Living Song, Living Labor: Music as Migrant WorkMonograph in progress
The restrictions on social gatherings owing to covid19 have created an unprecedented crisis for musicians worldwide, foregrounding the importance of live music in contemporary cultural life. The costs of its enforced absence seem clear, but in truth the deeper social and political implications of neglecting live music have yet to be fully named, let alone counted. How, we must ask ourselves now, should live music be recognized as essential to collective life?
This question reveals the challenge of analyzing the hidden geographies of identity, aesthetics, and labor that have raised some musical subjects and practices above others. To recognize the value of live music, it is necessary to attend to musicians who make a living from it through covering the music of others, for others. Though ubiquitous throughout the world’s cities, the performance stages of leisure venues occupy the margins of global popular culture. Far removed from the peaks of prestige and stardom we usually associate as the goal of artistic careers, the job of live music entertainment is equally a form of service work. Diasporic and migrant Filipino musicians have fulfilled this work for centuries in deep circuits around colonial Asia’s theme parks, hotels, and cruise ships. Embodying a wide pop music repertoire well-tuned to the global listener’s ear, they play to our hearts’ content and distraction.
Although mimicry is discounted in scholarly and institutional circles as a form of substandard creative labor, I argue that the job of performing live music for others entails relational skills of communication, empathy, and improvisation. Working regularly in live entertainment abroad also serves as a valuable source of validation, purpose, and belonging for Filipino musicians, even as it structurally exploits them on account of their transient status and racialized identity.
Through interviews and participant observation in venues in Hong Kong, Macao, Penang, Manila, and Cebu, I listen to the lives behind the music we so often take for granted. I learn about their experiences and perspectives about the work they do—the special work of enlivening social space through one’s music, far away from home. Entertainment is regarded as a non-essential expense, and Filipino musicians in particular have long been limited to job sectors that regard them as disposable workers. Even so, performing live for others’ enjoyment connects the work of music to larger economies of care, community, and responsibility. Music, they tell us, gives life.
As we reimagine the post-pandemic future of music and global culture, we must learn to prioritize the work of music in a forward-thinking way—one that understands it as a livelihood worth protecting. By attending to the urgent issues and essential contributions of migrant musicians from the Philippines, this book hopes to contribute to the longer effort to create more equitable environments of cultural work and value.
Download the thesis ‘Western Music By Its Others: Overseas Filipino Musicians and the Geographies of Migrant and Creative Labor’ (2016, National University of Singapore) here.
Watch a 2018 public lecture of this topic, delivered at the Southeast Asia Research Center, City University of Hong Kong, here.
Read a condensed and provisional version of this manuscript (2021, Nusasonic Magazine) here.