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Sound check: Musicians in the midst of isolation

Music is intangible, yet is closely intertwined with human experience. From the radio tunes kids used to wake up to on Sunday mornings, the playlists that accompany commuters on crowded bus rides, to the certain songs that lull people to sleep at night, music has always been a part of life. Throughout time, it has been there in times of comfort and distress; in moments of joy, anger, and grief.

Behind the songs that everyone turns to are the musicians that work earnestly to create them. However, the enforced lockdown brought upon by the pandemic has shut down live shows, tours, and even recording studios. This puts the career of musicians, along with their music, on an indefinite pause and on the brink of uncertainty.

Holds and pauses

Before the pandemic silenced the streets across cities, live music was among the familiar sounds that would enliven people inside and outside of bars and restaurants where shows were being performed. Among the highly regarded musicians in this scene is local band Autotelic, known for putting emotive, cleverly written lyrics into a catchy melody.

Even though Autotelic has a growing presence, Josh Villena, its lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, says that they may not always be booked for gigs. “Part ‘yon ng mental exercise namin. Kapag walang gig, and pwede naming gawin? Pwedeng mayroon kaming ibang activities,” he mentions. When the community quarantine was enforced, he had not grasped the gravity of the situation until the weeks began slowly trickling
into months.

(It’s also part of our mental exercise. When we don’t have gigs, what else can we work on? Perhaps we could do other activities.)

This period rather restricts one’s life to an unsettled sense of routine—each day the same as the last. This proves to be a strain for musicians who constantly seek new experiences for songwriting inspiration. “Part ng buhay natin is ‘yung makipaghalubilo sa ibang tao, to visit places…to go around to gather inspiration,” Josh
points out.

(Part of our lives is to meet and connect with others.)

Aside from not being able to do live performances, which visibly capture the raw, intense spirit of musicians, not having access to equipment and a recording studio also curtails these artists from producing new music. “It has been a pretty unproductive season…it is very difficult to record or mix anything,” says JVee
Villena, lead vocalist of alternative rock band MNTKLYA.

Still, these musicians nurture their passions and put themselves—and their works—out for the world to listen to and connect with in this period of isolation. Local pop band Cheats, for example, continues to upload their high-spirited tunes during lockdown. Lead guitarist Kyle Quismundo says his creative process has not
been drastically stifled since he usually works and writes at home to begin with. However, the long period of isolation has still been disheartening, as he admits, “I definitely got discouraged at first, losing the will to create and thinking, ‘What does it matter now? There are bigger things to worry about.’”

The uncertainty brought upon by the pandemic not only stifles the creative flow of musicians, but more significantly puts their economic stability at risk. “Music is my main source of income; it’s the gigging; it’s the shows…it’s my only work,” Josh stresses. Despite his band still receiving compensation for online gigs and
guesting, the talent fees are measly compared to the amount they would normally earn.

A change in key

In this lockdown, the general public has been put into a form of solitude within their homes, limiting their capacity to move about freely—creating a certain stillness. However, there is an element to this time of seclusion that can elicit new ideas and evoke a shift of perspective for creatives and artists.

“[My newly written songs] are actually quite deeper and more substantial in a way; because of the amount of time [under quarantine], we can think about a lot of things,” JVee reveals. He further expresses that his love for music has allowed him to stay grounded, “Life can get very rough and unpredictable, but every time I go back into writing music or playing my instruments, my heart is always peaceful.”

Kyle, on the other hand, emphasizes how the lingering uneasiness brought by the pandemic has persuaded him to try a more vulnerable approach to music. The reality around the state of the world has influenced his new work, shifting his perspective in writing songs. The compositions not only try to empathize with the listeners, but also represent a raw expression of what Kyle truly feels in these tense circumstances,
as he expresses, “It also feels more honest—sort of like a cry in the wilderness, checking to see if anyone feels the same way I do.”

The overbearing sentiments of fear and uncertainty have similarly perforated into Josh’s own writing process. “In terms of sound, mas galit, mas may grit, mas may anger, may angst ‘yung mga nagawa kong music,” he says.

(In terms of sound, there’s more rage, more grit, more anger, more angst in the music I’ve made.)

The sense of human experience is infused in one’s interactions with others; in Josh’s case, it is through “spending time with the people [he] stays [at] home with, [his] family,” that helps shape the songs that flow out of him.

Bridging people through time and distance, music induces an understanding that goes beyond mere words.

Shift to connect

For now, one thing remains clear: the repercussions of this pandemic have indelibly altered the music industry and its future. There is much more to discover in the field of online gigging, Kyle recognizes, in order to bring about the same impact as live performances. “My band and I have been increasing our presence on social media, especially YouTube, trying to recreate the feeling of playing and going to a show, but of course it’s not the same,” he shares.

Online gigs have become a good avenue for artists to be able to develop their fanbase and connect with their supporters. Josh and Autotelic have also taken to the internet to further shed the spotlight on their music through uploading pre-recorded videos, guesting on various online music events, and establishing a virtual
community with the band’s fans.

Ultimately, however, the shift to the digital screen is still unable to capture the same passion and unbounded experience of performing and witnessing live shows. “Kahit sabihin na musician na binigay nila ‘yung 101 percent nila sa online gig, it’s still online, it’s still digital,” Josh says. “Hindi siya ‘yung live feel. Musicians are meant to play live.”

(Even if musicians give their 101 percent in online gigs, it’s still online. It doesn’t give off a live feel.)

It is only a matter of time before the music industry comes back in full force. And when it does, an entirely new wave of sound influenced by these unprecedented times will be ready to be let loose, fervently resonating with the souls they reach.

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