All the speculations about the resurrection of Pepsi Battle of the Bands can now be put to rest. As the first episode of the rebooted music competition made itself known last Sunday and with a second episode scheduled to arrive later today, the rebirth has formerly begun.
It’s 16 years since the formidable and still lauded inaugural edition landed in our cultural consciousness, and a lot has changed – starting with the show.
The judges’ panel, in the 2017 edition, includes modern music royalty Atif Aslam and Meesha Shafi as well as longtime music producer, Vital Signs member and original Pepsi Battle of the Bands co-judge, Shahi Hasan. It has also ushered back into spotlight, Farooq Ahmed, the front-man of Aaroh – the band that won in the 2002 edition – who is a guest judge in this elaborate production.
Topping this list up is singer-songwriter/actor Fawad Khan, who fronted the legendary EP, the runner-up outfit in 2002 and is returning to music with this production after a gap of nearly a decade.
Faisal Rafi has taken on reigns as producer and is joined by music industry insiders Ahsan Bari, Quaid Ahmed and Faisal Baig. Call it the A-team of music coming together for a show that is about finding raw talent; amateur bands, if you will, that have the resolve and potential to go all the way and last in an age where emerging bands struggle for visibility.
Those are the basics.
The story begins with the first episode that appealed to a great many in its exact form as can be measured from comments on various social media platforms. Others found the experience less exciting. Whatever your perspective on the show, the judgment should be reserved until a few episodes unveil. It’s a new production and the chemistry of so many, both on-camera and off it, will crackle in time. Dismissing it in early stages would be cruel.
We witnessed ten bands (Naqsh, Positive, Pindi Boys, Kashmir, Bari the Band, Madlock, Shajr, Soul Anesthetics, Aura and OB Positive) in the pilot episode, some of whom played originals while others stuck to covers; we learned that a total of six bands would make it past the audition stage and one will be crowned the winner via public voting. Apart from finding a permanent spot in music history, the winner will get an album deal, concerts across Pakistan and lifetime royalties on all their musical creations.
The chosen six will have beaten out hundreds of applicants. In fact, over 100 entries were received from across Pakistan. Of those, 40 were shortlisted. 38 made it to auditions and will be whittled down to six.
The opening episode also cleared up the supposed mystery about why Pepsi is investing in a music show by throwing a brief light on the brand’s long association with music.
Another purpose of the show, as explained by the judges in the first episode, is to create a scenario where bands can attain a national profile and sustain themselves. Though band culture is not dead and we have a number of terrific alternative and indie bands still playing music in the scene, it doesn’t mean that many amateur/newer bands (like the ones seen on the show) don’t need guidance and opportunities that a platform like this can provide. It is also interesting to note the amount of faith the judges have in the process and the hope they have for this project.
They remind us, in the first episode, how it was first made possible via the 2002 Pepsi Battle of the Bands edition that led to bands like EP, Aaroh and Mekaal Hasan Band exploding into mainstream consciousness and staying there for a long time.
While the bands made their mark on the judges – who are keeping an open mind – their presentation did feel somewhat amateurish and not nearly as captivating as their predecessors, circa 2002. But as Atif Aslam sees it, that factor will change with time. “Yes, they’re amateur bands but this platform will help them flourish,” he told Instep during a visit to the set of the show in Karachi.
The presence of judges like Meesha Shafi, Atif Aslam and Fawad Khan in particular also means that a great many are focused on them and their upcoming performances more than anything else.
“I know our performances will be the focal point,” explains Atif. “I don’t think you can separate it from the program, it’s part and parcel of the show. But if we give a 15 second comment, you then end up watching say a four-minute song from the band; it can’t take away from the performances and the music which remains the main purpose.”
Another person, optimistic about the byproducts of this production is Ahsan Bari, the leader of Sounds of Kolachi, who is playing a myriad of tasks while on the team and thinks that the show will have a concrete impact on the music scene.
According to Bari, apart from working with celebrity artists on their songs, he is also mentoring the bands and working on their content. “There should be some maturity when they play at this level so we’re working on it together,” Bari shared with Instep. “This platform is for new people; these bands, with time, will learn. Many of them have the potential to run the industry. Some will go on to become solo artists. We have found some people who have the potential to become future music producers. At least 2 or 3 will contribute to the scene as guitar players and will play sessions for others. A number of vocalists will also emerge through the show. Right now, there are imperfections in the way they play but five years from now, you will see them in mainstream.”
Shahi Hasan, who is also a co-judge on the series, feels that while the music scene is dominated by solo music stars, the revival of band culture can lead to a lot of good music. More to the point, he feels that there will be a strong impact on the music scene as a result of this production.
“The last edition, which came in 2002 led to several good acts like Mekaal Hasan Band, EP, Aaroh. For the first few years, there will be a definite impact. And if copyrights are introduced, the impact will be long term.”
Faisal Rafi, who is the producer of the project, explains that the idea for the show first emerged in October of last year. “I’m always circumspect when doing music for corporates,” noted Rafi. “But, when they said Battle of the Bands, I thought it was a great idea because no one supports new bands, no one even talks about them. I record new bands all the time and I thought it was a great idea to do Battle of the Bands.
Bands on the show are encouraged to play live. There’s a thriving underground music scene and I hope the bands that have come on the show go back to it, take all the learnings and apply it. I don’t think the underground scene needs corporate interference.”
When asked about the selection of the bands, Rafi explained that they are experimental by design. “The bands are experimental. We were looking for new sounds. The judges were looking for new sounds, hence they picked up bands that would represent the 21st century.”
As Rafi sees it, the impact of the show is both immediate and long-term in equal measure. “This project has already had an impact on all the bands who came to the auditions and who take themselves seriously. I’m in touch with all 40 of them. The right bands have brought themselves to the next level. I think it will have lasting impact. Let the cola wars happen, the music industry will benefit. I don’t care if there is a Pepsi sign here and there because there’s a new band on the stage and that counts.
Any activity, whether corporate or non-corporate, that encourages music, particularly original music, will always work.”
The presence of a show like Pepsi Battle of the Bands, is important for a number of reasons. At a time when a lot of corporate money is going towards established stars, it is crucial to invest in new music and encourage the notion that it can be pursued seriously.
The bands who manage to outshine dozens others to make the shortlist also have the rare opportunity to learn from music industry insiders in an environment that is conducive to music development.
That said, a few things must be remembered. Pepsi Battle of the Bands also has an illustrious history. The standard set by bands like EP, MHB and Aaroh means that all the bands that appear on the resurrected show must raise their musical standard in order to make as much of a mark as these bands managed many moons ago. So far, the music from the bands, seen and heard in the first episode, has been underwhelming. The one good news is that the judges do not take any of the contestants apart for it, and this lack of cruelty is much-appreciated.
The other elements of the production – particularly the presentation and visual identity – need some work.
While comparisons to Coke Studio have no place here since the philosophy of Pepsi Battle of the Bands is radically different, with past shows dedicated to new music/artists like Nescafe Basement, the short-lived Pakistan Idol, Uth Records and the indie-show, Lussun TV, Pepsi Battle of the Bands has its work cut out. Though the formats have varied for these aforementioned productions, the music found as a result has been superior in some cases.
The success of the show is also important for the industry on the whole as it will encourage further investment.
Whether the show manages to accomplish its mission statement to the letter remains to be seen but, having spoken to almost all major players in the production, it can be said with certainty that it has just the right motivation behind it and that matters more than we care to admit.