This music show contains recycled material. Keep out of reach of children.

You can’t think about the music industry in Pakistan, without Coke Studio coming to mind…trust me, I’ve tried. The behemoth of a music show that The C***-C*** Company bestowed upon us some 12 years ago proved to be an instant hit amongst the Pakistani population. The model was simple and uncomplicated: a star-studded cast of the biggest names in music, a set-list consisting of remakes of popular Pakistani classics, and killer audio production. 

Since then, a number of copycat killers have emerged in the market, all of them funded by big corporations who ultimately call the shots. Nescafé gave us Nescafé Basement, Cornetto brought us Pop Rock, Ufone had its Uth Records, Pepsi had Pepsi Battle of the Bands, which technically first came out in 2002, six years before Coke Studio first aired, and technically doesn’t follow the same model, but is a music television show backed by a corporation, nonetheless, and now, even Kashmir Oil is hinting at something called ‘Kashmir Beats’. And while Coke Studio was initially an overnight success, in the past few years it has struggled to maintain its position as Pakistan’s favorite, drawing ire from fans for the seemingly cold-blooded murder of certain beloved songs. Also adding to this was the realization of the ways in which such corporate backed shows have possibly hindered progress in the music industry, and now, musicians and industry-observers can’t help but ask, why don’t these corporations invest in setting up proper infrastructure, instead of yet another show that doles out free music? 

This is why when I first heard that a new music show was headed our way this month, I was admittedly wary. VELO Sound Station, a digital-only music show produced by British American Tobacco’s brand of nicotine products, VELO, is the newest addition in our fast-multiplying collection of corporate-backed music shows. To be fair, the show has a lot of appeal. For one, Bilal Maqsood, who it seems like can do no wrong, is the executive producer. Secondly, it features musicians like LLM founder Natasha Noorani, djent-metal band Takatak, both belonging to the fringe community of non-mainstream musicians in Pakistan. However, no amount of performative (both figuratively and literally) diversity and inclusion can take away from the fact that at the end of the day, it is just another music show, the likes of which Pakistan has seen so many times over the past 12 years since Coke Studio came into existence. 

“im not gonna even try and lipsync”

And that’s the thing about VELO Sound Station. It’s not bringing anything new to the table, apart from familiar sounding pop music, and really awkward dancing by a random mix of people in the background (Why is Shahbaz Shigri wearing a neon suit and cornrows? Why does the cameraman keep zooming in on Mehar Bano’s face? Why am I more drawn to these background faces than to the music itself?) The show was supposed to be everything Coke Studio isn’t, but I’m not sure that holds true beyond a shift in genre. Visually, it all looks the same, with a very similar set up: artist center stage, surrounded by musicians, giant panel of colorful LED lights behind them. If you told me it was filmed on the same set as Pepsi, I wouldn’t argue with you.  

#blacklivesmatter

However, this isn’t my biggest gripe with the show. The issue for me is that the concept itself is a tired one. No more corporate backed, celebrity endorsed pre-recorded music shows please, society has moved past the need for that. The fact that this is the sixth such show to come out within the last 12 years is worrying, to say the least. There’s a lot of stagnation in the industry right now, and it’s harder than ever to be an emerging artist in this country. If every brand tries to do the same thing as everyone before them did, we’re never going to see growth or innovation. All we’ll have is more of the same sounding music, with the same handful of people at the forefront. 

Instead, how about we bring back ticketed gigs? Open mics? Get audiences voting with their feet and paying with actual money, instead of airtime? Or maybe brands can invest in setting up record labels? Music TV shows like the ones in days of yore? Remember Indus Music, ARY Muzik, AAG TV and MTV Pakistan? How about more of those? Listen, I hope all you Business Bros™ are taking notes, these are all solid ideas. 

For what it’s worth, I’ll give VELO Sound Station credit for bringing newer voices to the forefront. Heck, I’ll even throw in a few points for deliberately staying away from the realm of sufi-folk fusion passion projects (God knows I wasted four years in university trying to chase a Led Zeppelin harmonium project that thankfully never saw light of the day), even if it resulted in a not particularly ground-breaking selection of pop songs. All I ask for in return is some genuine creativity and innovation please! Pop doesn’t have to stop, but maybe corporate backed television can take a timeout?   

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