Covers

I have a history of writing long essays around Coke Studio. Often I start these as ‘reviews’, but then it takes me so long to write them that eventually they become previews for the next season. Last year I outdid myself by starting to write a review of Coke Studio 11, which I then intended to spin as a preview for Coke Studio 12, and am now too late for all of it. Since we do not expect a Coke Studio 13 this year due to suspension of recording as a result of the pandemic, I no longer have the opportunity to pretend that this essay is any way timely.

Further inside baseball of the larger piece of writing is that I intended for this to be the discussion of Coke Studio 11, and the sword of covers that this season and its producers fell on. My hope was to use this as a way to discuss Strings, Ali Hamza, Zohaib Kazi, and Pepsi Battle of the Bands. Over time most of the ideas I was planning to talk around have been shared here. The essay that follows was the beginning to that larger piece. My apologies for this backstory, but I hope it contextualizes this discussion of covers.

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Coke Studio 11's rendition of Ko Ko Korina did not go down well. Many were offended, things got ugly online, ministers got involved, questions of abuse were raised, and in general everyone was angry.

Doing versions of old songs was one of those things that made Coke Studio heartwarming when it came out. There are good reasons for this. Old songs bring everyone to the same page. While experiencing something new between artists and audiences that may never have met before, and old song works like a mutual friend. It is a good starting point to start a new conversation. In a time where many feel disconnected from a cultural past, through the effects of migration, exposure and competition with information from across the world through the internet, and a culture of poor archival coverage and lack of respect for cultural production. It is okay to like an old song, and it is okay to like a new version of an old song.

As an artist, covers have more different angles of appeal. Many musicians start out by learning to play songs they love, and doing covers on a big stage lets them live out their childhood dreams. Seen this way a cover is a beautiful story. One of my favorite things to do is to listen to many modern artists join the artists that inspired them and sing with them on stage. Songs are meant to pass from one generation to another, and covers are the way artists stay connected to a common spirit. In the worlds of North Indian Classical, or Qawwali music, it is hard to pin down what a cover means, because many songs do not trace authorship to one artist, but are shared traditions that pass on between generations, musicians and genres. In traditions Eastern and Western, redoing old tunes is a way of offering tribute to those that passed before. In the world of Coke Studio this has also been explicitly articulated as a way of introducing new audiences to older material that they may like but find hard to swallow at first.

Just as old songs have a way of connecting artists with audiences, they have a way of bringing artists together as well. Those who do any creative work will recognize that sometimes great ingenuity requires some sort of constraint. Music producers will sometimes impose seemingly arbitrary conditions on musicians to inspire this spark of ingenuity. A cover does that inherently – by providing a framework to which all must stick, it forces musicians to find new dimensions to play with. And of course, belting out old songs is fun.

Unfortunately there is a risk when recording covers. This stems primarily from the attachment that many audiences have with the original version of the song. As a result any cover cannot escape from being compared to and being thought of as a commentary on the original version. Covering songs live (in concert), is a slightly separate situation. Because live music is about not just the construction of the music itself but the collective, and in the flesh experience of music being played. When Noori covers With or Without You in concert it is a totally different beast than if they released an official music video. On a recording, a cover must stand up to higher standards.

For a cover recording to work, it needs to meet one or more of the following criteria with respect to the original: address a different audience, amend any obvious flaws, explore an entirely new musical direction, and display reverence. It needs to do this while keeping, or at least not entirely offending, core principles of the original that the existing audience is emotionally attached to (if the existing audience will be exposed to the cover). As is the case with all rules, the best examples will bend them and the worst examples will shamelessly break them.

Let's walk a few examples of covers through this logic. Tamasha's cover of Sajna: clearly reverential and entirely new musical direction. Noori's remake of Saari Raat: entirely newRizwan & Muazzam's Jana Jogi De Naal: different audience and quite new.

So what happened with Ko Ko Korina? While the song is old, it lives on at wedding events and as a staple listen for many listeners of Coke Studio (a large amount of which, especially in diaspora, are older). It is hard to point to obvious flaws in the original, but if one were to search hard you might pick the low fidelity of the master as well as the somewhat muted instrumental backing (you have to search really hard to get here, the song is quite good). So the Coke Studio version attempts to modernize with a refreshed instrumental ensemble, some new riffs and couple of solos. Which, I know this might be controversial, are not bad. Unfortunately what we are left with a vocal performance that does not compare to Ahmed Rushdi. Add to this that the performance was delivered with some bluster and youthful exuberance, which came off a little aloof and likely added to the offense taken by the audience.

Or, a simpler explanation, is that it just wasn't the best cover. It happens.

In the season prior, Salman Ahmad (playing as Junoon), did a version of Sayonee. Which is a misnomer, because it is basically a greatest-hits medley held together by the verse and chorus of the original Sayonee. It adds a few minor new musical elements (a rubab for example), but is interesting primarily because of the construction of the medley, and in a way that any live performance of a song is interesting. Hearing Rahat and Ali Noor singing this is captivating also, and it warms my heart to see Salman pull an old friend (Rahat) and a protege (Ali Noor) into his big moment.

It was an almost shameless exercise in spectacle – Salman's arrival to Coke Studio is announced with gratuitous, and deserved mind you, guitar solos and general performative exhibitionism. In a way this is extreme reverence. There is just one thing missing. Or two, to be precise.

