|image credit: Britpop.com.au|
If Ian Urrutia of the blog site Vandals on the Wall is to be believed, 2012 marked the year in which aspiring tech savvy Filipino musicians discovered and uploaded their music on to Bandcamp. He provides compelling evidence for this by selecting from among them the top ten EPs and top sixty tracks for the year.
Considering the impressive collection assembled, a curious onlooker might conclude that the local independent music scene is vibrant and bursting at the seams. It is not just the volume but the breadth that strikes one when confronted with this cacophony of musical talent. And Ian does a fine job of establishing his hold on the jargon needed to review such work.
There is literally something for everyone’s musical palette and tastes. As the website boasts, whether it’s mainstream or independent, we surely got your music covered. Choice now seems to be endless, when it was not too long ago, that you could count with your fingers the number of acts that were genuinely into this type of music. The scene has indeed come a long way. The problem though is with this much on offer; a listener could get lazy, which perhaps creates a role for curators like Ian. The quality of their work could either help or hinder the cause.
If, as Simon Reynolds in the British daily newspaper The Guardian said, the start of the noughties was a time when indie was regarded as “the rubbish dump of contemporary music”, then could the start of this decade (the teenies?) be one in which the Philippines starts to produce its own version of “indie landfill” with the proliferation of heaps of local acts? As Reynolds noted
Once upon a time, long long ago, the shitness of indie actually had a point. Back in the 1980s – the days of Bogshed and Beat Happening, the Membranes and June Brides – indie was about defiant amateurishness and naivety. Its defects – shaky rhythm sections, weak voices, clumsy playing – were a refusal of the perfectionism and professionalism of 80s rock and pop. The awkwardness and abrasiveness reaffirmed the "anyone can do it" principle that many at that time saw as the crucial element of punk ideology. Indie's flailing substandardness (as measured in conventional terms) could thus be felt by its fans as liberating and confrontational.
By the late 1990s and on into the noughties, though, indie wasn't crappy for a purpose. In fact, it wasn't especially inept or ramshackle anymore, so much as drearily adequate. Instrumentally, there was just a sustained absence of flair in the playing. This guitar-based music didn't rock, but equally the songcraft wasn't sufficiently strong, or forcefully sung enough, for it to make the grade as proper pop music. What was it for then? A vague aura of superiority to the commercial mainstream clung around it still, but really only as a hangover from the past: a set of received assumptions adopted by each new generation of the indie demographic, which kept on reconstituting itself in the same way that every year a fresh crop of first years arrive at uni. That inherited sense of undefined alternativeness crumbled on close scrutiny, since the music was not innovative by any stretch, and only rarely was it artistically adventurous in terms of its lyrical content, or expressive of bohemian values. A lot of indie wasn't even released via independent labels. [emphasis mine]
He concluded by saying that by the end of the decade, the indie landfill had cleared somewhat in that
Looking back over the noughties, then, you'd have to say that indie produced a good proportion of the decade's least impressive music. Yet indie also produced some of the most. Even on its traditional terrain – the songful guitar band with "interesting" lyrics, "attitude" and a decent shot at an NME front cover – there was a series of indie heavyweights, starting with the Strokes and the Libertines, who jolted the scene out of the dismal post-Britpop slough of the late 90s. And once you strayed beyond that narrow strip of indie-as-commonly-understood, there was a steadily accumulating ferment of activity that shredded the indie stereotype to the point where, by the decade's end, the word was virtually meaningless. [emphasis mine]
Could local indie bands be taking the Filipino penchant for imitation to a whole new level? If in the 1980s, Filipino bands proved their musical worth by sounding what in the vernacular was termed placado or like an exact replica of the song they were covering, then at present, are musicians trying to earn their chops by hopping on to the indie bandwagon, and composing music that resembles what they have come across on Pitchfork, Stereogum or the like?
Contacted for comment, Toti Dalmacion of Terno Recordings who could be credited with starting the whole local indie scene from the early-90s with his radio show, Groove Nation Sessions through to the noughties with the development of such acts as Up Dharma Down, Encounters with a Yeti, Sleepwalk Circus and The Charmes under his label, says that the current state of play is good and usually bad at the same time. The man, who has seen everything before and worries that the scene he has helped nurture could become discredited, says the terrain could very easily be characterised as
a landfill when people accept everything "indie” as good and amazing… You have to remember "indie" here can mean Cynthia Alexander to Up Dharma Down and most of the time it's the "process" and not the "sound". While post-punk, post-rock and other age old terms are bandied about by these young-uns who want to show that they're eclectic, I question the liking to just about anything as long as there's some edge to it... It is inevitable though because of too many bands sprouting left and right due to technology and the web so you just need to sift through the landfill. [emphasis mine]
It’s a word of caution worth heeding. The scene could very easily resemble a pseudo-modernist rendition of post-modern pastiche. Luminaries like Toti can’t blame these indie acts though. Not really. As comedian Fred Armisen, whose impression of Ryan Schreiber the founder of Pitchfork in the show Portlandia was the topic of conversation, said to a reporter from that outfit, at least they were trying. But could there be such a thing as trying too hard?
Back in the mid-90s when the novelty act, Aga Muhlach Experience that Toti started with his mates Diego Castillo and Myrene Academia who were later to form Sandwich took to the stage, the message to the Manila crowd, which was still clinging on to the perfectionism of sounding placado as the gold standard of musicianship, was that the time had come to ditch this in favour of the adventurous and purposefully unpolished ethos of being indie.
Nearly twenty years on, and that ethos is now inscribed in the hearts of local players. So much so that Toti feels it is time for the scene to evolve, before it loses its way just as it did in England during the last decade. Its current trajectory could follow that of indie dance music in that as Alexis Patredis (also of The Guardian) noted the globalising trends created by technology may have, by 2012, made all music sound the same. He observed that
Huge chunks of it cleave to roughly the same musical template, set about three years ago, when French DJ and producer David Guetta unexpectedly broke into the US market... There will be a four-four house beat. There will be a euphoric, hands-in-the-air breakdown similar to those found on early 1990s rave tracks. There will be auto-tuned vocals. There will be a moment where the vocal goes "woah-oh-hoah" (or similar) in the stadium-rousing style of Coldplay.
It's a blueprint that has crossed musical boundaries. As a result, representatives of genres that used to be identifiably different from each other – pop, hip-hop, R&B – currently make singles that sound largely indistinguishable. You could argue that its popularity is merely evidence of dance music's current vast global appeal – in recent years, even traditionally resistant American audiences have taken to it – but the overall effect has been to homogenise pop as never before. After three years, it's now a very tired idea indeed, but that doesn't seem to have occurred to its main practitioners. [emphasis mine]
Could the Philippine indie music scene be headed in that direction? Hopefully not. But if we were to hew closely to the true DIY nature of it, musical tastes and trends should actually be diverging not converging. In one other Philippine indie label I canvassed, the artists pulled all the stops with all the bells and whistles; the only problem was, they all sounded the same! It wasn’t even a case of a label having a distinct quality or sound. Most of what I heard was derivative of things that I had heard elsewhere, namely Britpop, right down to the faux English accent of the singers, although the label claimed to have a distinctive Filipino sound. Go figure!
DIY used to mean using creativity and innovative ways to work around the limitations of one’s limited technical abilities to overturn the established and tired old forms and functions of music.
In today’s musical context, however, all the low hanging fruit may have already been exhausted in that regard. It is much harder to arrive at something genuinely authentic, what writers call, their true voice, even with the plethora of tools available, or perhaps because of them, which makes the task of finding that hidden gem, all the more difficult.