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What happens when we run out of coke?

Coke Studio is the single most-watched musical event in the history of Pakistan. This year it shows no signs of slowing down, with the first episode from the latest season already receiving a record number of views online and on television. Coke Studio has become more than just a music show — it has captured our imagination and has come to define Pakistan.

However, in the wake of Coke Studio’s tremendous success, the rest of the Pakistani music industry has become a barren wasteland. You can count the number of new album releases on both your hands; there are no other record deals; new music videos and singles have ground to a screeching halt; and the big name artists seem to be focusing on anything but new music.

You would think that Coke Studio would have galvanised the rest of the industry. You would think Pepsi or other corporations would rush to create competing shows. You would think musicians would take their cue from the stunning collaborations and innovations they displayed while on the show and go out to do more of the same. People should have been riding the wave of the Pakistani pop rebirth and taking advantage of the public’s desire for well produced original music. But the opposite seems to have happened.

Could it be, that inadvertently, Coke Studio has killed off the rest of the industry because no one can compete with it?

It isn’t so much a matter of competition as it is of shifting perception. Artists and the public are regarding Coke Studio not as a launching pad but the endgame, the pinnacle of success. For any artist, getting on to Coke Studio is the ultimate achievement, at the risk of forsaking other goals.

There is a perception that once you’re on Coke Studio, you’ve made it. Of course this is true in many ways: there is great prestige in being on the show, to be regarded as an equal amongst legends, to receive the kind of worldwide exposure that you wouldn’t get anywhere else and to be given the opportunity to showcase your best to the public. But that’s exactly what it is, an opportunity, and sadly most musicians aren’t making the most of it.

Young upcoming bands, emboldened by the appearance of less-than-well-known acts like Aunty Disco Project and Bilal Khan on the show are now making a Coke Studio appearance their number one priority. There’s nothing wrong with this, but they’re going about it the wrong way. Bands will always gain popularity the slow old-fashioned way: by writing good songs, playing live and growing an audience over a long period of time. But increasingly, Coke Studio is being seen as a quick fix. Bands and new artists are too focused on becoming overnight sensations and are looking to the show as their ticket to fame and mass popularity. Rather than focusing on creating music and keeping their audiences happy, their efforts are going into lobbying for a place on the show.

This isn’t helped by the public’s sometimes overzealous reaction to Coke Studio. It seems like the only songs they can remember from anybody are the ones that came out in the summer when they were all tuning into the show. It makes artists who aren’t on Coke Studio feel understandably irrelevant.

What this does is put an unholy amount of pressure on the show. From being a place of experimentation and collaboration, it is now seen as the nation’s sole provider of quality commercial music and if it can’t provide that for even a single song, it is vilified beyond reason. If this continues, artists on the show will no longer allow themselves the creative freedom and risks that allowed them to make such monster hits as “Aik Alif”, “Jal Pari” and “Alif Allah”. Subsequently, we’ll see musicians trying to safely replicate the massive success of those earlier hits with the same formula and not doing what they’re supposed to do which is to innovate and create.

Think about your favourite artists from Coke Studio and what they’ve done since their appearance on the show. Ali Zafar is focusing more on movies. So is Atif Aslam. Noori pops up here and there with rumours of their new songs but we’re still waiting on them. No one’s ringing Saeein Zahoor’s number. Meesha Shafi has left her band and who knows what happened to Arif Lohar.

Of course, the decline in the music industry can be attributed to many factors in Pakistan, the state of the country, drying up finances, waning audience interest etc. But it isn’t going to get any better if Coke Studio becomes the only source of music in the land. What are we going to do when it ends?