The young lovers of Ang Nawawala, a coming of age tale that came out in 2012.
Culture Music

The Pinoy music scene in the 2010s: loud and proud and messy, and every bit its own thing

From indie folk to math rock, Ang Nawawala to Tala, Kupal on the Wall to Flying Lugaw. Think of this as a time capsule to the soundtrack of our lives—or at least a decade of it.
Jam Pascual | Dec 31 2019

The year is 2012. Ang Nawawala. a movie where the local music scene was a character unto itself, just came out in theaters. The stereotype of the hipster, one involving plaid shirts and a Tumblarian affinity for triangle-shaped iconography, was fully crystallized. Up Dharma Down just released Capacities on CD. From there on out, "Tadhana" would invade karaoke rooms, house party playlists, and promenade haranas as the de facto national anthem of the broken-hearted. A college freshman in a room plastered with posters is pledging allegiance to vinyl as CDs march into obsolescence. A jilted lover is staggering drunk out of Route 196's heavy-swinging doors with a She's Only Sixteen lyric—"Where did I go wrong?"—blaring in their Red Horse-addled brain like an underwater siren. Somewhere, a recluse is fiddling with a pirated version of Ableton, wondering which snippet of dialog to rip and sample from Casablanca. These days are not easy to forget.

 

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Yearend listicles and album rankings aside, the last decade in local music was made of these little moments. These were the days of our lives. Busy living we were, and perhaps too close to examine the forces shaping our individual existences, and their soundtracks, with a scholarly distance. But the times they were a-changin'. Places closed down, old media died and new media was born, artists were navigating a new sonic landscape of possibility with new tools and sensibilities.

Like a needle slowly lifting from wax grooves, the sound of the 2010s is receding. We'll always have the music. But what were the forces and factors that gave us the music? The technologies, the institutions, the little movements and large waves? This is an attempt to analyze the social and cultural tremors that shook our dance floors and rocked our moshpits. This was the decade in local music.

Spotify revoutionized the way we consume music. Photo from ABS-CBN News

Because the internet

When was the last time you bought the CD of a local musician?

That's a memory that doesn't surface easy, and that isn't an accident. The ways music is being produced have been changing since before this decade. But for ethnomusicologist Monika Schoop, who did research in the local music scene from 2011 to 2014, the scene was making a significant shift: things were going from analog to digital.

"While in the Philippines analogue recording was still the way to go in the 90s, it had been replaced by digital recording technologies by the time I started my field work," Schoop tells me in an email interview. "With regard to promotion, promotion on social media had almost entirely replaced flyers and posters." 

She notes that other shifts were happening. CDs were still popular at the beginning of the decade, but vinyls were coming back into fashion, and people were turning to non-physical formats, like streaming services. (Satchmi was a big presence this decade, the way it pitched vinyls and record players to a nostalgic audience.) "So the digital did not fully replace the analogue but was in some instances more of a complement." (It must be noted that, befittingly, Schoop first became acquainted with the scene through the discovery of online label Number Line Records, even before she set foot on Philippine soil.)

Schoop literally wrote the book on the shift: "Independent and Digital Technology in the Philippines," published by Routledge. In it, she elaborates on this shift on the modes of production by describing the way labels were reacting to these changes. "With declining sales [in CDs and albums], the live sector gained importance and major labels increasingly focused on booking and managing bands." 

The labels were also losing their hold on the industry. Back then, you had to rely on a major label if you wanted to properly record your band's songs. But power relations were changing, and people could independently record their music with tools that were just as high quality. "The emergence of independent players was not only empowered through digital technologies but also necessitated the retreat of the major recording industry." Meanwhile, local labels affiliated with transnational conglomerates, like what used to be EMI Philippines, had to rely on selling back catalogues.

