MANILA, Philippines – On Google, a red bar runs across the name and location of Mow’s Bar in Quezon City. “Temporarily Closed,” it reads, in bright white letters – a stark message that echoes every time the venue, along with other Metro Manila music haunts, turns up on a search.

This year, Mow’s was supposed to celebrate its 4th anniversary on April 18. They had planned a 4-stage event that would have seen the watering hole packed with Metro Manila’s regular gig-goers. Instead, on the day of its anniversary, the bar was empty, unoccupied for over a month.

Like Mow’s, many establishments that were packed nightly with music fans have turned silent, with gig line ups canceled to comply with the rules of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), enforced in Manila on March 17 as a way to control the spread of the coronavirus.

As of this writing, it’s been nearly three months since the lockdown began. On May 28, the government announced that Metro Manila will be placed on general community quarantine (GCQ) beginning June 1, allowing other businesses and industries to slowly restart operations.

The GCQ is a welcome development for business owners who now have the chance to make up for lost income. But bars and pubs – along with other “leisure” establishments like gyms and cinemas – are to remain closed.

While other industries can now hold on to slivers of hope, the live music industry remains in the dark – and it’s a blow to the owners and staff of these venues, who continue to worry about the financial strain the quarantine is putting on their businesses.

Mow’s, for instance, had to cancel gigs booked up until December, and can only sustain their staff up to a certain point because of their thin financial margins.

Cesca Rivas, managing partner at 12 Monkeys Music Hall and Pub in Ortigas, shared that she is in a similar situation – and it’s only making her more and more anxious.

“There is no income for our business, and we’re actually at a loss because we had to support our staff even if our business is closed during the first month and a half of the quarantine,” she said.

“Our staff don’t have jobs right now, however they get a little financial support from our company. But due to the extension of this lockdown and the prohibition of bars to open, we won’t be able to sustain supporting our staff financially.”

“Personally I lost a bulk of my income due to the closure of my businesses, which are all F&B, and it’s even more stressful thinking about what I can do to help my staff especially those who live from paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

12 MONKEYS MUSIC HALL. Photo courtesy of Darling Dangpalan

12 MONKEYS MUSIC HALL. Photo courtesy of Darling Dangpalan

Sustaining the business

The current situation has had owners working to come up with new ways to make an income while their establishments remain boarded up.

Nicole Sarmiento, co-partner at QC watering hole Route 196, said that since the lockdown, she and her partners have continually been discussing their next steps as a venue. She said they’ve been throwing ideas around though they’re keeping those under wraps for now.

In the case of Mow’s, the business is somehow getting by thanks to income from its partner restaurant Kowloon House which is open for delivery, but they still need to think about how to sustain themselves in the long run – especially since they see things easing up for their industry only in the third or fourth quarter of 2021.

“And that’s a very optimistic way of looking at it,” said Mow’s owner Tim Ng.

Nicole was also cautious in her forecast.

“I personally think that it’s going to be a slow movement having people get back to watching live gigs, especially taking into consideration that most live gigs are ticketed and that a lot of people don’t have stable income or gigs aren’t really priority at the moment,” she said.

“I think it’s our responsibility as promoters, venues and agents to create an environment for our audience that would make them feel welcome and safe. But it is also our responsibility to make sure that the artists get the proper compensation. So, I guess, I’m pretty hopeful that our industry will get through this, although it will take some time,” she added.

ROUTE 196. Photo by Bel Certeza/ Route 196

ROUTE 196. Photo by Bel Certeza/ Route 196

Similarly, Cris Ramos, co-production manager at Makati gig institution SaGuijo, believes it will be a difficult road ahead for their industry.

“It will be hard, because the main challenges will be: a) even if the business is allowed, who’s going? and b) what regulations will be enforced and how will it limit our business capabilities?”

“Unfortunately too, it’s clear that this industry is so low on the priority list that it’s so difficult to find a scenario where we can open soon. We will almost certainly have to adapt and make innovations if we are to survive,” he said.

For a gig venue, adapating will certainly include crowd control. It’s hard to imagine crowds converging for fun while a coronavirus vaccine is still non-existent. This might mean that even when live music venues are allowed to open, it won’t necessarily be a smooth road to recovery for them.

“Crowds aren’t allowed, concerts aren’t allowed. It’s really hard to do social distancing in a bar. We’re thinking of reducing venue capacity to be able to do social distancing but then we wouldn’t get enough sales to cover our operating costs. It’s really difficult,” Cesca said.

Mow’s marketing and operations manager Ted Guayco said there will be a lot to consider once they reopen again. “Definitely the maintaining of social distancing, we’ll still weigh it out. Naappreciate ko naman (I appreciate) on a global scale yung effort of easing reopening, so we’ll see also from there how we’ll go since mass gatherings are really reduced to a finite number, so we’ll also follow those global protocols.”

“Talagang magbabago yung mundo eh (The world will really change), from sanitation, to being mindful of the areas, also keeping ourselves and our staff in check,” he added.

Cris suggested that bringing gigs online might be another way for music venues to keep up with these strange times.

“Establishments will need to adapt. Maybe they can start opening food delivery and/or private services, [or] adapting a way to integrate live online shows,” he said.

The ‘live’ in live music

Cesca did note that the live music scene is now moving to the online space, with many of them are holding gigs and connecting with fans on their social media accounts – “But that isn’t really live anymore, is it?”

Tim shared that while in lockdown, he’s watched several virtual reality (VR) shows put up by artists online.

“It’s really not the same. Even just the smell of cigarettes or alcohol, I miss that. Even when it gets really hot inside the bar because there are so many people inside, I really miss that feeling…it’s just so weird,” Tim said.

Johann Mendoza, booking manager at Mow’s, said he watches artists on YouTube once in a while.

“But it doesn’t cut it,” he laughs. “I miss going to Mow’s.”

“I guess the biggest factor is still the social aspect of a gig. That’s what we really miss, I mean outside of the music. Because yeah, you can listen to it at home but it’s not gonna be like…say you watch the band perform and you go out, say you meet the band, or talk to the people around there who are fans…that’s the part you really can’t replicate,” Tim said.

SAGUIJO. Photo courtesy of Cris Ramos

SAGUIJO. Photo courtesy of Cris Ramos

The “live” in live music – that is, the physical closeness, the community – is what makes it unsustainable in a pandemic. But it may also be the industry’s saving grace .

As much as people are getting by with VR or online gigs, nothing can quite match the discomfort and the pure excitement of being in a sweaty bar, music filling the space, artists right within reach.

It’s perhaps why as cautious as Tim is about the future of his little music spot, he’s ultimately confident that they’re going to bounce back – no matter how far into the future that may be.

“It’s gonna be great,” he said. “A lot of people have been at home for the longest time so when everything is back, we’re expecting a full house for a while. I think everyone’s just gonna make bawi or something, just go all out.” –