The Philippines’ secret success: Exporting the tunes

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Filipino singerThey can be seen performing in shady Dubai nightclubs, in top-notch hotel lobbies in Hong Kong and Tokyo, in Bangkok’s noisy beer bars, in smoky lounges in Malaysia, in countless night spots in China and South Korea and at many other places where people like listening to popular tunes, such as cruise lines and, of course, casinos in Las Vegas, Macao and Singapore.

By Arno Maierbrugger

They are part of the Overseas Filipino Workforce (OFW): Music performers who are swarming out to the world to find better paid jobs, or to find a job at all, or even launch a career as entertainers by performing popular music spreading from mainstream pop and rock to jazz to background piano music, from Gangnam Style to AC/DC to Elvis Presley, all over the genres everywhere they can land an engagement.

Filipino musicians, mostly highly talented people who try to sing and play their way out of poverty, are overrepresented in the global bar and music club entertainment scene. Some 50,000 genuine Filipino show musicians are currently on the road, according to the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration, and that figure can at least be tripled with persons, mainly females, who have swindled their way into a promised land with an OFW entertainment visa but end up with more honky-tonk stuff.

The most popular Filipino bands in Dubai, for example, can be found in places with names such as Rattlesnake, Rock Bottom or Sea View (no sea view at all, but a dark windowless dance club), mainly venues one would not think they exist in a Muslim country. 32-year old Eden, the singer of the Rock Bottom band which doesn’t even have a name, is a real hard worker. Whenever you get to Rock Bottom, she stands on the stage and works through her repertoire, a hodge-podge of catchy rock and pop tunes ranging from Highway to Hell to Madonna. The guitarist looks like a Filipino version of Keith Richards, he just plays better.

Eden and her band perform every night from 10pm to 2am, with just two short breaks. The only holiday they get is during Ramadan, when the bars and nightclubs in the UAE don’t allow music.

“It’s donkey work,” Eden says in her husky voice. “But we are well off here in Dubai compared to others who play in China or Malaysia.”

She is given $1,200 a month from the bar owner, an Emirati, and the other group members get $800 each.

“Back in the Philippines, we used to play in small-town bars for traveling salesmen and bus passengers passing through for $5 a night – for the whole group. So guess why we moved elsewhere.”

The overseas music business is very well organised in the Philippines. Normally, singers or bands visit a recording studio to produce a couple of demo tapes. These are given to agents who contact potential employers globally, and there seems to be a never-ending demand. Sometimes, talents are discovered at Karaoke bars or at local singing contests in the Philippines and ideally hired right away by agents – who must be members of licensed recruitment agencies, according to the authorities to avoid scams which used to happen frequently in the early days of the business.

Generally, Filipinos are very talented musicians and dancers, which stems from the deep significance music and dance have in local culture. Adding to this, they have a far higher proficiency in English than many other countries in Southeast Asia which makes it easy for them to adopt to international pop and rock music and even vary the themes. Many of them present themselves on YouTube, hoping for talent seekers.

They by far outperform local bands in Thailand, for example. The owner of a highly popular nightspot in Bangkok, Corner Bar in Soi Cowboy just off the city’s main business artery Sukhumvit Road, said he wouldn’t even think about hiring Thai bands.

Phil singer“Filipinos are the much better performers, they have a better understanding of Western music that our audience enjoys, and they have the talent, the feeling and the rhythm. And the stamina, of course,” says Ben, who runs the popular joint that is packed with revellers every single night.

In Macao’s Galaxy Hotel, one of the brightest five-star casino complexes in the Chinese gambling hub, a Filipino singer told Inside Investor she earns up to $2,000 a month, as opposed to her tenure on a cruise ship where she pocketed $1,200 at free board and lodging.

Bangkok’s Filipino musicians are not that well off. $400 is the average salary for bar performers with a fixed engagement. Others, who play the occasional small club can expect 500-1,000 baht ($16-$33) per person for the evening and some tips, maybe.

Most of the singers will perform until they have saved a substantial amount of money, in their terms. Eden, the Dubai singer, has been entertaining the crowds for three years and invested her savings in two properties in Cebu City where she comes from and where she wants to return when her time as a traveling musician is over.

“The Philippines economy is improving now, though there are still not enough jobs.” she says.

“But many of us dream to go home after so many years abroad. However, I’ve seen some very talented Filipino rock guitarists I used to play with taking up jobs as lounge piano player in five-star hotels in Manila because they needed money.”

Others dream bigger. Arnel Pineda, the Philippines’ most famous musical export, used to sing in nightclubs in Hong Kong where he caught the attention of a Warner Bros agent who offered him to record a CD. Today, he is the lead singer of US rock band Journey, has a contract with Universal Music and is touring the world as a rock star.

