Aditya Swamy, ex-MTV head takes a walk down memory lane and tells us about the good, the bad and the unexpected of Coke Studio India.
Unknown to most fans, Coke Studio’s defining moment was not televised on the show; in fact, the site of this event was quite a distance from its studios. It happened in hot and dusty Delhi; my mother was casually flipping channels and decided to pause upon a familiar face. It was Vishal Dadlani and he was in the middle of a song called ‘Madari.’ For the next twenty minutes she sat glued to the channel and before we even knew it, the old order of her favourite regional soaps had yielded place to the new i.e. Coke Studio @ MTV; and for the next three years each and every performance held up the bar, forcing my mother to abandon her sacred soap rituals in favour of non-Bollywood music. While none of us ever saw such a change coming, ex-MTV head Aditya Swamy was always confident that Coke Studio was something that the audience needed and deserved. “I was of the strong belief that the ‘M’ (read: music) will always be the backbone of MTV. Coke Studio was the first step in that direction. It reinforced the belief that we could differentiate the brand on the pillar of music,” he says while delineating that from the very beginning, they weren’t looking at a TRP grabbing exercise.
However, that didn’t make things easier. The conversation between Coke and MTV was initiated in January 2011 and the show went on floors in June. Somewhere in between, Leslie Lewis was drafted in and entrusted with the task of composing about 50 songs for the whole season. Sure, it lacked the variety of the subsequent seasons (which was also to become the USP of the entire brand) but Leslie’s decision to take it on, after a bunch of people found it too daunting to attempt, was what set the ball rolling. “Had we asked for more time –say a year –to get started on it, maybe the interest on the project would have died. Who knows right?” asks Aditya. Sometimes it’s important to get a project going instead of mulling over the ‘perfect start’ and Leslie’s commitment was vital in ensuring that there was some movement towards programming that wasn’t Bollywood-centric. Coke Studio was launched on the 7 pm Saturday slot, usually reserved for flagship shows such as the extremely popular Roadies. And despite the aspirations associated with such a move, the brickbats followed. “Even though we knew we had the seed of something good, the reaction to the first season wasn’t what we expected,” recalls Swamy. There was criticism on all fronts–from the lack of variety to the production and yet, there were enough positives. “We didn’t do it for the ratings. Coke didn’t do this to sell more bottles. We never impinged upon the artists’ creative freedom and we didn’t cut any corners on production.”
Prompted by the criticism, the team decided to go back to the drawing board and re-asses their approach; and that’s when they made the critical decision of switching to the multiple-producer model. According to Aditya, they were merely playing to the country’s strength and trying to showcase the diversity of sounds that are synonymous with India; but in essence, this was now the musician’s project. “Sure we didn’t pay much in terms of fees. But we gave them the best production, the best supportand a platform to put out non-film music” he says. And soon, musicians were reaching out to be a part of Coke Studio. Simultaneously, the digital and social media ecosystem was evolving and that added an extra layer to how the channel started looking at content. YouTube viewership and comments on social media provided a lot of insight into what was working and what wasn’t. Suddenly the focus had shifted from ratings to metrics –each and every comment was scanned for, and categorised; insights were gleaned from these and put into practice. The conversation had completely changed. “It might be difficult for people to understand 1 TVR but the moment you say something like “one million views”, everyone gets it,” Adi explains. Suddenly there was something for everyone. There were sounds from all regions for the audience, including elements of hip-hop and rock, and if you were a musician, the lack of creative involvement was an extremely exciting proposition. The attempt at doing something honest was finding appreciation across all quarters. Raj Nayak, the CEO of Colors reached out to Aditya. He felt that people deserved to see Coke Studio and offered to play the show on his channel and extend it to his massive viewership.
Whether or not it intended to, Coke Studio became a launchpad for many artists whose talents hadn’t been displayed on a canvas this wide. In their search for talented artists, the scouting team travelled far and wide and pulled out some unknown gems. The Nooran Sisters had to be coaxed and cajoled to board a flight to Mumbai because their family was not comfortable; today, they have lent their voices to films like Dangal and have toured the world with A.R. Rahman. When Mohini Dey appeared on the show, she was a precocious talent –12 years old with the kind of fluency on the bass that people thrice her age crave. “Ranjit Barot told me she is going to be the future of bass in India,” quips Swamy, and she has gone on to work with the likes of AR Rahman and Zakir Hussain. “At times it got unreal man. Like getting to watch Prasanna warm up before the episode with Rahman was almost unbelievable,” says Swamy while professing his fandom for the guitar maestro. Some of these outrageous talents also came with unique quirks. Sawan Khan Manganiyar is a name that always pops up. “We discovered him on YouTube and got him down. He blew us away during rehearsals but the next day in the studio, he just couldn’t pitch or sing in tune,” recalls Swamy. When prodded he revealed that he had never sung in air-conditioning and was completely out of his comfort zone. Once the air-conditioning was moderated and the headphones were replaced with in-ears, he was back in his zone. “Today, on many concert posters I see “so and so from Coke studio” and it feels nice,” quips Swamy.
In Coke and then-director of integrated communication Wasim Basir, Swamy had an ally like no other. They bought their marketing machinery to the mix and suddenly, Coke Studio was all over hoardings, on their bottles, and at one point, Coke Studio visuals were plastered across the entrances of their main office. Their marketing muscle even took the brand to colleges as a separate property called Coke Studio live. “We were doing Coke Studio Live in Chennai and the whole crowd was grooving to Papon and Harshdeep. I couldn’t believe my eyes! This is my hometown and these are guys singing in Punjabi and Axomiya and people are going crazy.” Swamy describes Coke Studio Live as a different “high.” Soon, he was sitting on movie meetings with Viacom where people were saying things like “Coke studio jaisa music chahiye”(we want music like Coke studio). But the biggest precedent that Coke set was in terms of branded content. There were no bottles shown on the set or on TV, none of the musicians were seen taking swigs from the bottle (as is very common) and suddenly one could tell advertisers that there were ways to advertise a brand without force-feeding a product. “What is Coke’s brand ideology? Open Happiness,” says Aditya answering his question.
“When two people who don’t know each other come together over a Coke, it creates a ‘connect’; which is also what music does. This was a match like none other,” he signs off.