Being a decent musician, people often ask me why I never pursued a full-time career in music. Apart from the lack of scope, it’s mainly because I never wanted music to become ‘work’. At the moment, it’s a hobby, a distraction; something I indulge in during my spare time. The minute I start playing for a pay cheque, it becomes a job – just one more thing that I have to do. Worse than that, if I was making music for a living, it would inevitably become commercial. I would have masters to serve, audiences to please and products to push. For me, this entirely defeats the purpose and joy of making music.
This said, brands nowadays don’t seem to share my sentiment when it comes to the sanctity of music. In fact, the recent hyper-commercialisation of the platform only proves that music has become nothing more than a pedestal that every brand is desperately struggling to own in order to boost their share of voice and heart. Cornetto, Coke, Levi’s, Nescafé, Pepsi and even Strepsils, have all jumped on the bandwagon, finding ways to sow music into their seams, amplifying their brand image in the process.
But is it all bad? Definitely not. It’s just a question of how it’s done.
As a musician (and more of a creative professional), what bothers me isn’t the quality of music that brands are outputting. It’s the blatant lack of creativity that some brands have when utilising the platform. For example, rewind to 2001 when Pepsi launched the first officially sponsored Battle of the Bands competition in Pakistan. It was a unique and massive success that went on to gain immense popularity despite the non-existence of social media. Fast forward a few years later to dead silence, when no one (including Pepsi) was putting any significant money or thought into leveraging the music platform.
Suddenly in 2008, Coke teamed up with master producers to revive the platform with a unique twist of fusion and live recording. Again, because of the novelty factor at the time, it was nothing short of a renaissance for Pakistan’s music industry. However, Coke Studio’s sudden success spawned a legion of uninspired copycats. Despite what you might have thought of the music, Nescafé Basement was conceptually a copy-paste of Coke’s platform (with underdogs), not to mention Pepsi Smash, which was as forgettable as it was cringe-worthy. Levi’s (which has no discernible connection to music whatsoever) also tried to jump on the bandwagon with Levi’s Live but sailed like a ship passing in the night. Now, Pepsi is still trying to prove to everyone that it was the first to own this platform by re-launching Battle of the Bands, that too 16 odd years later. Recently, Strepsils (with Strepsils Stereo) is the only brand that has brought some sort of innovation to the platform by introducing their acapella (vocal only) sessions. It’s actually fun to watch and links back nicely to the brand (having a strong and clear voice). Like it or not, you can’t deny that it’s relevant and unique.
Unfortunately, what most brands don’t seem to realise is that it’s not about how lavish your set is, or how many celebrity artistes you have on your panel. Hell, it isn’t even entirely about the music. You have to bring something new to the table. There has to be an idea and a point of differentiation. When Survivor debuted in 2000 in the US as the first-ever reality show, for example, it was something new and innovative. Since then, a million reality shows have been born out of the same formula, but they have all added their own spin to ensure uniqueness. How many other Survivor-type reality shows do you remember becoming as big a hit? None. More relevantly, take a show like American Idol and compare it to The Voice. It’s the same concept, but The Voice brought some unique innovation in terms of content and mechanics to differentiate itself. If it had picked up the exact same format, chances are we would have never heard of it. If everyone jumps on the same platform and uses (and abuses it) in the same way, audiences will lose interest. This isn’t the nineties. People are exposed to all sorts of entertainment nowadays and they will (and often do) exercise their right to choose superior content when the time comes.
So, considering that music is sacred, is there anything wrong with commercialising it? In a nutshell, no. It’s not like there is a shortage of music in the universe or that new music is somehow replacing the classics. Good music and bad music can coexist in harmony, no pun intended (PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ is a great example of this, no matter which side of the fence you are on). I mean, if Coke or Cornetto or whoever can squeeze out some good tunes here and there, then the way I see it; it’s a genuine win-win for everyone. I just wish that brands invested a little more time in keeping the platform fresh, unique and inspiring. By all means, use music but at least do something original with it once in a while. Keep it relevant. Keep it interesting. The music platform is for everyone, but it’s not a steroid that’s going to catapult your brand into the hearts of Millennials everywhere. Be original. Be heard. And for the music’s sake, be responsible.
Taimur Tajik is Creative Director, Manhattan International.