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

They can be seen performing in shady Dubai nightclubs, in top-notch hotel lobbies in Hong Kong and Tokyo, in Bangkok’s noisy beer bars, in smoky lounges in Malaysia, in countless night spots in China and South Korea and at many other places where people like listening to popular tunes, such as cruise lines and, of course, casinos in Las Vegas, Macao and Singapore.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Filipino singerThey can be seen performing in shady Dubai nightclubs, in top-notch hotel lobbies in Hong Kong and Tokyo, in Bangkok’s noisy beer bars, in smoky lounges in Malaysia, in countless night spots in China and South Korea and at many other places where people like listening to popular tunes, such as cruise lines and, of course, casinos in Las Vegas, Macao and Singapore.

By Arno Maierbrugger

They are part of the Overseas Filipino Workforce (OFW): Music performers who are swarming out to the world to find better paid jobs, or to find a job at all, or even launch a career as entertainers by performing popular music spreading from mainstream pop and rock to jazz to background piano music, from Gangnam Style to AC/DC to Elvis Presley, all over the genres everywhere they can land an engagement.

Filipino musicians, mostly highly talented people who try to sing and play their way out of poverty, are overrepresented in the global bar and music club entertainment scene. Some 50,000 genuine Filipino show musicians are currently on the road, according to the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration, and that figure can at least be tripled with persons, mainly females, who have swindled their way into a promised land with an OFW entertainment visa but end up with more honky-tonk stuff.

The most popular Filipino bands in Dubai, for example, can be found in places with names such as Rattlesnake, Rock Bottom or Sea View (no sea view at all, but a dark windowless dance club), mainly venues one would not think they exist in a Muslim country. 32-year old Eden, the singer of the Rock Bottom band which doesn’t even have a name, is a real hard worker. Whenever you get to Rock Bottom, she stands on the stage and works through her repertoire, a hodge-podge of catchy rock and pop tunes ranging from Highway to Hell to Madonna. The guitarist looks like a Filipino version of Keith Richards, he just plays better.

Eden and her band perform every night from 10pm to 2am, with just two short breaks. The only holiday they get is during Ramadan, when the bars and nightclubs in the UAE don’t allow music.

“It’s donkey work,” Eden says in her husky voice. “But we are well off here in Dubai compared to others who play in China or Malaysia.”

She is given $1,200 a month from the bar owner, an Emirati, and the other group members get $800 each.

“Back in the Philippines, we used to play in small-town bars for traveling salesmen and bus passengers passing through for $5 a night – for the whole group. So guess why we moved elsewhere.”

The overseas music business is very well organised in the Philippines. Normally, singers or bands visit a recording studio to produce a couple of demo tapes. These are given to agents who contact potential employers globally, and there seems to be a never-ending demand. Sometimes, talents are discovered at Karaoke bars or at local singing contests in the Philippines and ideally hired right away by agents – who must be members of licensed recruitment agencies, according to the authorities to avoid scams which used to happen frequently in the early days of the business.

Generally, Filipinos are very talented musicians and dancers, which stems from the deep significance music and dance have in local culture. Adding to this, they have a far higher proficiency in English than many other countries in Southeast Asia which makes it easy for them to adopt to international pop and rock music and even vary the themes. Many of them present themselves on YouTube, hoping for talent seekers.

They by far outperform local bands in Thailand, for example. The owner of a highly popular nightspot in Bangkok, Corner Bar in Soi Cowboy just off the city’s main business artery Sukhumvit Road, said he wouldn’t even think about hiring Thai bands.

Phil singer“Filipinos are the much better performers, they have a better understanding of Western music that our audience enjoys, and they have the talent, the feeling and the rhythm. And the stamina, of course,” says Ben, who runs the popular joint that is packed with revellers every single night.

In Macao’s Galaxy Hotel, one of the brightest five-star casino complexes in the Chinese gambling hub, a Filipino singer told Inside Investor she earns up to $2,000 a month, as opposed to her tenure on a cruise ship where she pocketed $1,200 at free board and lodging.

Bangkok’s Filipino musicians are not that well off. $400 is the average salary for bar performers with a fixed engagement. Others, who play the occasional small club can expect 500-1,000 baht ($16-$33) per person for the evening and some tips, maybe.

Most of the singers will perform until they have saved a substantial amount of money, in their terms. Eden, the Dubai singer, has been entertaining the crowds for three years and invested her savings in two properties in Cebu City where she comes from and where she wants to return when her time as a traveling musician is over.

“The Philippines economy is improving now, though there are still not enough jobs.” she says.

“But many of us dream to go home after so many years abroad. However, I’ve seen some very talented Filipino rock guitarists I used to play with taking up jobs as lounge piano player in five-star hotels in Manila because they needed money.”

Others dream bigger. Arnel Pineda, the Philippines’ most famous musical export, used to sing in nightclubs in Hong Kong where he caught the attention of a Warner Bros agent who offered him to record a CD. Today, he is the lead singer of US rock band Journey, has a contract with Universal Music and is touring the world as a rock star.

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