 The cover art of Ourselves the Elves's  2015 album

For sure, physical formats will always have their devotees, and in the first half of this decade, bands were launching actual CDs. But think about the local artists you listen to now, and how you discovered them. Either you came to know CRWN through Spotify, or through his earlier demos in Bandcamp. And before Spotify became as ubiquitous as it is now, you were listening to the It'll Be Alright EP of Ourselves the Elves in Bandcamp. These acts, and many others, where able to get their stuff out there without the help of a major label, because there was more accessibility, more technology, more tools, more channels.

The democratization of technology lowered the barrier of entry, if not shattered it completely. The internet, and the advent of digital production and consumption, was an origin point from which the sounds of the decade would burst forth.

 

Surrounding sounds

Mainstream media was celebrating a movement in local music in the early 2010s: the advent of the beatmaker. Jorge Wieneke, A.K.A. similar objects, is a musician, engineer, and educator who saw this movement come alive up close.

"I definitely felt a shift when our Bakunawa's monthly BuwanBuwan events started to go from low to highly attended," says musician Jorge Wieneke.

"There was always some interesting electronic and experimental stuff happening way before the rise of the bedroom musician or the more commodified idea of a bedroom beatmaker," he tells me over email. "But if I could pinpoint an actual period when the whole bedroom musician thing started to boom (in my opinion) I'd have to say it was around 2012-2013. I definitely felt a shift when our Bakunawa's monthly BuwanBuwan events started to go from low to highly attended. We were always an odd fit for the usual venues so we decided to rent out an art gallery space (arts in the city, now known as Maybank theater) and it started with just a small group of people then it started to grow in attendance shifting from 20s to 50s, then the year after when we were offered a spot in Black Market, that's when I felt like it sort of spiked."

This flourishing was marked by the rise of collectives and crews. BuwanBuwan Collective (Wieneke's crew), Logiclub, NOFACE, pixel collective, and YOUNGLIQUIDGANG (of which No Rome, now globally touring, is an alumnus) were just some crews who came to define the scene. Keep in mind that most of these acts were utilizing new channels made possible by the rise of streaming services, whether it was Soundcloud or Bandcamp. It can be hard to remember that streaming was a polyopoly, now that acts both mainstream and underground have been corralled into Spotify.

In her book, Schoop also notes that companies, in response to dwindling record sales, were putting greater emphasis on the importance of live performances and touring, as emphasized by the fact that the label Warner Music set up a touring division. Putting a premium on concerts and live shows gave festivals more currency. This decade gave us pretty big local festivals, like Wanderland and Malasimbo. One could argue then that we have Wanderland to thank for privileging another sound that would come to dominate local radio waves: indie folk.

This decade gave us pretty big local festivals like Malasimbo. Photo by Andre Drilon

The Ransom Collective first got their start as a winning Wanderband in 2014, and the popularity of the genre started snowballing from there. It seems everywhere you look, bands were adopting a style driven by clean guitars and vocals that hearkened back to a Noel Cabangon-type sound. Jason Caballa, who worked as an editor for PULP and wrote for PinoyTuner from 2012 to 2017, also noticed this shift. "You have your indie folk, which baffles me, as in," acknowledging the ripple effect that a band like Mumford and Sons had on the local soundscape. "You have your Muni-Muni, you have Lola Amour, you have Any Name's Okay." You could even argue that Ben & Ben, arguably the most popular Filipino band today, falls under this genre category.

"And then another [genre], siguro yung pinaka wild card ng lahat, yung math rock. Isa pa yun! I think toe is one of the single most influential bands to Filipinos this decade. Diba?" Caballa is referring to the Japanese math rock band toe, which have made repeat visits to the Philippines, and have performed here since as way back as 2012. Toe's sound is characterized by clean but intricate guitar work and offbeat time signatures. Repeat visits must've acclimitized Filipino sensibilities to the sound, considering the success that similar instrumental bands saw in the decade. It would've been crazy back then (is still kind of is now) to think that an instrumental band could get radio play, but apparently the demand was high enough for tide/edit to put out three albums (2014, 2015, and 2018) and Tom's Story to release a full-length (2016).

