Searching for “sariling atin” on our airwaves

OPM albums

Ten years ago, Filipino music was everywhere, and a wide range of it, too. There was a resurgence of alternative acts, from veterans such as Rivermaya and Bamboo, to (then) up-and-comers such as Sponge Cola and Hale. Pop acts such as MYMP, riding the acoustic wave, and Jay-R, who represented the R&B front, dominated the charts. The indie scene had groups like Up Dharma Down waving the flag. And, of course, the usual pop acts were still there. The slow rise from the beginning of the noughties, to its peak sometime around 2006 – it was, indeed, a good time for local music.

Now, you can be forgiven for thinking things have gone downhill since. Local music has been relegated to token slots, or have virtually disappeared altogether; some of its staunchest supporters, such as Campus Radio and NU 107, have been replaced by downmarket programming. Record stores have limited local albums to a shelf or two. Some record labels – notably, the local arm of Sony Music – have closed down completely. Now, when you think of local music, it seems you’ll get an acoustic cover of whatever’s on the charts now, or Anne Curtis.

One can give many reasons as to why Filipino music has slumped, seemingly for good. It’s piracy. It’s bad quality. It’s lack of imagination. It’s little to no attention. If we’re to return the local music scene to close to what it was a decade ago, a lot of things have to be done. Not that I have the solution or anything – I’m just a so-called music blogger who fails to write about the artists in my backyard – but I’m throwing my thoughts in anyway, specifically about one angle: the presence of local music – or lack of it – on local radio.

A week ago I saw an online petition, demanding local radio stations play more local music. It argues that, despite the Philippines having a pretty robust creative industry, statistics show that only three local songs are played on local radio per hour (which station?) and two of them are covers. Playing more local music, the petition says, would spur demand, and would only help lift the scene.

I definitely agree about the last point, but the first point – that there isn’t a lot of local songs on the airwaves – is a bit more complicated. Sure, radio stations like Magic and RX focus on foreign music more, but other radio stations – particularly the masa ones – have a lot of local tracks. Granted, some of those are covers of foreign songs, and some of those are ballads, but some of them are songs that would, I think, have crossover appeal. During my live blog of 107.5 Win Radio, I heard a pleasant ode to selfies by Davey Langit, the nice theme song to Diary ng Panget, and Yeng Constantino’s “Jeepney Love Story”, an accessible pop-rock anthem whose exposure is hindered by the mere fact that she won a singing competition on TV. (I should also mention 95.5 Pinas FM, who put their dedication to local music on their name.)

A significant hurdle local music faces today is the fact that most of it is deemed cheap. I’ve had a few friends complain about stations like Love Radio not having the imagination to play acts like Up Dharma Down; “the masses need to be taught what good music is,” one of them told me. On the flip side, the so-called “class” radio stations aren’t imaginative enough to play “jologs” acts, afraid their station would sound disposable, never mind the fact that, say, the aforementioned sounds have wide appeal in theory.

Another friend, Daniel, suggested that local artists and producers should consider adapting their style and make it more “top 40 friendly”. A sensible idea – and one that’s slowly being done, like, again, those three songs I mentioned – but the perception of local music being cheap gets in the way. Think of it. Female singer “gets inspired” by Lady Gaga, and listeners will be quick to call her a Lady Gaga rip-off. Charice’s recent albums may have had David Foster on the decks, but some still see it as cheap, just because it’s Charice doing it.

This perception of local music – this split between “credible” acts played on English-speaking stations, and “disposable” acts on Filipino-speaking ones – is a major hurdle, encouraging fragmentation and, ultimately, bringing the scene down rather than up. Many upcoming artists end up languishing on niche radio stations. Alt-folkie Bullet Dumas, for instance, has been topping Jam 88.3‘s charts, and his song “Pssst!” also has, in theory, a wide appeal. But would his current fans want to see him “sell out”? However, it is not an impossible hurdle to jump – and radio has a major role to play. “Radio is a taste-making platform,” Singaporean MP Janice Koh, who is pushing for more government support of local acts there, said in a speech last March. “If we don’t help create a taste for Singapore music, then we may never be ‘good enough’.”

In recent months, some attention has been given towards giving local artists more exposure. Groups, such as the Organisasyon ng Pilipinong Mang-Aawit (led by singer Ogie Alcasid), have taken an active role in ensuring that the Filipino music scene is given its fair share of airtime. (Their most public attempt: a fun run.) Even the country’s president has gotten in on the act: during his keynote speech at the Pinoy Music Summit last March, Noynoy Aquino reminded radio stations that they are bound by law to devote a sizable amount of their programming to local music.

In 1987, Noynoy’s mother, President Cory Aquino, signed Executive Order 255, mandating radio stations “with a musical format” to play at least four “original Pilipino musical compositions” per hour. (The EO defines this as any composition, in any language, that is composed by a Filipino.) Violators of the rule would be fined P100 for every infraction – this is in 1987, take note – and the National Telecommunications Commission can revoke a radio station’s license to broadcast in the event of repeated violations.

The way it stands now, half of our radio stations should be closed down, but the non-enforcement of this law has meant a strong focus on foreign music, whether it be Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne or Air Supply – and a negative effect on Filipino artists. But I am also convinced that the law, as it stands right now, is outdated, and does not reflect the many changes in the way we consume music, and radio’s role in it.

The most popular shows on music radio at the moment are talk-based, whether it be Magic’s Boys’ Night Out, or Love Radio’s True Love Conversations. Sure, they both play songs, but a typical hour on both shows involve the DJs talking about stuff. In the case of TLC, it can spend an entire hour talking to a caller – and since Love Radio has a musical format, in theory, this is a violation of EO 255.

The law also gets tricky when you consider the different formats airing on our radio stations. It seems EO 255 was written with the assumption that all music radio stations are pop stations, with the same approach to programming. The law’s one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t quite fit, say, stations like 105.1 Crossover, whose programming is centered towards smooth jazz and classic soul. We may have a burgeoning jazz scene, but it seems there’s just not enough material for a station like Crossover to satisfy the four-songs-an-hour quota the law requires. And the niche stations that do have enough material to play with – say, Jam 88.3, with its alternative format – seem to refuse to play four local songs on most hours, choosing instead to mount all-local shows like the hour-long Fresh Filter on Wednesdays and the Sunday strip programming Republik.

If the government is bent on continuing a quota system for local music, maybe it should look towards Canada. Radio stations there are required to devote between 35% to 40% of its peak airtime (between 06.00 to 18.00) to Canadian music, with flexibility for formats that might have limited number of local recordings, such as jazz and classical stations. Before the so-called MAPL system was adopted in 1971, Canadian music was shunted to off-peak hours; now many Canadian acts have seen wider popularity elsewhere, from Alanis Morissette to Shania Twain to Tegan and Sara.

But imposing quotas can only go so far. Not even the proposal from long ago, of converting the government-run 104.3 Business Radio into an all-OPM radio station, would be enough. (The proposal, from 2005 – the only thing I could see about it is this – came from Viva honcho Vic del Rosario; the idea probably collapsed because his motives were immediately questioned, since he runs a record label.) If we want to bring the Filipino music scene back to its healthy state from ten years ago, more support has to be funneled in.

The private sector can only do so much – the reality is, the music business is a business, and as such, things will gravitate towards the popular and profitable. Major brands can organize singing competitions and band searches and music workshops in some resort in Boracay (with the long-term goal of making ads with a hip factor, perhaps?) but it will only go so far. If the government is serious about promoting local music, perhaps they should dip their feet into encouraging the creative process themselves.

While our government stations are mostly used for propaganda, other entities – say, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts – can get in on the act. I’m thinking of something like New Zealand’s NZ On Air initiative, which, among others, helps local acts fund recording a song, or shooting a music video, and help promote it to the country’s (mostly commercial) radio stations. Acts they have supported include Avalanche City, the Naked and Famous and Kimbra.

Of course, it would help if our government realizes that pop culture has the same footing as high culture. It would be very effective if support was given to any and every genre with artistic merit, whether it be kundiman-influenced indie pop or foreign-flavored hip-hop, in between the usual ballads.

The idea of the government getting involved in the entertainment industry may not go well with most – understandably – but think about it. Filipino musicians need a relatively neutral force to help fulfill their potential. I can be passionate about the music, but I won’t easily get a slot on a radio show. My blog will not get any readers because I don’t have the access, so to speak. But the government can actively promote OPM acts, and when done properly, it will do so much good.

Such an initiative will encourage listeners to sample music they wouldn’t otherwise listen to. It would open their minds to acts, to styles, to genres they probably wouldn’t be interested in. It’d encourage people to go to gigs, to buy albums. Record stores would step up to the plate. Record labels would get a shot in the arm. There would be a bigger pool of “quality” material for radio stations to play – no more acoustic covers of stuff, hopefully – regardless of what demographic it serves. Not that I’m saying the local music scene would be a different kind of homogeneous – of course, different radio formats would have different approaches still – but maybe something like this would ultimately bridge the gap between the “jologs” and the credible.

Admit it, there is no shortage of Filipino music on our airwaves. Folks on my demographic will say it’s nowhere, while others are surrounded by it. The way I see it, there’s just so much stuff out there – listen to the radio today, Independence Day, and chances are they’ve gone all-local – but ordinary people like me don’t have the means to go to every obscure gig to learn about it. (Trust me, if I could write about more local acts, I would, but I just don’t know where to start.) We just have to recognize the fact that this beast has different stripes – always been through time, from the Manila Sound of the 70s to the indie acts today – but it’s ultimately from the same animal. Maybe soon, “sariling atin” will be everybody else’s, around the world, much like Malaysians did with Zee Avi and Yuna. But that’s just me talking as a listener. [NB]

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