This is what we see: Armi Millare of Up Dharma Down, or UDD, sings in front a keyboard with her eyes closed. Myrene Academia, bassist of Sandwich, Imago, and a host of other bands, bounces in time with the music. Aly Cabral of Ourselves the Elves and The Buildings performs a solo set with images projected onto her face. Singer-songwriter-producer BP Valenzuela navigates through layers of sound with a guitar around her shoulders. They perform songs about love lost, love gained, the Filipino experience, the female experience, and life through their own respective keyholes. What we don’t know is that, in an industry rife with unfair expectation, financial struggle, and the constant pressure to come up with something new, every lyric from their mouths and every note from their fingers is a testament to their being survivors.
The survival instinct that’s shared among women in the music industry seems to have its roots in an awareness of the survivors that have come before them. When Armi, Myrene, Aly, and BP were asked which women they considered influential, many similar names and ideas came up: Kathleen Hanna and the rebellious spirit of the riot grrrl movement; Mica Levi, Grimes, Imogen Heap, and other female music producers who push the boundaries of genres; Odette Quesada, Janis Joplin, Courtney Love, and other iconic songwriters who captured emotions at once universal and distinctly feminine. Call it a shared heritage, or call it a map for every aspiring female musician — these are the women whose achievements you’d be foolish not to aspire to.
At the same time, this is not to say that all female musicians draw from the same well of inspiration. If anything, the legendary women they follow are also the very same people whose molds they are trying to break away from. As a matter of fact, Armi says that, given her vocal range, she draws the most inspiration from male vocalists. BP, on the other hand, doesn’t look to women for their singing as much as she does for their producing and songwriting. And Myrene and Aly channel the empowered women they look up to not through imitation, but through actively looking for new ways to express themselves, as evidenced by the sheer number of people they collaborate with on a regular basis. There is immense diversity among the female musicians in our local industry alone, and they know how important it is to stay away from the ever-present threat of being stereotyped.
And yet those stereotypes prevail. When a woman is up on stage, or when she’s the lone female member in a band full of dudes, how she looks suddenly becomes priority number one. Even worse, there is suddenly an expectation that they play or sound a certain way. Their voices, in particular, should be pristine — clean and high-pitched, or sultry enough to the satisfaction of the average male audience member. “It’s so disgusting, it’s so gross,” BP says.But I realized that you can’t control this stuff, how people see you, how people look at you. And the more I realized that, the less weird I felt about that being part of the job.
So rather than succumb to these expectations for the sake of booking more gigs or selling more records, they dust off their shoulders and keep moving. To them, music always comes first — an obvious statement that’s met with a surprising amount of resistance. Both Armi and Myrene, veterans of the local scene, remember what it was like to struggle to get their music out into an already crowded industry. Before UDD was on every brokenhearted lover’s playlist, and before Sandwich was at the forefront of the alternative OPM scene, Armi and Myrene had to do everything they could to make sure people went to their shows — mailing lists, tireless gigs, heavy dependence on Internet-free word of mouth. They had to wait for people to “get” them.
It’s a struggle that persists today for younger musicians like Aly and BP, who have never considered making anything less than authentic music. Aly’s constant experimentation with her multiple musical outlets, and BP’s low-key but highly technical live sets aren’t things that might immediately appeal to a mass audience. But this is the music they choose to make.
Bundled together with this expectation is the idea that female musicians have to look a certain way, which certainly isn’t going to stop being a problem any time soon. Whether or not their fans and critics are vocal about it, these women know that the music industry is, paradoxically, counting on them to look good in order for them to sell their music. Their response to this is simple: they dress how they’d like to dress — which is, again, obvious yet still somehow baffling to an industry that, at its worst, constantly attempts to sexualize them. Female musicians know that looking good matters, but only for the purpose of being comfortable in their own skin. “At first I was kind of against dolling myself up and hyping myself up,” Aly shares, “but I realized that it’s just another way to express myself. I always want to transcend myself and try different visualizations that work on me.”
