In lockdown, the streets are silent – but Filipino musicians have not stopped playing

Amanda T. Lago
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the music industry hard – but artists continue to make music online

Illustration by Nico Villarete

MANILA, Philippines – In the beginning, 2020 was turning out to be a great year for music.

By the end of February, the 10th Malasimbo festival had been checked off people’s bucket lists. Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavigne, Green Day, and the Pussycat Dolls were all scheduled to arrive, and fans were patiently waiting.

Ebe Dancel had played his first solo concert and released a new album Baliktanaw – perhaps the biggest gift a musician can give to longtime listeners. Ben&Ben released two feels-inducing music videos in the lead up to dropping another new love anthem. The annual Wanderland Music and Arts Festival was on the horizon, with a lineup that included the likes of Joji, Foals, Sabrina Claudio, and IV of Spades.

All the music was almost loud enough to drown out the news of the coronavirus spreading across the world. In the Philippines at the time, we already had several confirmed cases and a death – but the virus still felt like a distant threat as people went about their lives normally and looked forward to hearing more from their favorite artists.

Then one by one, international acts pulled out of their Manila stops. The Wanderland Festival lineup was changing week by week as artists canceled their trips to Asia.

The organizers tried heroically to keep things going by replacing each cancellation with an artist of the same caliber – but ultimately, on March 4, just a few days before the festival was set to begin, they announced that they would be postponing the festival until further notice.

 

Wanderland’s cancellation was a big blow to music fans – but on the same day that it happened, another big gig was announced – a sliver of hope that the music scene would stay as it was. The Rest Is Noise announced that their 5th anniversary show was happening in April.

Pedicab, Dicta License, and Orange & Lemons were going to play long sets to celebrate their debut albums. Everything was going to be alright – the world might have been changing day by day, but the music was going to keep playing.

But on March 12, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. On March 13, The Rest Is Noise postponed their annniversary show. On the same day, the government had announced that it would be placing Metro Manila under a “community quarantine” beginning on March 15, limiting the movements of people in and out of the metropolis.

When the announcement was made, people flocked to the supermarkets and the malls in a panic-buying rush.

In one Makati mall, a jazz band played in the middle of the crowd as shoppers ignored all directives to practice “social distancing.” That same day, in one particular restaurant, a cover band sang their version of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.”

It was perhaps the last bit of live music that bystanders would hear for a long time – the next day, the government heightened the lockdown by announcing that it would enforce an “enhanced community quarantine” on March 17, not just over Metro Manila, but over the entire island of Luzon.

After this, bars and restaurants were shuttered, and people were forbidden to roam the streets unless absolutely necessary.

Music in the time of quarantine

The move came down hard on people who earn their income by the day and do not have the luxury of working from home – among them the buskers and the “no play, no pay” musicians whose regular spots have been boarded up to comply with the lockdown.

Michael Puyat, vocalist of the band Anything Goes, held two regular spots or puestos where he would play in on Wednesdays and Saturdays – but since the lockdown, those spots have been closed.

“I was texted by the managers that everything has been suspended, and since we are not employees, we don’t have any reprieve from the management,” he said.

“So basically the income stopped already, almost two weeks na… for example, if you’re doing 3 or more puestos in a week and you’re making an average of P1,500 per head… that disappeared.”

Michael said that he isn’t hit as hard by the loss because he also runs a business that provides another source of income. But he can’t say the same for many of his fellow puesto musicians, whose bread and butter was music.

“You know what they’re feeling right now? Despondent. The word is despondent. They think it’s a bad dream, and they’re just at home waiting to wake up tomorrow and it’s just a bad dream,” he said.

“They’re professionals who’ve been peforming for 20 years, they’re literally crying for clear help for any agency, any asssociation, any NGO. No one is speaking to them, the no play, no pay musicians,” Michael said.

Without the safety net of a label, or the backup of having music out on streaming platforms, some puesto musicians have gotten creative. One of them, busker Nick Mangubat, took his busking online, performing nightly via Facebook live and virtually laying out his hat by leaving his GCash and Paypal details for those who want to help him makeup for his lost income stream.

 

Ultimately, those who have lost their income will need to resort to more creative ways to make up for it.

Michael said that he hopes that after these musicians have accepted it, they can figure out how to move forward, throwing out some ideas for how working musicians can keep working during the lockdown.

“For example, maybe my friends can do online tutorials and get paid without leaving the house. Another thing they can do is compose, send files, and get paid without leaving the house. They can arrange backing tracks, or they can record professionally until the final product, recorded material is ready to place on online platforms.”

The internet of concerts

Online – that’s where the music is nowadays.

