Mainstreaming Original Pilipino Music

SINGAPORE –  Hours before his band is set to release its third EP, Frank! (MCA Music), at an upscale nightclub in the city-state, Franco Reyes muses on his early days as a rock musician struggling for gigs outside his hometown of Cebu City.

“Noong sinubukan naming magka-gig sa Manila, may isang linggo kami na ‘one day, one eat’: isang loaf tsaka isang de lata kasi ‘yun lang kaya ng budget namin,” Reyes recalls. “Ang hirap maka-penetrate sa band scene sariling mong bansa, lalo na kung hindi ka taga-Manila.”

(When we tried to get gigs in Manila we did a week of "one day, one eat": a loaf of bread and one canned good, which was all our budget could cover. It’s hard to penetrate the band scene in your own country, especially if you’re not from Manila.)

After persevering for nearly 20 years, Reyes and his group, Franco, have made their way to the national forefront of Pinoy rock, earning industry accolades, plum gigs in the once-impenetrable capital, and a loyal fanbase eager for the band’s brand of melodic, heavy rock.

In spite of these gains, and the present achievement of performing in Singapore for the third time, he voices a long-standing aspiration to break into a different kind of overseas music scene. “It’s good that we’re seeing more productions abroad taking a risk by getting [Filipino rock] bands. Pero sana puwedeng mag-cross over pa to the international market (But hopefully it’ll be possible to cross over to the international market)."

Overseas OPM: Trapped in the mainstream?

There exists a difference between international Original Pilipino Music (OPM) concerts that cater exclusively to an OFW audience, and those that engage with listeners beyond the Filipino diaspora, where consumer markets are defined not so much by a shared nationality, but a common interest in musical genre or style.

Until recently, most OPM concert tours in North America, Europe, and Asia have consisted of the former, largely fueled by mass OFW entertainment juggernauts such as The Filipino Channel (TFC).

The recent success of rock singer and TV personality Bamboo, who went on a sold-out world tour last month, demonstrates the crucial influence of mainstream media on OPM’s internationalization.

“In Bamboo’s foreign shows before 2013, the most applauded songs were his older hits. But now, people are receptive to his new material because they’ve followed his career through The Voice and A.S.A.P.,” observes Ria Villena Osorio, an arranger and music director who has toured internationally with Bamboo and Aiza Seguerra.

Visibility on TV matters because it’s how Filipino audiences around the world connect with Filipino artists back home. And they’re the ones who buy tickets.

Concentrating on the demand for TFC-friendly hits brings in big gains for OPM acts. But this makes it tougher for many talented Filipino musicians who don’t fit this mainstream mold to deliver their own take on OPM to OFW audiences. Likewise, it arguably makes it harder for OPM concert promoters to push for greater visibility and reach in the larger international music scene, outside the Filipino diaspora.

UAE-based concert production company Spicy Lemon has recently produced 3 concerts featuring Bamboo, Rivermaya, Kamikazee, and Gloc-9 in Dubai, attracting a combined total of over 17,000 concertgoers. Avid supporters of OPM artists, the company recognizes the balancing act of appealing to a majority-OFW audience while aiming to attract non-Filipino audiences.

“The term ‘OPM’ is incredibly successful in the Philippines and with workers overseas,” acknowledges Alan Ewens, Spicy Lemon’s media director. “However, we deliberately steered away from labelling our shows with terms such as ‘OPM’ or ‘Pinoy’ as part of our remit to have some sort of cross-over appeal.”

As OPM artists and their concert promoters seek to fill up shows at home and abroad, the OPM label itself can work as a double-edged sword that needs to be wielded with care.

Crossing over, stepping up

Extending and diversifying the international reach of OPM is precisely the goal of a handful of Filipino concert promoters overseas, such as Cottage Mix Media and Requiem Rising, who are behind the Franco album launch and have invited various indie bands to Singapore.

Promisingly, the recent emergence of Spicy Lemon in Dubai, Todd Labelle Productions in Canada, and other non-Filipino OPM concert promoters speaks to a growing recognition that Filipino artists are ready to make new waves beyond the OFW diaspora – strengthening the brand of OPM while not being limited by it.

“In the future, we would like to look into having Filipino acts sharing the bill with international artists, so fans of the latter could experience the world-class talents of the former without having to attend an all-Filipino show,” says Ewens.

For their part, alternative musicians like Reyes continue the work of making their music cross borders – not only for themselves, but for the industry and the country as a whole.

“The thing is, when it comes to Filipinos and entertainment abroad, parang showbiz masyado (it’s too focused on showbiz),” he asserts. 

“It’s time for a change. We need to step up as Filipino artists.”

In striving to step up and cross over to new audiences abroad, the real potential for OPM artists and entrepreneurs is the chance to redefine what’s original about OPM – by showcasing the diversity, quality, and global appeal of Filipino popular music. –