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The doing, undoing, and redoing of Coke Studio India
What the rebranding as Coke Studio Bharat tells us about marketing and the non-film music business in India
Good morning! While Coke Studio Pakistan has acquired cult status in the country and beyond, Coke Studio India didn't quite hit the high notes. And even as the Indian edition got a thumbs down, it did lead to audiences warming up to vocalists taking centerstage in The Dewarists, MTV Unplugged, and Music Mojo among others. After an eight-year hiatus, Coke Studio India has rechristened itself as Coke Studio Bharat and launched the first-ever Tamil edition. Will this experiment work in Coke Studio India's favour? Read till the end for a surprise. Plus: we've listed a few must-read weekend reads for you.
For 40 days straight in 2011, Leslee Lewis—who’d completed a half-century on earth—slept for just two hours daily. The godfather of Indipop was bloodshot-eyed over a project that required him to play god. That project was the inaugural season of Coke Studio India (CSI), known at the time as Coke Studio@MTV. The objective: to resurrect non-film music from its ashes.
Lewis, whose cues are blues, rock, and rap-inspired, is best known as one half of Colonial Cousins, the fusion duo whose other member was the dulcet-toned, Carnatic-trained Hariharan. Suckers for yesteryear Indian ads also know Lewis as the brain behind some memorable jingles (Thums Up’s ‘Taste The Thunder’, Amul’s ‘Piyo Glass Full Doodh’). Before all that though, he’d composed Suneeta Rao’s Dhuan, the 1990 album whose breakout track Paree Hoon Main lit the spark for non-film music, labelled Indipop. Lewis also produced Alisha Chinai’s Bombay Girl (1994), KK’s Pal (1999), and remixed the tracks on Asha Bhosle’s Rahul And I, to name a few.
Indipop was a cultural tour de force. So much so that an ugly rivalry broke out between then-reigning queens Mehnaz and Anaida, even as the Hindi film press fanned itself over Sridevi versus Madhuri Dixit versus Juhi Chawla versus Karisma Kapoor.
But that crescendo was short-lived. Indipop stars became playback singers. Music Television (MTV) and Channel V joined the Bollywood and reality TV bandwagon. Non-film music was officially dead. Until, one day, MTV decided to live up to its name and partnered with Coke upon realising the time was ripe, yet again, for unfilmi music. Enter Coke Studio@MTV.
“I had just one brief. That brief was, ‘Sir, we don’t know anything about music, but you do. Can you do it?’” Lewis tells The Intersection.
Lewis had a blank slate, yet didn’t. As a property, Coke Studio is rooted in Pakistan, a country with fewer provinces and less musical diversity than India, yet a petri dish that birthed a distinct brand of South Asian rock, Sufism, and Nazia Hassan-inspired pop. Germinated by Rohail Hyatt of Vital Signs and Nadeem Zaman—then with the Coca-Cola Company—Coke Studio Pakistan (CSP) was the standard. Take renowned artists, team them with relative-unknowns and folk singers, and anchor everything with a house band.
Lewis followed the template, but had a tight budget and an even tighter deadline. Hence the sleep deprivation. As he puts it, “That was my PhD. I squeezed everything I knew in 51 songs [across nine episodes], over 40 days. And all songs were shot in a single take.”
Per Lewis, the inaugural Coke Studio@MTV is the only CSI season that went platinum (for Sony BMG, the associated label back then). Cut to today, CSI has rebranded as Coke Studio Bharat (CSB), alongside a regional offshoot called Coke Studio Tamil (CST). Launched after an eight-year gap post CSI’s last season, CSB is pitched as an “authentic”, “launch-back strategy” for a property long criticised as overly-commercial—to the point where 50% of CSP listeners are in India, per a former Coca-Cola executive who requests anonymity.
This is the story of why CSI/CSB matters for Coca-Cola, India’s rich, yet sketchy history of shows revolving around studio-recorded live performances, and what this tells us about the non-film music business in the country.
Source: Coca Cola India Private Limited financials. (All figures in ₹ crore)
Graphic: Soumya Gupta
Coca-Cola grew steadily in India until 2020 when it witnessed a steep fall in sales and profit due to the pandemic. In the financial year ending March 2022, Coke spent the most it ever had on ads and promotional activities in nearly seven years. It’s expected to continue with this splurge, and CSB undoubtedly plays a pivotal role here.
But Arnab Roy, Coca-Cola’s VP of marketing for India and Southwest Asia, has an unenviable task ahead of him. India is the cola giant’s fifth-largest market, yet a country where per capita soft drink consumption is reportedly just four litres a year, compared to 154 litres in the US. It’s also a country where 121 languages are spoken by at least 10,000 people, which by extension equates to nearly as many musical markets. How do you crack these microcosmic markets with an episodic-format show that can only accommodate so many cultures, languages, and folk artists?