At the end of the day, it seems almost bizarre to talk about women in the music industry as their own separate group. They’re ultimately not very different from men; they all want the same thing, after all. The genders are arguably even more similar today: there are perhaps just as many male sopranos as there are male tenors and baritones, and just as many female musicians who write about the same issues, experiences, and emotions that men write about.
But make no mistake: we need to talk about women in the music industry. Having women represented today is so special, not because they possess talents completely unique from those of men, but because the ideas and experiences they bring to songwriting and performance make the entire spectrum of music-making richer and all the more nuanced. While the idealistic (or the ignorant) might brush off this notion and insist that the industry treats both genders equally, it’s undeniable that the journey a woman takes throughout her career can be markedly different from that of a man's.
As young musicians, Aly and BP perceive the industry as a place that benefits from a lot of internal support, but is also still plagued by preconceived notions. “There are a lot of things you have to do to be taken seriously,” BP attests. “When you’re a girl, some people assume that you’re just the friend of this other male musician, or you’re the girlfriend, or whatever.” Those on the outside looking in might feel intimidated by how closely-knit everyone is in the industry, but Aly reassures that it isn’t an exclusive club. “The scene is composed of a lot of other ‘scenes.’ They’re just groups of friends trying to make music and releasing them on SoundCloud. Everyone can start their own thing.” Seeing the industry from this perspective — as a collective of creatives sharing bedroom recordings and jamming wherever they can — means that it’s easier to find a comfortable niche within the larger landscape.
Despite having decades more experience than their younger counterparts, Armi and Myrene echo the same general sentiments. They're comfortable where they are, but they acknowledge that adjusting to the shifting landscape is the main struggle that all musicians have to face. “People now are more open-minded in terms of perceiving the music,” Armi says. “I remember starting with UDD, and we were having trouble because we wanted to do something that was not exactly just rock, and everybody had the impression that, if you wanted to be in a band, you had to be a rock band.” They acknowledge that it’s easier now, given the availability of recording equipment and software, and the infinite ways one can share and stream music. But it’s not that Armi and Myrene were born into a more difficult time for musicians; it’s that they've stayed in the game long enough to reap the benefits.
One of those benefits is the opportunity to play an active part in furthering the growing awareness of feminism, and the global support for women’s rights. Female musicians are in no way obliged to create overtly political music; it doesn’t have to reach that point. Instead, Armi, Myrene, Aly, and BP already see their having voices as empowering, especially in a male-dominated environment where other women might feel pressured not to be true to themselves. BP adds that she feels emboldened to use her music as a platform to help the young girls who listen to her music. “You can’t really ignore feminism in your daily life as a woman. People say, ‘You’re so vocal about politics. Just make music.’ But I’m not going to do that because my musicianship is derived from my personhood more than anything.”
Armi, Myrene, and Aly haven’t had direct encounters with sexist behavior within the industry, but they all agree that the very existence of these movements seeking female empowerment is a step in the right direction for everybody. “It’s admirable that women are still taking a position to fight for their rights and make things more possible for each and every one of us,” Myrene says. “To say that we don’t have to settle for this, we can do more, we can go here, we can go there na dating hindi pwede.” And with more and more female musicians all over the world releasing challenging and innovative music, the endlessly shifting landscape of the industry might actually be shifting to higher ground for once.
And yet, even with these global changes looming on the horizon, Armi, Myrene, Aly, and BP doubt that they’re going to be changing their worldviews any time soon. Adapting to the landscape — and remaining sincere with their work — is still the name of the game. When asked what the future holds in store for UDD, Armi admits that they’re just following whichever direction age decides to take them. “We’re not that old, but we’re also not young. So this is sort of the most important part of our work: to mirror exactly where we are. And that I think is the job of every creative personality.”
It is, once again, a sentiment that seems to be shared by all female musicians in some shape or form. Reflecting the present moment could mean being more specific with their songwriting, which is something BP hopes to communicate with her forthcoming album. It could entail finding other outlets to express themselves, which Aly continues to do through her work with film and sound art. It could mean, like Armi says, simply accepting their age. But more than anything, it entails waking up every day and choosing to continue making music. “For me it’s the best job in the world that I could possibly have,” Myrene says proudly. “It’s never gotten old.” Despite everything, these women choose to survive.