There's something to be said as well about how math rock and post-rock tend to be lumped together (post-rock tends to place more emphasis on texture and atmosphere), but this decade generally saw instrumental bands gaining mainstream attention. Other instrumental acts who made it big include Sound Architects, Earthmover, and TIM ÄWÄ.

Jensen and the Flips. Photo from MYX

The 2010s did give us a window of time where a particular kind of pogi rock flourished—one that embraced funk and R & B inflections. "How long did the Jensen sound last? ‘Di ba? It was a pretty dominant... yung vibe na R&B," says Camille Castillo, founding editor of Bandwagon PH. Truth is it lasted for quite a while. Jensen and The Flips formed in 2013. Castillo and Caballa both mention SUD and Miles Experience (sometimes shortened to Msex) as progenitors of that sound. They were the trinity. And in 2017, Jensen and the Flips released their album BTTR, while Msex was nominated Favorite New Artist Award in the MYX Music Awards. 

The decline of this sound can be attributed to some extremely notable events, such as in 2016, when SUD was featured on a controversial PULP magazine cover that prompted heated online discussion on the prevalence of the male gaze in media. And in November 2017, members from all three aforementioned bands were accused of sexual violence and predatory behavior.

The controversial PULP magazine cover featuring SUD.

One could make a compelling case that these were the sonic tendencies that most significantly defined the decade's soundscape, but make no mistake: the local music scene, eclectic and open-minded, can't be boiled down to just four sounds. This generation's community of listeners, paralleling in some ways what was going on in the West, espoused poptimism (see: IV of Spades, Palm Dreams by James Reid, and the everywhere-ness of Sarah Geronimo), embraced hip-hop as a mode of political outrage (see: Calyx and BLKD), and introduced the trend-sniffing bourgeoisie class to the misunderstood world of budots (see: your Facebook timeline).

What's amazing though is while certain sounds can be connected to certain scenes, none of those scenes are islands. A gig by A Spur of the Moment might draw a different crowd than Logiclub for example, but today's crowds as a whole seem to have outgrown tribalist allegiance to a genre, and are generally cool with liking anything. 

“Now, I feel like people are more open than before," Castillo tells me. "Before, you just stick to your own crowd. There's more openness in the audience." This shouldn't be a surprise—this generation's crowd is the kind that'll hop from venue to venue during Fete de la Musique, and watch whole festivals with sonically diverse lineups. That's why whether you were going to a Stay Useless show or an UNKNWN party, you were always running into friends.

Ears were more welcoming during the last decade, more open to new voices.

You can see this open-mindedness in the artists as well. As Caballa, who plays guitar for Pedicab and Cheats puts it, "Pop was getting better. And it was no longer uncool to reference these pop stars in the music that you make, even though you were in a guitar band."

But musicians and gig-goers alone do not a scene make. The sounds of this community, and of the last decade, where also comprised of brave voices who dared to uplift and cultivate a culture of criticism in the scene.

 

Everyone's a critic

A good place to begin would be Kupal on the Wall.

For those who don't know, Kupal on the Wall was an anonymous Twitter account that, like the Kool-Aid man busting through drywall, came crashing into our feeds in 2016, brandishing critiques and hot takes about the local music scene. Love them or hate them, Kupal couldn't be ignored. People were taken by the way this entity was spewing out scathing, venomous critique, in a media landscape that editorially defaulted to innocuous features instead of actual reviews.

Kupal on the Wall is gone. And it's not like they were ground zero for the way we talk about the local music scene's culture of criticism or lack thereof. But their brief existence can give us some ideas about the way criticism in this community operates.

Love them or hate them, Kupal couldn't be ignored. People were taken by the way this entity was spewing out scathing, venomous critique

As Caballa puts it, "I think the one thing that was keeping [a culture of criticism] from being a thing was... takot tayo eh. The scene was so small, you can't help but run into the people that you write about and, maybe be afraid to say anything negative. We lack that culture of walang personalan. Everything's personal here." 