“The approach for this season has been very plain and simple: focus on India’s young voice. India is the youngest country in the world, and the young should tell the story of India.
We’re not trying to tell the story of every state in every story. We’re trying to create as much diversity in each of the stories we’re trying to tell.”
—Ankur Tewari, Creative Architect, Coke Studio Bharat
Roy has gone on record to say that Coca-Cola, through CSB, wants to go “deep into every region in India”. Unlike CSP, which was tasked with checkmating Pepsi in Pakistan (we’ll get to this later), Coke India’s competition isn’t just Pepsi, but also its own in-house brands Thums Up and Sprite—both of which are worth $1 billion and eclipse the original cola in hinterland market share. Maaza is the third-largest brand in the stable, followed by Coke itself. Little wonder, then, that Roy wants CSB to have regional offshoots aside from CST.
Tamil Nadu itself is a headstrong market. This is the home of Kalimark, the local cola behemoth that copycatted Coca-Cola and its offerings, yet managed to give it a run for its money by way of panneer (rose water) soda. Additionally, there was years-long local opposition to international cola brands’ bottling plants sucking the life out of the state's already-parched earth. That aside, as Santosh Desai—MD-CEO of Futurebrands Consulting and the one-time pillar of McCann-Erickson, the advertising agency that handled Coke in India—tells The Intersection:
“Tamil Nadu was always a big market for ‘flavours’. By which I mean Fanta, Sprite, etc. Its [relative] aversion to Coke and Pepsi and inclination towards [Kalimark’s flagship cola] Bovonto is mostly because it’s big on distinctly-flavoured colas.”
The aforementioned Coca-Cola executive not only confirms this but takes the argument a step further. “Fifty-five percent of soft drink sales in India are from March to May. Even so, Tamil Nadu is a ‘clear lime market’, with a strong preference for Sprite and [Pepsi’s] 7UP,” he says.
Additionally, Tamil Nadu was never poor for non-film music. Scratch the surface and there’s Maajja up top, the AR Rahman-fronted initiative whose greatest output thus far is the timeless Enjoy Enjaami (though the song is not without controversy). Neighbouring Kerala, which too fought back against the cola conglomerates, has an even more storied relationship with independent music. That relationship was expertly outlined by Scroll eight years ago, so we won’t go there. Suffice to say that while the rest of India was salivating (or not) over Coke Studio, Kerala had the Asianet-owned Rosebowl, and the Mathrubhumi-owned Kappa TV, which operates Music Mojo to this day. Both properties were conceived by Sumesh Lal, the CEO of Wonderwall Media, who’s considered the godfather of Kerala’s independent music scene. Lal discovered/popularised bands such as Thaikkudam Bridge, Masala Coffee, Krishna’s Temple Rock, Amrutam Gamay, and umpteen others through these two platforms for studio-recorded live music.
“Coke Studio Tamil is an amazing platform because Tamil music has so much to it… so many art forms and so many styles, which will be magnified through the season.”
— Khatija Rahman, singer-musician
Meanwhile, the rest of India flirted with CSI-adjacent and (non-film music) talent discovery shows over the decades, such as Jammin, The Dewarists, MTV Unplugged, ARRrived, The Stage, and Bandstand. McDonald’s is launching its global music platform I'm Lovin' It Live in India. Even T-series—which sucks every conceivable drop out of its intellectual property (IP)—has Mixtape, an “unplugged” show conceived to legitimise a label that otherwise relegates playback singers to voicing guttural remakes of its vast catalogue.
This is all to say that the Indian context couldn’t be more far removed from that of its western neighbour.
Flashback to 2006 Pakistan. While India was performing the last rites for Indipop, Rohail Hyatt was tasked with a project that required him to be a messiah—much like his Indian counterpart Leslee Lewis would be five years later.
“They called me and said, ‘Hey Rohail… would you be willing to help associate Coca-Cola with music? Because Pepsi has a strong lead,’” Hyatt tells The Intersection. Pepsi back then dominated the soft drinks market in Pakistan. The timing there was ripe for other reasons, too: the country wasn’t shackled by its equivalent of Hindi film music, yet struggled with a middle ground between post-9/11 radicalism and the mindset that “everything western is good”, as Hyatt puts it. It was then that he identified a locus. That locus was Sufism.
