Songs from a Room

A couple of months ago, I pitched an idea to an editor: I wanted to write about the economics of the music scene. “No frills, no nuance, just numbers,” was the way I regrettably described it and the way I steered myself right into a wall.

After the introduction and the questions surrounding work, we (I mean me, or I) eventually came to the issue of space – or what constitutes the space in which music is consumed. This was after already considering how tricky production is, which was why I tackled work first: at which point is a song actually produced? What actually constitutes the labor of the immaterial, or rather, how is effort even quantified?

If I were to go with my pitch of a “no frills” analysis, this should be easy: production is a matter of recording and releasing. For the majority of locally produced music however, this is not necessarily the case, specifically because of the complications of the live circuit. Specifically, if you play a song live, does that count as a release?

What if you’ve been playing that song live for close to a decade? What if, given the prohibitive costs and lack of an infrastructure for recording, the only way that your song is even produced and consumed is as a live performance?

The website lists 46 bars in its section devoted to venues where one can hear OPM played live. 46 venues all over the Philippines – that number however does not consider the question, “What doesn’t count as a music venue?”–especially as we enter the age of the “DJ set”. It does not include basketball courts, multi-purpose halls, hotel ballrooms, churches, “churches”, sidewalks, municipal courtyards, or the backyards of rich people. That number is limited to places where music can be consumed in varying states of intoxication, because we really have to be drunk to enjoy this stuff.

This probably isn’t going in the final essay, but the other question is: When it comes to discussions of space, is it even possible to separate the economic from the political? After all, the demand for a cover charge covers more than a free drink and a few hours of entertainment.

What complicates this is the weird mix of exclusivity and proximity: no one gets carded in the Philippines, but these are still bars. There’s also the issue of size, meaning not everyone can get in, yet once you’re in, audiences and performers sit literally face-to-crotch. From where you’re sitting, you can soak up a band’s sweat, see what they’re drinking, and if you’re a real creeper, follow them back to their cars.

The live circuit in which the seeds of OPM have been produced and consumed have created a unique culture that grants fans every opportunity to take their idols off their pedestals, which makes it even funnier that this same culture still produces rock stars. When it comes to star power however, the lack of mid-sized venues (i.e. not a bar) gives mid-career musicians very few places to go.

Seriously, as a musician, where do you play when there’s practically nothing between the cafe and the stadium? And what if you never even want to fill a stadium? What happens to musicians who don’t want to be rock stars?

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