decide.

Do we need more dance numbers? Xulfi and Coke think so. But at what cost? The answer may lie in Coke Studio’s past, a time when it dared to be different, a time when music mattered more than marketing.

The Bollywoodisation of Coke Studio