Ali and Brian are alive and well at this point, and their absence from Junoon's line up at Coke Studio is dearly felt. Not because the vocals or the bass playing is in any way incompetent, but just because we loved that Junoon lineup. This was not lost on Strings, who produced this season, and were planning for this to be the moment that all three reunited. Apparently things fell apart last minute. The Coke Studio version of Us Rah Par, a tribute to the then recently passed Junaid Jamshed, was meant to be a performance by Junaid's friends – Bilal, Faisal, Salman & Ali. Instead Ali Hamza and Ali Zafar stepped in. Imagining this version of Sayonee with Ali and Brian makes my mouth water. While we might never get that, Junoon went on a reunion tour and is apparently holding it together.

In any case, what has happened because of the uproar against Ko Ko Korina and Sayonee is that fuel has been added to a fire of recurring conversation about whether Coke Studio does too many covers, is out of ideas, and is just a has-been.

Public opinion is irrational. Which is not a slight as much as it is a fact of science. Most human judgments are formed on incomplete or incorrectly remembered evidence. The field of behavioral psychology studies how humans make decisions, and identifies common patterns of mistakes in individual judgment and decision making. One of these biases is the availability bias. Which is the effect whereby humans extract general perceptions or judgements based not on the entirety of evidence available to them, but rather on the evidence that is most prominently recalled. This may be because the evidence was more recent or more vivid. So, this is one of the explanations why humans are often more scared of flying on planes then they are of driving cars, of sharks than mosquitoes, and in America of muslim terrorism rather than hate-fueled gun violence.

To bring things back to less morbid lands, the saga of covers that everyone seems to hate makes everyone forget about the fact that the majority of recent Coke Studio releases have not been covers but rather originals or renditions of old traditional songs that one would not traditionally regard as a 'cover'. It also skews the general perception of the quality of Coke Studio downwards. This is not helped by the fact that modern social networks feed off of spreading negative emotion faster than spreading positive emotion. So you may be surprised to realize that the version of Sayonee that we remember everyone hating actually has way more likes than dislikes on Youtube. I cannot, however, say the same about Ko Ko Korina which is still playing a slightly different game.

Which really begs the question, should Coke Studio do covers at all? As you can probably tell from my discussion above, I have no principle opposition to covers. In fact I quite like many of them. The question for Coke Studio strategists is whether the risk of a blowup from a cover is worth the risk of immediate audience reachability it provides.

What's curious, is that in Season 11, Coke Studio experimented with an entirely new format that would have totally enabled this strategic shift – Coke Studio Explorer.

Explorer was a breakthrough. The idea was that Coke Studio’s producers would travel across the country looking for voices outside of traditional frames of ‘big’ Pakistani pop. This meant young singers from rural areas, folk troupes, and also an Instagram artist. Of course even this idea was not new. Previously Coke Studio was known for finding lesser known folk voices and giving them a big platform. The Chakwal Group comes to mind as one of the best examples of this, but even Saeein Zahoor and Sanam Marvi who perhaps did not need Coke Studio were introduced to many new audiences through it. What was different about Explorer was that instead of the artists coming to Coke Studio, the producers went to them. Recording them in their own settings, and forgoing the live orchestra for a synth-pop backing that defined Zohaib Kazi’s solo work prior to Coke Studio. The resulting sound was fresh and inspiring.

It seems unfortunately that this direction was uncomfortable for the suits at Coca-Cola marketing, and instead the Explorer experiment remained limited in scope and was publicized less than the proper rest of the season which reverted back to the old orchestra model. Eventually even the experiments there, topped by a failed cover, were too much for Coca-Cola to handle and they went back to the comfortable arms of Rohail Hyatt for Season 12 (which was nice, and more on that at another time). This experience left the producers of Coke Studio 11, like Rohail and Strings before them, crushed. This saddened me because I thought the direction of Coke Studio 11 showed great promise.

I am pulled to thinking of Coke Studio’s resistance here as a precursor to what happens in disruptive innovation. In short, disruptive innovation describes a scenario where an incumbent player continues to focus on high-value audiences through entrenched position. New entrants look to overlooked segments of the market, often with an inferior product, over time raising standards to appeal to the main market as well, eventually subsuming the audience of the incumbent. The classic example is Netflix, which started out as a mail order DVD rental business that took a few days to deliver movies. Blockbuster, the incumbent, rented out new movies at an instant. Over time Netflix, driven by improvements in technology, expanded and was able to offer movies at an instant to Blockbuster’s core audience through streaming. Blockbuster, not realizing the impending threat from Netflix given the lack of technology initially, had no counterattack and eventually withered away. What is devastating about disruptive innovation is that the incumbent eventually loses position because they rationally choose to focus on the highest-value segment of the market.

I think Coke Studio is on the path of being disrupted, by continuing to focus on mass-market popularity through excessive reliance on a tested model of covers and collaborations with a live studio orchestra. In the mean time Pepsi, Nescafe, and independent artists are catering to smaller niche markets with gradually rising levels of popularity. Coke Studio 11 was the first, and seemingly last attempt at going beyond the old mass-market model, through Explorer and the introduction of many new faces to Coke Studio: rappers Lyari Underground and Young Desi, global pop stars Krewella, transgender singers Lucky and Naghma, and Pashtun instrumentalists Khumariyaan. Coke Studio 12 was a reversion back to a more conservative approach.

Here’s my favorite song from Coke Studio Explorer: