What Urbandub’s last gig says about the Philippine music industry

Urbandub at one of their last major festival appearances, at Jack TV MAD Fest last December 2014.

The timing may have been unfortunate, considering all the April Fool’s pranks that go around the Internet, but it also makes sense: as everybody pointed out, the first day of April is, semi-officially, also the first day of summer. It’s a poetic choice, the date Urbandub chose to announce that they are parting ways, after one last concert a month from today.

For fifteen years Urbandub has been a stalwart of the Philippine alternative scene. Their six albums have forged a sound rooted in the harder side of guitar music, with a jubilant, anthemic, occasionally rebellious hue evoking memories of discovering yourself during your youth, learning truths along the way, and later on, getting comfortable once all the turbulence has mostly gone. The band did so with a unique sound: leaning hard, as mentioned earlier, but also chilled and bouncy when called for. It is a nod to the band’s origins: Cebu’s alternative scene heads in a direction slightly different from Manila’s, substituting twee sounds for reggae beats, and half-hearted imitations of foreign trends for a more authentic, organic sound.

Urbandub has been designated as the leader of Cebu’s music scene – “the pride of Cebu,” most of the press went. The band has never shied away from this, a thing you notice most in their 2007 release, Under Southern Lights. So I was a bit disappointed to hear that the band’s final gig will be held in Manila, at the Metrotent in Ortigas, to be specific.

(We must note that the band’s also down to perform at the upcoming Dream Fields Music Festival, happening on 30 May in Imus, Cavite. I don’t know if that’ll happen, still, because the band did say the 9 May gig will be “the last time all four members … will share the stage as Urbandub.”)

Not that I begrudge the band for saying their final goodbyes in the city that has adopted them. While Cebu’s sound is unique, it is also somehow universal, and Urbandub peaked at the right time, with the heyday of the country’s alternative scene in the mid-00s. That said, if not for the support from Manila-based outlets such as NU 107, and eventually a record deal with EMI, they would’ve been merely a niche interest, popular among its fans but a merely a glint elsewhere. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to see them live – twice – if so.

And that says a lot about the Philippine music industry. It is painfully Manila-centric.

You could say that about everything else, really. Most businesses are Manila-centric; regional powerhouses rarely break through to the national level, and those that do are either assisted by someone in the capital, or is later bought outright. (Think of Mang Inasal, a fastfood chain launched in Iloilo, and later bought by Jollibee after significantly expanding its presence across the Philippines.) The media is also biased towards the capital: virtually all major television programs are produced in Manila, and major publishers also hold their offices here. This results in exclusively Manila-based perspectives being broadcast across the nation; stories from elsewhere in the country is limited to token slots, if not to programs that only air in regional areas.

As for music, most of the biggest acts today are based in Manila or in nearby areas. The infrastructure is biased that way. If you’re an up and coming musician in Manila, it’s easier for you to get noticed. There are more performance spaces here. There are more outlets, whether printed or online, who can promote your stuff here. (The more active online outfits, for instance, tend to stay in the capital to watch gigs.) There’s a much better chance that a label executive will be watching you here than elsewhere.

There are caveats, of course. There are, of course, regional acts that have stepped up on the national stage in the past few years – but the likes of Session Road (from Baguio) and Sheila and the Insects (from Cebu) wouldn’t have seen the success that they have if not for some Manila-based outfit taking notice. You can also argue that talent searches on television feature a smattering of acts from across the country – for example, KZ Tandingan, a Davao native who won The X Factor Philippines – but these acts sadly end up slotting into a homogenized pop template that focuses more on the feels and says nothing about origins.

You can also say that my Manila-centric worries is for naught. One can easily bypass the record labels now. Anyone can release their music online. Anyone can promote their music online. The Internet has become a great equalizer. But, again, they can’t take that next step without someone else recommending the song to a wider audience, and, again, these recommendations tend to come from someone in Manila. And these recommendations would be informed by biases and preferences shaped by what he sees and hears, meaning an act with a more “Manila-friendly” sound has a better chance than others. It’s a self-perpetrating cycle.

I understand that this is partly, if not mostly, down to economic realities. As with everywhere else, the music industry is having a hard time making money, which leads to a focus on acts that can be easily peddled and sold. Risk costs money, so there’s less room for that. Travelling to other parts of the Philippines to see their acts costs money. Not seeing an act that could make it big in the national stage costs money. So we end up with a music scene dominated by heritage acts specializing in accessible pop-rock, or balladeers constantly singing about heartbreak, or (shudder) artists specializing in acoustic covers of foreign pop songs. The smaller acts promote by themselves, and end up appealing to smaller and smaller circles that are comfortable with where they are, and are averse to breaking out, lest they be seen as sell outs. (Just think of the homogeneity of the one remaining radio station in a position to highlight all these new acts.)

In the end, those who aren’t predisposed to looking for these new acts, but love music anyway, end up hearing the same old stuff, and then they lose interest. The bigwigs, still bent on monetizing things, end up focusing harder on the easy-to-sell. It’s another self-perpetrating cycle.

And this brings us back to Urbandub’s farewell gig. Sure. I admit hoping that they do it in Cebu is idealistic. They are now a Manila band as much as they are Cebu’s pride, and logistically it makes sense that they say farewell here. There’s a bigger audience to be had. Yet, you have to admit, it’s sad that the journey of one of the best Filipino bands in recent years will not end where it began, because the system said so. [NB]

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