Many moons ago, the good people over at the Belltower Project—led by Hope Tinambacan, the indefatigable front man of the band HOPIA—held a social experiment of sorts at a gig at El Amigo, Dumaguete’s bohemian center of indie music, the visual arts, and everything else that’s crazy. It was to test what Hope would call “our music’s worth.”
He said of the social experiment: “The concept was simple: we tapped some bands and solo acts from the Belltower Project to play. And then we asked for an entrance fee from those who watched the event—but they could give any amount, depende sa ilang gustong i-suporta.
“Inside the venue, we presented good music of course—mostly originals—and many other things we could think of, para modugang ang mga tawo sa ilang contribution.”All throughout the night, he kept reminding the crowd: “If you like the music and the performance, please feel free to drop additional contribution to our coffers.”
After the event, these are the observations he managed to make—“some funny, and some not, things to ponder on,” he said:
First, there was the matter of amount they managed to collect. “Naay mga mihulog ug mga tig-10 centavos, and 5 centavos, and other coins,” Hope said. “Maybe mao na gyud to iyang kwarta, but we still told ourselves to appreciate whatever we got.”
Second, a Caucasian entered the venue, and upon knowing there was an entrance fee, started counting out change—“his tinag-piso,” Hope remembered with a chuckle.
Third, they noticed that about five girls entered, and only one of them paid off for everyone else in their troupe. “Pilay gihatag? Twenty pesos,” Hope said.
Fourth, the Belltower Project people estimated that there were about 70 to 80 people who entered El Amigo that night and enjoyed the performance along with their beer and pulutan. “Ang naabot nga money sa amo is P3,300. Kung imong kwentahon, that’s an average of P41 per person—excuse my math. Although I’m sure that some gave more, while others gave less,” Hope said. “This means that kung imong i-divide ang P3,300 sa seven ka bands and solo acts that night, we can only go for P471 per band. ‘Di na lang nato kwentahon pila ang nagasto sa BTP, kay kapoy na.”
And his final rejoined: “Now, this social experiment may not be valid or reliable enough—but it sure does show something. Let you be the judge.”
What does this say about cultural worth, and what that means in Dumaguete?
I think it’s a very good social experiment, and it makes me think that part of cultural work is really audience development: meaning to say we need to make prospective audiences see the worth of what we do as artists—singers and musicians, writers, designers, theatre people, dancers, visual artists. There is an unfortunate line of thought that what we do as artists is something you cannot trust to put a value on—hence a culture of discounting prevails. When I publish my books, for example, I have friends and acquaintances who do come up to me and ask for a copy of a book for free. As if I am not supposed to make some sort of living from my writing, and as if I can go to an architect and ask him to design my house for free, or to a doctor and ask him to give me medical treatment for free.
Many artist, too—molded for far too long to think of their own artistry as something to take for granted and not prize—all too often do not give value to their own work. Once I asked a Waray poet, whose book I loved, how much his book was, and he insisted: “No, libre lang yan para sa’yo.” I insisted on paying. Once I asked a graphic designer how much she charged for a particular work I was commissioning her to do. “Ikaw,” she said, “Depende lang nimo.” I told her to set up her rates—if she wanted other people to also value her work.
And I used to be the same. Before, when people would ask me to edit their thesis or dissertations, I operated on the level of ulaw, constantly undervaluing the work I did—even though editing itself is a murderous job. It is not a walk in the park, and often it ranges beyond mere grammatical corrections to something approaching a virtual rewrite, because there is just no making sense of the original. It took fictionist and editor Nikki Alfar, a good friend, to set me on a better path to valuing my work, and gave me the idea of structuring rates according to the challenges demanded by the work. “If my clients want only mere grammatical corrections, I only charge this much. If it’s grammatical work plus some changes in syntax, I charge higher. If the work demands total overhauling that a virtual rewriting is demanded—I charge so much more,” she said.
It’s always a challenging task—asking other people to start valuing the cultural work of artists, and many artists do give up—but I think Belltower Project is at the very start of a local revolution. And that revolution, I know for sure, will take a while to eventually flower. And I hope that guys like Hope won’t give up. Because the dividends will come, in time.
To quote Albert Jerome Fontejon Babaylan, front man of the band Finpot: “It’s okay, my friends. Knowing the issues [in indie music in Dumaguete] is winning half the battle. Now we know [what we are facing], and we can then approach the situation accordingly. BTP has done very well uncovering these things for us. BTP did us musicians a favor. Now let’s just keep at it.”