Consider the most notable (albeit still relatively underground) platform of local music criticism now: Flying Lugaw. Even though Flying Lugaw itself currently has a small pool of writers who aren't afraid to identify themselves, it began with a single person who, in the course of his critical work, wouldn't reveal himself to the public.

Of course there were the other more established platforms, such as Bandwagon PH, Vandals on the Wall, Radio Republic, and PinoyTuner. But PinoyTuner is gone. And those other sites functioned more as gig finders. If the United States has Pitchfork, what do we have?

Perhaps if we had our own Pitchfork, so to speak, we'd be better equipped as a community or industry to wrestle with the persistent question of what OPM is, or whether OPM is dead or not. The term OPM was a major talking point this decade, and while many have come forward to put their insights on the table, the debate was never properly resolved. It's hard to say whether the question will surface again in 2020 and onwards, but discourse about it was clearly felt. The spirit of the decade wouldn't be the same without it.

Yung problema rin is that, there's always this like whole 'rah rah rah’ thing na 'No, you support the scene. You support everyone.' So you're not allowed to have a choice anymore,” says Caballa, bringing up another topic. 

There are many ways this unquestioning loyalty to artists manifests. But one way it crops up is when a musician is exposed for sexually violent or predatory behavior, and their fans rush to their defense, diminishing victims in the process. The #MeToo movement, far-reaching and vigilant, has played a big part in how the local music scene has operated in the past ten years, in terms of how it has influenced our understanding of what to expect from our artists and from our art. Jensen and the Flips isn't big anymore. And many prods are working hard to make shows that can act as safe spaces. One could reasonably assert these discursive and concrete efforts to interrogate the once uncontested cultural value of the entitled, groupie-snatching male rockstar, are a big part of the culture of criticism that the local music scene has been painstakingly trying to nourish.

An invitation to Circus 20/20 which gathers an eclectic mix of performers. 

 

On the shoulders of giants

In the spirit of never forgetting, it is worth mentioning two institutions that once greatly defined the local music scene, but were absent this decade: Meiday and NU Rock 107.

Meiday was a monthly series of free gigs hosted by Mei Bastes, and NU Rock 107 was the radio station for local music. We lived without them both for ten years.

"From someone who has been to all Meiday gigs, malaking void na Meiday left, because there hasn't been shows like it since," Caballa says. And as for NU 107, "You know that NU 107 nurtured acts. You don't get the same feeling from... whatever's there now. Badge of pride siya (getting played on NU 107), in a way."

It is worth mentioning these entities. As time passed and culture shifted, the rush of change was so unrelenting that maybe we couldn't properly say goodbye to certain things. NU 107 got a ceremonious, heartstring-tugging send-off, but did we bid a formal farewell to Meiday? What about Mag:net Cafe? What about CDs? What about entrance fees that used to cost a reasonable P150?

Change is messy, and we'll never be able to return to the old days. But change is a sign of liveliness, proof of life. Caballa states that Jam 88.3 is one prominent player that attempted to fill the void that NU Rock left, with Russ Davis hosting Fresh Filter, where tons of local bands could be discovered. Meiday is gone, but we have the ever-wild Circus 2020, and so, so many prods and shows that put forth their own brand of riotous revelry.

What I am trying to say is that this decade in local music, loud and proud and messy and sure-footed and bristling with energy, was its own thing. A piece of history. A complicated, synaptic network of people, places, mechanisms, discourses and behaviors that made damn good art. Art that accompanied us in our moments of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, mourning and celebration. Again, these were the days of our lives. And if there is one thing to take away from all these great changes, this piece of history where so many things lived and died, it's that the future of local music is only going to continue becoming more alive.

"Generally, I think wherever were heading is very interesting," Wieneke says. "Our scene is growing more and more diverse by the day and there's so much to celebrate that I'm convinced whatever we have is at par with the rest of the world, we just have to realize that ourselves. You can find virtually anything here if you just know how to look. Its amazing how much the scene has grown and blossomed. Not a single shortage of talent here if you ask me, mainstream or underground (and the intermingling of the two) and everything in between, you're bound to find something good."