“'What is the centre?' is a philosophical question as well. [In essence], it is a place that welcomes everything to it,” Hyatt adds. This formula, which was fusion-first and also accommodated a few song covers, wasn’t initially lapped up by Coca-Cola, but the conglomerate came around. We assume it was an easier decision to make in Pakistan, where the value of discovery was priceless vis-à-vis India—which by then was a market where money could be made, and where homegrown and multinational labels bayed for the others’ jugular for precisely that reason.
Commercial pressures notwithstanding, Hyatt reckons that CSI made a fundamental mistake.
“In [CSP], we were clear about what we were fusing with what. If I had to fuse a qawwali, it was qawaali music with western instrumentation. It wasn’t western music coloured by qawaallism. We’d established what has the potential to change or adapt, and what cannot be changed or compromised,” he shares.
Judging by CSI’s association with multiple curators and labels—first Leslee Lewis and Sony BMG, then episode-specific curators in season 2, and tying up with Zee, among other changes—a certain sense of unmooring became synonymous with the India leg of the property.
Over in Pakistan, CSP helped Coca-Cola go from underdog to challenger. In 2010, Pepsi’s market share went from 80% to 65%. Coca-Cola India’s Arnab Roy claims that his is now the “number one brand” in Pakistan, though there are no publicly-available numbers to corroborate this. What we know is that Coke registered an 18% bump in sales in the second quarter of 2022, compared to 20% in 2021. The Coca-Cola Company named Pakistan as one of the top three markets for volume growth.
CSB’s latest song, Holi Re Rasiya, is masterminded by the season’s curator, Ankur Tewari*. It’s fronted by 22-year-old wunderkind Maithili Thakur and rap duo Seedhe Maut and features classical musicians Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash, and actor-politician Ravi Kishan. The music is composed by Mahan Sehgal and arranged by Hashbass. The song infuses the classic Brajabashi song Aaj biraj mein hori re rasiya with Delhi rap. If you ask us, it’s better than the season’s first track Udja, which features the in-vogue OAFF (who’s signed to Misfits Inc label**), Jasleen Royal, Burrah, and Savera.
The last bit is besides the point. The point is that Seedhe Maut is managed by Azadi Records, a counterculture-first, politically-conscious label that has Kashmiri artists Ali Safuddin and Ahmer at a time when few (or none?) dare to go in that direction. So how did Azadi/Seedhe Maut end up on CSB, which is produced by Universal Music?
“Well, Coke Studio-type deals pay the rent,” sums up Mo Joshi, cofounder of Azadi Records. There’s hefty context to this statement. And that context is the thankless business of non-film music in India.
Let’s revisit Leslee Lewis before cycling back to Joshi. Why? Because 17 years after producing Suneeta Rao’s Dhuan and other works—besides Coke Studio@MTV—Lewis ended up releasing an Extended Play (EP) record called Paise Ki Maa Ki Aankh, which hinted at the state of affairs in the music business.
As Lewis tells us, the record labels backing every album he produced funded video-making and marketing only because the contracts dictated that they own the end product, aka the music. They barely compensated him or any other artist, for that matter. That was then. Today, musicians have even more of a raw deal: the thumb rule is to pay for everything out of your pocket and get peanut residuals (70-80 cents per thousand listens) from streaming. This isn’t specific to India. The global norm is that artists own no rights to their masters, or original sound recordings. Only uber-rich musicians such as Jay-Z and Rihanna have been able to buy back their masters. This is a topic for another day, but suffice to say that Indian artists don’t own their voices and creations.
Azadi Records set itself up in this context, and became the only label here with a '50-50’ model: not only does it cede masters’ rights to its signed talent, but it also splits revenues in half with the artists. In short, it doesn’t make much money, least not for the kind of label it is. This is why you sometimes align yourself with a proverbial devil, the kicker being that the devil can at least help pay your bills.
“We did CSB because of Ankur Tewari. He approached us, and we trusted him because he has his feet in both worlds [independent and commercial]. He gave Seedhe Maut complete creative control. From my understanding, though, he’d have had to fight for what would work. Mahan [Sehgal] and Maithili [Thakur] are relative unknowns, but he backed them,” Joshi says.
Even Sumesh Lal, the swaddler of independent music in Kerala, struggles to monetise his brainchild, Music Mojo. It’s his live properties, such as the Music Mojo rising festival, Indiegaga, and other events that pay the bills, he tells The Intersection. “Money never came, except for YouTube monetisation. Even now, as the seventh season of Music Mojo is approaching, Kappa TV is still looking for sponsors,” he says.
YouTube success is no guarantee, either. Vijay Basrur, founder of music distribution platform OK Listen, cites the example of Shirley Setia, a YouTube sensation who was signed by Universal for her debut album—which tanked because, “what worked for her was video, and this wasn’t video.”
