Feature

When the Crowds Fade

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Even amid a global pandemic, artists find ways to keep the music playing.

Photography by
Story by
Roxanne Nebres
Cover photo by

Roxanne Nebres

Photos courtesy of

Myrene Academia

(individual credits in captions)

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I had been with my bands, Sandwich and Imago, for just over 20 years when the pandemic hit. To be perfectly honest, before all of this, I never seriously thought about what I did for a living or how my days flowed; I’ve just always appreciated the fact that I’m fortunate to be with friends who I love, and able to make and play music for people who appreciate the songs. Things were never really mundane or routine, because there was always something fresh to do—make more music, watch new bands, play new places.

Pre-pandemic, a typical year looked a little like this: January was a slow start, with everyone recovering from the holidays. By February, you could count on playing the UP Fair; maybe the Penagbenga in Baguio or Sinulog Festival in Cebu. Then the summer would kick in, and more festivals around the country would roll in: the Ati-Atihan, Dinagyang, Bangus, Higantes, Maskara, and Kadayawan to name a few. The local government might hold their own show in the town plaza, or one of the many telcos or alcohol brands would get in on the celebrations with a street party.

Sandwich performs at UP Fair 2019. Photo by Roxanne Nebres.


Back in Manila, we’d start playing more school fairs or foundation days. And as the year wrapped up, gig scheds would be filled with Christmas shows and private corporate parties. On off nights, we would book our own shows at smaller clubs, usually playing with friends and new bands we wanted to meet. We’d also play for other groups’ productions—this was the place to try out new material, or pull out the more obscure album cuts we rarely get to do at bigger shows.

There are many little productions in this community, and the more, the healthier: No matter how fringe your tastes run, there’s always something to speak to you and welcome you. And aside from the artists and the audience, there are the small clubs that host you just for splitting the gate; becoming a home where everyone can get together regularly. This is the scene we’ve found ourselves a part of, and the community we try to keep alive.

Things were never really mundane or routine, because there was always something fresh to do—make more music, watch new bands, play new places.  

All of this is pretty organic, and takes time to grow. I remember one night with Twisted Halo in Sa Guijo, back when it had just opened—we took turns being the audience because no one else was there. But like Club Dredd or Route 196, these bars just kept at it until it found its crowd.

Every gig has its own charm: schools are always wild, because kids out of class with their friends is always a winning combination. Festivals were like bigger versions, but with booze.  Clubs are tight and intimate, with the energy in your face.

Out of town shows are a special package—there's nothing like spending hours on the road in a van with your buddies, talking about anything from music, basketball, food, and knock-knock jokes. When the conversation dies down, you put on your headphones and watch the sun set across the fields from the highway, anticipating the show to play in front of a few thousand townsfolk at the end of the trip.

After the set, we'd look for local haunts, and ask our hosts or drivers to take us to a good after-hours spot like noodles in Puerto Princesa or inasal in Bacolod. If we were driving back right away, we'd stop at a local lugaw or bulalo truck stop on the way home. I’m a big fan of road trips; this is my favorite thing.

Imago performs on the radio for RX 93.1’s Concert Series and the Wish 107.5 bus, 2019.


If there was a new album coming out, we could count on doing promotions in the next year, as well: radio interviews and performances, bar tours, and tv guestings. Back in the ‘90s until the early 2000s, we would play malls around the country, signing CDs at the end of each set. It was initially how we got to travel as newer artists.

In 2020, Sandwich had been set to release music from an EP we had made in December 2019. We had always dreamed of recording at the beach, and we had finally gunned the project: we found a house in Batangas, brought in our engineer Shinji and his Kodama equipment, and made an adhoc studio where we lay in instruments and vocals for three days. We were all set to work on releasing that early in the year. Imago was also in the middle of radio guestings and video shoots for a new single.

Then things started to get iffy.

Taal erupted in January, and that canceled a few gigs that required air travel. But then things cleared up, and we even got to fly out to Cebu for Sinulog in February. Sandwich’s last out of town show was an acoustic campsite set in Batangas; our last club gig was in Sa Guijo in early March. After that, the world just stopped.

Covid is insidious, because it strikes at the very things that make us human.

