What we are seeing now is the fallout to the atomic explosion of the current band scene. We are seeing so many brands endorsing bands or the other way around, whichever way you see it. From strong beer to roll-on antiperspirants to twister fries. Not surprisingly, band contests are everywhere now. Even the local town fiestas are following suit. Gay beauty contests couldn’t last, thank goodness for that. Out of tune guitar strings are hugely more bearable than out of place g-strings, forgive the ugly pun.
Just last week, we were involved in one of the many big band contests this year as our band was invited to play as guest performer. The Nescafe Soundschool had held its Visayas finals in three venues for three consecutive nights here in the city.
As I looked at one of the competing bands play one night, I couldn’t help but see in them our band ten years ago. Outwardly confident, I could plainly see the stage attitude disguising nervousness. Their haughty stances were betraying self-consciousness and uncertainty. To me it was louder than their distorted guitars. I could see through them because ten years ago, I was in exactly the same place.
In 1996, San Miguel Beer put together the “Battle of the Bands”. It was, back then, the biggest band contest for amateur bands held nationally. Of course, us being young and not too bright, we didn’t see it for what it was – a rare opportunity. Our natural instinct was to snub the contest. We were already playing regular gigs in Artist Dais, which in retrospect was Cebu’s version of the famous Club Dredd of Manila, so naturally we thought ourselves above joining such a folly. Like I said, we were young and not too bright. Fortunately, we were also malleable. So when people, including the organizers, started egging us to join, we conveniently changed our minds and readily judged band contests as not uncool anymore.
We joined the first round with little enthusiasm. But when we won that round and the next, we decided to take the contest seriously. We invested in longer rehearsal hours and put more focus in our playing. We also put in a lot of effort into arranging our contest pieces. In short, we polished our act.
We ended up winning the Visayas round together with PG-18 as runner-up. We then flew to Manila to play against the other regional champions. A day before the finals, all the bands from out-of-town were given studio time to practice their pieces. It also gave all of us the chance to size up each other. We quickly realized then that the Cebu bands were the strongest contenders. Even the other bands said so.
But on the day of the contest, our fortunes changed. At the outset, we sensed that the Cebu bands were being discriminated against. The first sign was the order of contestants. The order slots were supposed to be drawn by lots but the organizers simply “handed” to us the first and second playing slots. Not exactly the best slots to play in a contest. What’s more, the organizers automatically awarded the last playing slot to a band that didn’t show up for the drawing of lots, which gave them the automatic advantage.
Worse, when the suspiciously late band arrived at the venue, their manager openly socialized with the judges and the event organizers, which puts in question their collective impartiality. Skipping the details, when the winners were announced later that evening, everyone, especially the audience judging from their astonished reaction, was surprised that the top plum was awarded to Make Your Mama Proud or MYMP, the last band to play. The whole event seemed scripted and stunk.
Whether the conspiracy was real or imagined, we as a band were dealt a painful blow. Personally, I felt cheated. Since then I viewed contests with disdain and suspicion. We had played our best set that night: our song “The Preach”, plus we covered The Bible’s “Crystal Palace”, and The Church’s “Under the Milkyway” only to be beaten by a band that played, among others, the theme song to “Power Rangers”. I’m not kidding.
It was funny really, thinking about it now. But back then, I remember it was a searing experience. It had become a turning point for our band. Our attitude towards musicianship and showmanship would never be the same again and although we had lost, we quantum-leaped in maturity. Of course we also became cynical and jaded but that’s ok. A little angst never hurts in songwriting.
So now, looking at these young bands playing their hearts out, I wish I could tell them that, win or lose, the experience itself is the biggest reward. Among a lot of valuable lessons, you learn that winning in contests isn’t about playing a technical set as much as it is playing a tight set. You learn that choreographed moves will always look contrived, even funny and that it’s more important to be confident and comfortable up there. You learn that it’s not about performing rather it’s about having fun. You learn that in a band, you’ve got to support each other to bring out the best from your music. The lessons are endless and invaluable.
Contests may not always be fair as judging performances will always be subjective. The important thing though is that you do not dwell on how you are judged by others. For in the end, it is how you
judge yourself that determines how your band will fare, not just in any contest but throughout the band’s career. How a band sees itself and how it views its music determines its attitude and character. It is this attitude and character that will eventually reward you with future successes.
In music, as it is in life, character is destiny.