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‘Music Transcends Everything': Coke Studio Fuses Genres and Cultures, Creates International Franchise

By:  Jay Moye Nov 1, 2013
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A few years ago, a producer at MTV India came across a YouTube clip of a 75-year-old Rajasthani singer named Sawan Khan crooning a hauntingly beautiful folk tune.

A talent scout was dispatched to the remote village to approach the singer with an offer: to appear on the newly launched Coke Studio@MTV, a live performance TV show celebrating the country’s diverse musical heritage.

“When we got him into the studio in Bombay, he initially told us he couldn’t sing because he’d never been in an air-conditioned room before,” explains Aditya Swamy, MTV India’s executive vice president and business head.

But he eventually did, dazzling viewers with a genre-crossing collaboration with modern rock singer Clinton Cerejo on the song “Saathi Salaam.”

“We realized we’d created a completely new source of entertainment,” Swamy said.

Bridging Barriers

Coke Studio debuted in Brazil in 2007 and was adapted a year later in Pakistan, which pioneered the musical fusion concept that has reshaped popular culture in the country and inspired an international franchise. The innovative format – which has been scaled to India, the Middle East and, most recently, Africa – combines Pakistan’s myriad musical influences, from eastern classical and folk, to contemporary hip-hop, rock and pop. 

This boundary-blending combination of traditional and modern sets Coke Studio apart from other branded music programs. “By creating a new genre of music, we are touching generations of people across Pakistan and around the world,” says Rizwan Khan, general manager, Coca-Cola Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Coke Studio gives both well-known and up-and-coming artists a platform to share their music with national and international audiences. Arif Lohar, a famous Pakistani folk singer, appeared on the show in 2010 to perform one of his signature songs accompanied by a rock rhythm section and vocalist Meesha Shafi. The performance – which has received almost 14 million views on YouTube, making it the most-watched online video in Coca-Cola history – gave Lohar’s career a second wind and exposed him to younger fans.

“Before I did Coke Studio, the audiences who knew my music were those who had heard me in concert,” he told The New York Times. “After that, it reached a whole new generation. It reached teenagers, people who had never heard my music before. I felt lucky.”

Bilal Khan, a young singer-songwriter whose appearance on Coke Studio launched his career, said the format offers something for everyone.

“They convert old folk songs into these really likeable, modern-sounding songs,” he explains. “They take something that was uncool – but had a soul and meaning – and make it cool."

Rizwan Khan adds, “By weaving together eastern values with western influences, Coke Studio introduces the youth of Pakistan to their cultural fabric in a way that is totally palatable and acceptable to them. They are introduced to languages they’ve never heard and hear lyrics that stimulate them emotionally and intellectually. Coke Studio has given a strong sense of ownership, inspiration and pride to Pakistanis. This phenomenal asset is all about bridging barriers by fueling optimism and 'Opening Happiness' – which is what Coca-Cola stands for.”

A Positive Note

Coke Studio blankets the airwaves in Pakistan with simultaneous broadcasts on more than 40 TV channels and 10 radio networks. All songs can be streamed and downloaded for free on the series website, and every episode is posted on the show’s YouTube channel, which has received more than 90 million views, to date. Songs are performed in multiple languages and dialects, broadening Coke Studio’s appeal across age groups, geographic regions and socioeconomic groups.

“If you come to Pakistan when Coke Studio is in season, you hear Coke Studio music coming from restaurants, homes, cars… everywhere,” says Ali Akbar, marketing manager, Coca-Cola Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Our strategy was to enable anyone who gets into a car together – including teens and their parents – to choose a song they want to hear without having to change the CD.”

In addition to providing a welcomed source of entertainment, Coke Studio shines a positive spotlight on a country burdened by negative headlines. Newsweek called the show one of the best things to come out of the country in the last decade. And with nearly half of its viewers watching from outside Pakistan, the show's reach is truly international.

“What Coke Studio has done is given us something to be proud of,” Bilal Khan adds. “It embraces our culture by taking what is essentially very Pakistani and bringing it out on a large scale. It gives people hope in times when there is despair.”

Season 6, which kicked off recently, features an extended lineup of talent, with artists from Turkey, Italy, Morocco and other countries with a strong regional influence joining stars from Pakistan onstage. To commemorate the launch of the new season and the success of the platform over the last five years, Coca-Cola Pakistan published a limited-edition coffee table book and will soon release a documentary film.

Alternative to Bollywood

The success of Coke Studio in Pakistan inspired Coca-Cola India to partner with MTV on its own version of the show in 2011. “We wanted every song to be about bringing together seemingly different artists to collaborate over a Coke,” explains Wasim Basir, director of integrated marketing communications, Coca-Cola India. “The show needed to capture the inclusive spirit of our brand.”

Swamy and his team began searching for complementary acts who wouldn’t normally share the stage. “The beauty was getting people out of their comfort zones,” he said. “Musicians are always up for a challenge and taking risks – that’s what excites them. Once we get them together, there are no rules. We tell them to have fun and make music they’ve never made before.”

The formula is clearly working. Like in Pakistan, the show is simulcast on radio stations across the country and marketed through a strong social media presence, Coca-Cola packaging, outdoor ads, licensed merchandise, retail promotions, concerts and more. However, only a portion of the songs are given away for free in India; the rest are sold as downloads and compilation CDs. MTV India and Coca-Cola share all revenues, and Sony Music owns the publishing rights. For the last two seasons, a Coke Studio CD has emerged as the top-selling non-film album. 

“Coke Studio has literally become the alternative to Bollywood,” Basir adds, referring to the country’s booming movie industry. “Now there’s Bollywood music… and there’s Coke Studio music.”

MTV India, which broadcasts to 35 countries, has given the show an international reach and helped bring what Swamy calls a musical experiment to the mainstream. His wife was in Germany recently visiting an Indian friend when she saw a Coke Studio CD on his desk.

“Anecdotes like that make you realize this music has legs,” he says.

And during last season’s final episode, a friend sent him a text message: If you don’t like Coke Studio, then you don’t like music.

“And he was right,” Swamy concludes. “Because Coke Studio celebrates the notion that music transcends language. It transcends everything.”

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