Looking back, nobody had any idea how long things would actually last—things were difficult, but we weren’t worrying about the future just yet since it hadn’t sunk in just how long the haul would be. We were all just trying to figure out how to play online at the start, and that kept us occupied for a couple of months.

Those of us who weren't on the techy side quickly learned how to mic and wire ourselves into our computers, shoot videos of ourselves, find better cameras and lights, and sort out the spots around our apartments that looked good or were less noisy. It worked for a while, and we still do it when we can’t get together but need to send a video out for one thing or another.

Months later, with less restrictions and plenty more Covid tests, we could finally get together in a studio for full sets that were taped or streamed live online. It felt good to be back onstage every few months, even if it was just with the band and the crew.

Imago finds itself back in the studio in 2021 for a new music promo shoot.


It was at this point that we realized from the way things were going, that we weren’t going to be able to play in front of people—at least the way we used to—for a while. So some bands formed their own bubbles, and continued making music and shooting shows that way. Some put together their own home studios, or escaped to the sea, or escaped to make studios by the sea. Other musicians filled their time or made some extra income with podcasts, vlogs, merch, biking, cooking, coffee, sourdough, K-pop, yoga, and exercise.  Everything was pretty much online: anniversaries, fundraisers, launches—whatever it was, it happened on Zoom and Facebook Live.

We all took it from month to month, depending on how long quarantines and lockdowns were going to be enforced. We watched other countries deal with it; counted the infected, and the dead. The goalposts included a vaccine, which we imagined would be a miracle like the one for polio—not quite the silver bullet, unfortunately, and getting it was slow-going, as everyone knows. But we still got the occasional online gig, and with proper testing could safely get together to perform for cameras and our crew.

It wasn’t until the last quarter of 2021 when things actually started looking up: most of us had finally gotten vaccinated, and the low infection numbers allowed restrictions on live shows to lift, even if full venue occupancy wasn’t allowed. Imago was lucky enough to enter the studio again, where we recorded two new singles. By the end of November, both my bands were onstage for open air sets at 19 East: great for an acoustic outdoor gig, because they had the space, the equipment, and the know-how to make the artists sound great. This was the first time we’d performed in front of a crowd in ten months.

Back in 2020, I imagined there would be a clear finish line we would all be crossing, but now I just take it day by day.

Though it was far from the festive Endor scene I imagined, I think we were all grateful to be together on stage again, looking out at the faces of folks that came to see us. We were all eager and relieved to be there, and it was definitely way better than any online show we could play. We were finally outside our homes! Together! Onstage! With people in front of us!

Though it was a careful celebration—joyful for sure, but still tentative and a little wary—I can’t say how glad I am that we got to squeeze that in. It was like a refill for the soul.

We played a total of three small bar shows with limited audiences before things took another turn: by 2022, a new Covid variant had raised restrictions, and live shows were banned once again. The big show we had in the works—a fundraiser for Typhoon Odette victims—couldn’t push through. We were all disappointed, but we knew at this point that everyone was just trying to keep safe.

Sandwich performs in front of a jam-packed crowd for its 20th anniversary gig in April 2018. Photo by Iya Forbes, for Bandwagon PH.


Covid is insidious, because it strikes at the very things that make us human: singing, shouting, laughing out loud, and enjoying a meal together are now suddenly considered dangerous activities. I miss playing. I miss it terribly, and everyday I think of my bandmates and our crew. Some days I’m more hopeful, and I can spend it exploring more music or doodling on Garageband. On bad days, I can’t listen to anything at all. It’s too painful.

Back in 2020, I imagined there would be a clear finish line we would all be crossing, but now I just take it day by day. I have no idea when we’ll be able to play live properly again; maybe after this surge, maybe in between variants. Restrictions have eased in other countries and local artists have been flying out to play elsewhere, so I’m pretty sure we’ll get to that point in time.

But for now we’re back in our little bubbles, making music with a few cloistered friends, and passing files around online. We just have to keep taking care of ourselves and each other until things get better.

I, for one, am not getting used to this. So I just have to wait and hope. In the meantime, I just dream of the time I can sit in a dark van with my noisy buddies, traveling on a country road, excited for the gig at the end.


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