In short, it’s a mess everywhere you look. There’s money to be made, but not for musicians who are avant-garde at best, or willing to get outside their comfort zones at the very least. Conglomerates can bankroll pure artistry, but they capitulate to the gargantuan Indian market. Gaurav Wadhwa, CEO of Big Bang Music, reckons that even [CSB’s] Holi song is tied to consumption season since most cola consumption happens during festivities or summer. “CSP didn’t give a damn about all this, because love for the song simply translated to brand love,” he says.
The (seeming) lack of clarity
Is there a cohesion to the release schedule of CSB and CST? CST’s first song, Sagavaasi by Arivu and Khatija Rahman, dropped over a month ago, while CSB’s tracks are seemingly spaced two weeks apart. And while episodes of the maiden season of CSI/Coke Studio@MTV were spaced a week apart, subsequent seasons didn’t follow a set pattern for episode drops. It’s 2023, and even Netflix—which is now dividing seasons into parts—is informing viewers when they can expect to see the next juicy segment of, say, a You. If CSB and CST have strategies to reel people in, then they’re far from evident.
“The rollout is what Coke is managing. We have recorded the songs and the videos are ready. We just need to roll them out, according to how Coke feels it best suits the market.”
— Ankur Tewari, Creative Architect, CSB
As for Coke India marketing honcho Arnab Roy’s objective for CSB to be more “authentic”: Memu Aagamu is commercialism on steroids. The track, released as a standalone in August 2022, is composed by electronic music duo Lost Stories and South Korean artist-producer ELLY and sung by Armaan Malik, yet has Telugu superstar Allu Arjun as the first-credited artist. It’s produced by Dharma Productions, whose founder Karan Johar, as independent music publication A Humming Heart observed, “seems to have only recently discovered the existence and popularity of the music, cinema and culture in south India”. Throw in a hook step, an obvious attempt at eyeball grabs by roping in a K-pop band, patinated production values, and you have… authenticity?
Big Bang Music’s Gaurav Wadhwa feels CSB is glaringly a marketers’ brief, evident in the touch-and-go appearance of sarod maestros Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash in Holi Re Rasiya. As he puts it, the success of Bollywood is due to it catering to many tastes much like a thali; the end product is at least one song that everyone likes. That is different from the approach to a brand IP, which must reflect a sharp, differentiated ethos the brand has or is trying to build. In this case, content in a brand IP should drive curiosity to drive consumption and not marketing alone for it to be successful eventually.
The Intersection compiled a detailed questionnaire for Arnab Roy. His representatives informed us that he was unavailable for responses in keeping with our deadline.
There was a time Pepsi and Coca-Cola—the company that literally invented Santa Claus, by the way—were protagonists of marketing case studies and discourse. “Today,” Futurebrands’ Santosh Desai says, “they’re on the periphery. Everything is digital, music discovery has changed, and they aren’t part of the zeitgeist. Perhaps they feel that associating with contemporary music will make them relevant [if not more].”
The problem with the rat race to stay relevant is that everyone can smell the rat named Inauthenticity. We are bombarded by it, we are tired of it, and we, therefore, don’t see why we should indulge in it. Sure, certain formulae work, and you can have a hit with marketing.
But it won’t be a hit that stands the test of time.
—With inputs from Soumya Gupta
Handpicked: We, at The Signal, have compiled a round-up of the best studio-recorded live acts, right from Coke Studio to The Dewarists. Dig right in!
* A previous version of the story wrongly identified Ankur Tewari as the cofounder of Misfits Inc. Misfits Inc’s founder is Savinay Shetty. We regret the error.
** Update: Representatives of Coca-Cola India reached out to us after the story was published. Coke has differed on certain aspects of the story. For instance, the company says Coke Studio is not rooted in Pakistan unlike what we have written. We mean rooted in the sense the current “live-studio” format has its origins in Coke Studio Pakistan.
Arnab Roy, Vice President, Marketing, Coca-Cola India and Southwest Asia had this to say, “Over the last decade, Coke Studio has been one of the most successful music properties globally with active presence in Pakistan, Phillippines, South Africa, Egypt, Bangladesh and many more countries. The launch of Coke Studio Bharat is a respect to the depth of talent and music forms in the country. It has been conceptualised to spotlight artists and music from the hinterlands, without changing the authenticity of each of their individual niches. The idea is to connect the truly distinct dots of various regions in the country with artists whose music is defined by their roots. They are the real stars of the season, giving regional music a bigger impetus. We hope more and more people discover the platform and enjoy the Real magic of Coke Studio”
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