Shaping a pandemic gig scene

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A new generation of kids flocking to a Zild show in Simon’s Place, Quezon City. Photo by JANLOR ENCARNACION

The music scene is back, with a lust for life. Artists and audiences alike have come in droves to live shows across the Philippines, adjusting to new conditions that also open up new possibilities of creativity and sustainability.

Two years of no physical gatherings came at a price. Many musicians primarily earn from live shows, and with those put on a halt for quite some time, bands had to turn to other avenues such as virtual shows and online-focused releases to reach new listeners. This paradigm also profoundly changed how musicians approached music-making and performance, with a focus on honing recording, songwriting, and finding new and novel ways of sustaining their craft. In a way, continuing to make music was a gamble of time, energy, and dedication, without knowing when the music scene as we knew it would return.

However, time does tell, and we’re seeing it unfold before our eyes.

“The scene’s the same but it’s a lot louder this time around," shared Elijah Pareño, music writer and founder of online platform The Flying Lugaw. There are plenty of new faces and names at the new shows, bringing in years’ worth of pent-up energy and excitement. The scene bid goodbye to old venues such as Route 196 and Today x Future, while new spaces like the relocated 123Block, The Social House, and Motorista are becoming new hubs for shows. Regular venues like 19East have also experimented with al fresco setups, to put audiences at ease with open air shows.

COVID-19 protocols here to stay

A major noticeable difference with nightlife now is the implementation of COVID-19 protocols, with vaccine card inspections and disinfection measures as a necessary staple.

Epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist Dr. Eric Tayag provides some insights about best practices that audiences and productions alike can adopt: “It starts with the organizers. Number one, it’s about the crowd size. Number two, it’s about the distance of the band from the nearest seat in front of them.” Venues can test for indoor air quality using carbon dioxide monitors, and seek the expertise of safety officers. He also reminds attendees to keep masks on at all times, avoid sharing food and drinks, and maintain social distancing protocols.

DIY shows are back, such as Fax Gang’s preview show in a house in Parañaque. Photo by JANLOR ENCARNACION

As for musicians, organizers should also provide disposable mask covers that can be replaced in between acts. Dr. Tayag also recommends that musicians bring their own mic that they disinfect themselves. Though in smaller-scale venues, it’s common for amplifiers, drum sets, and other equipment to be shared by musicians, transmission can be minimized if musicians are also careful not to touch their faces.

“Promoters and venues need to observe mandated health protocols to avoid potential outbreaks,” says Ian Urrutia, organizer of The Rest is Noise. “While this might be an added cost for all parties involved, it’s important that we gain perspective on how we can rebuild the music community in a responsible manner.” These sanitation measures are among the many factors that have also changed how the gig economy stands, and in turn, how musicians tackle sustainability.

Making music more sustainable

Since gigs returned, the bar gig format has also changed drastically, and many musicians are considering it to be more sustainable. From stacked lineups with six or more bands and entrance fees at around the ₱200 range before 2020, more events now feature two to four bands with entrance fees at ₱400 and up. While in the past, audiences were reluctant to shell out for higher fees for shows considering how abundant they were, now, people on all sides are more intentional about making shows a more worthwhile experience overall.

Typically, the entrance fee that people pay for shows is collated and split amongst the bands that have played. Now, entrance fee is also split among fewer acts, meaning that musicians get to earn more. Before the pandemic, bands often barely broke even at shows. Now, there are more opportunities to be compensated for more than the rehearsal time, transportation costs, and other expenses behind being a gigging musician.

Additionally, artists get to play longer sets, giving them time to engage with their audience on a deeper level. Drummer Pat Sarabia, who was among the first wave of musicians to begin gigging regularly again, has much to say about how this set-up works in pushing one’s craft and artistry: “In a way, I think the artist is given more of literally a stage and a platform to express the different dimensions of their music, character, and personality. At the same time, they're given more time to present their repertoire. They in turn become better and literally more experienced artists because there's more time to experience being a performer.”

Motorista in Quezon City is one of the venues to begin hosting independent gigs after pandemic restrictions were lifted. Photo by JANLOR ENCARNACION

Sarabia is also a prolific sessionist who has played with dozens of artists of a staggering variety of genres. She is also one of the masterminds behind Dugdugpack, a Filipino-made library of samples and virtual instruments that she created with fellow drummer Badjao De Castro over the pandemic. She worked with esteemed percussionists such as Mike Dizon, providing music-making tools and sounds that are made with Filipino sensibilities in mind, and this library has spread among Filipino independent musicians.

"It's quite sustainable(...),” she said. “It's a bit of a new idea for the Philippines, but if you offer something or introduce something to people, they will use it and be open to it." Dugdugpack continues to bring in revenue for the musicians involved, providing an innovative example of services musicians came up with outside of playing shows.

Another possibility for musicians to pursue is playing shows and going on tour in different cities across the Philippines. With the internet being the main avenue for musicians to be heard, more attention was drawn to musicians in different regions.

“Since gigs were gone for a long time, it seems that bands and audiences have realized the importance of time, and each and every gig invite,” said Francis Otordos, founder and gig organizer behind the Naga-based label Struggle Records. “Gigs were gone for two years, right? So now, a band’s passion for music burns stronger.”

While Manila was slowly opening up again in March, Naga City had already been holding live shows in open-air venues. They continue to do so regularly every month, often inviting bands from the nearby cities of Legazpi and Lucena, and even hosting bands from NCR. There are plenty of cities across the Philippines open to inter-city touring for bands to embark on.

Jumpstarting the music sector

People in the local independent music ecosystem have tried ways of providing support to keep their scenes thriving. The repercussions of the pandemic, especially in terms of sustainability, will be felt for years to come. But resilience can only get the music sector so far, in the face of larger structural issues that plague artists, venues, and cultural industries as a whole.

“We need the government to do its part in providing invaluable support to the cultural industries to ensure the revival of the music sector,” said Urrutia. Aside from financial aid, many full-time musicians rarely have health insurance or other working benefits, essentially as freelancers, especially if they are not registered with organizations such as FILSCAP. This is the case as well for many young initiatives that make DIY shows that are often purely volunteer-run.

A crowdsurfer in 123Block, which recently relocated to an open air venue in Mandaluyong. Photo by JANLOR ENCARNACION

“We demand support from higher-ups for spaces for arts and music, and in return, artists get to fund their own spaces to compensate for the two years missing,” said Pareño. Institutions may also want to consider the form of support that suits each scene or community’s situationally-specific economic conditions, from large-scale concerts to DIY shows held in houses. A ₱500 gate share may work for a show in Makati or Ortigas, but it may not necessarily work in places where the average person might not have as much money to spare. After all, the music scene is not homogenous, and thrives on a diverse range of strategies and tactics to thrive creatively and financially.

I recall, during the pandemic, the often-resurfacing discussions of whether art is essential or not. Many of those arguments have not been neatly resolved, and so 2022 is also a call for a reckoning. With the music that has been played since gigs resumed, who can argue against musicians deserving to be compensated for their performances and creative work? Would the scene as a whole be healthier if this “post-pandemic” (and I use this term with a grain of salt) paradigm were more fertile for sustaining music? These times are malleable enough to be shaped, and these efforts are still worth undertaking. And anyone whose life has been changed by music can affirm that great strides can be made in every show and song.