The internet, as it turns out, is a powerful tool – whether you’re a no play, no pay musician trying to make ends meet in a new way, or an artist who has the privilege of playing to raise funds for other people.

Singer-songwriter Martin Riggs, an artist signed with label O/C Records, has also had to face a blanket cancellation of gigs since the lockdown was imposed. The last gig he played was on March 9, but the day after that, all the shows he had lined up were cancelled. As the leader of the Busking Community PH and a busker himself, he also made the call to urge his fellow street musicians to stay home.

From home, Martin has been busy coming up with new music – and the internet is allowing him to get playful with it. While stuck at home, he’s taken to Instagram to do live videos and engage his followers in writing new songs on the spot. He is also keeping busy as the A&R for O/C Records, which is another thing that helps him keep a steady income even as he has been unable to play on the streets.

Unlike the displaced puesto musicians, there’s no pressing financial need for Martin to keep performing – but that doesn’t mean he’ll stop. His label is currently planning an online concert (“O/C”), that people can view from the safety of their own homes.

In very depressing and dark times, parang kailangan ata ng tao ng music and entertainment. Yun yung point ng entertainment eh, to entertain, especially at the point na walang entertaining na nangyayari – may bulkan na puputok, may bird flu, may nCov, may gobyernong hindi nagiisip ng maayos,” Martin said.

(In very depressing and dark times, it seems that people need music and entertainment. That’s the point of entertainment, to entertain, especially at the point when nothing entertaining is going on anymore. There’s a volcano that explodes, bird flu, nCoV, there’s a government that isn’t thinking straight.)

Ang daming nangyayari eh, so parang kahit man lang tugtugan lang from their favorite artists, just to give hope na ‘uy may music pa,’ ‘uy may kalayaan pa somewhere out there,’” he added.

(So many things are happening, so even a small jam from their favorite artists can give hope, as if to say ‘hey, there’s still music,’ ‘hey, there’s still freedom somewhere out there.’)

Aside from providing entertainment, many artists have recently been using their music to raise funds for those most in need – from daily wage earners who have lost their income, to vulnerable urban poor communities, to frontliners and healthcare workers in need of supplies.

Music as relief

The first of these efforts came from National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabayab, who announced a series of online concerts called Bayanihan Musikahan, where musicians livestream performances on Facebook while encouraging people to donate towards food and health kits for the urban poor.

So far, the likes of Sponge Cola and Ebe Dancel have already performed – and even more are on the line up.

In a single online show, Matteo Guidicelli’s initiative One Voice Pilipinas raised over P4 million for families affected by the Luzon Lockdown, with the likes of Kean Cipriano, Janine Tenoso, Jason Dy, and Sarah Geronimo performing.

Ben&Ben also announced on March 22 that they would be holding an online show to raise funds to purchase supplies for frontline heathcare works and relief goods for daily wage earners.

New platform

Watching a performer on a live stream is obviously not the same as attending a gig or a concert. The music comes across differently, and technical problems abound, especially with laggy connections. But many people who have tuned in did so seeking a small sense of comfort – and found it.

“Although we are all quarantined and forced to stay in our homes which we should all be doing in my opinion…I am not alone, and I want you to know, ikaw na nanonood, hindi ka nagiisa (you there, watching, you aren’t alone). You have me, you have me tonight,” Ebe said when he performed in the first round of Bayanihan Musikahan concerts.

At some point in his performance, he stopped to point out just how different it is to take his performance off the stage and online: “This is so strange, performing in front of 34,000 people tapos walang pumapalakpak (and no one’s applauding).”

The applause, it seems, now comes in the form of comments – through which listeners are able to fully express what the performance means to them.

“Thank you sir, this is the best night ever since lockdown po,” one fan responded as Ebe played one of his signature songs, “Burnout.”

“Was so down today, thanks for comforting us with your music,” another viewer said as he played “Cuida.”

The world has changed so drastically in the span of a few weeks – and like everyone else, the music industry has been hit hard by this shift. But there is a comfort to be had in knowing that while the streets may now be eerily silent, that’s about as far as the silence reaches.

Whether they’re playing for a living or to raise funds for coronavirus relief, the point is Filipino artists are still playing – and they’re showing no signs of stopping. – Rappler.com

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Amanda T. Lago

After avoiding long-term jobs in favor of travelling the world, Amanda finally learned to commit when she joined Rappler in July 2017. As a lifestyle and entertainment reporter, she writes about music, culture, and the occasional showbiz drama. She also hosts Rappler Live Jam, where she sometimes tries her best not to fan-girl on camera.