It seems fitting that an iconic record label founded in a Caribbean island nation has opened its first international division within Asia in a country composed of over 7,000 islands.
That’s exactly what happened in July when Universal Music Group launched Island Records Philippines, a new domestic label dedicated to developing Filipino artists with the twin goals of achieving local success and reaching global audiences.
Founded in Jamaica 61 years ago by Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer Chris Blackwell, Island Records has been, for much of its history, credited for bringing reggae music into the mainstream. It signed many of the genre’s stalwarts, including Toots And The Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, Aswad, Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse and its biggest star, Bob Marley, whom Blackwell is acknowledged for discovering.
Over the years and under Blackwell’s stewardship, Island’s roster of artists became more diverse and eclectic as the label also became the home of U2, Steve Winwood, Elton John, The B-52’s, Roxy Music, The Cranberries, Amy Winehouse, Justin Bieber, Avicii, Drake and Ariana Grande, to name just a few.
Hoping to honour the label’s legacy “by celebrating the rich diversity of music produced throughout the country”, Island Records Philippines is banking on the dynamic approach of young executive Enzo Valdez, the managing director of Universal Music Philippines (UMP), the division of Universal Music Group (UMG) responsible for the launch.
Valdez, who also oversees the operations of Def Jam Recordings Philippines (another UMG label that launched early this year), is a former A&R consultant of Sony Music Philippines. He’s also the former CEO of Sindikato Management, which manages many Filipino artists like folk-pop sensations Ben&Ben, who are now signed to Sony Music and are arguably the country’s most popular recording act.
Born into a musically inclined family that includes uncle Basil Valdez, a legendary Filipino balladeer, the younger Valdez played with bands in high school and college until Sindikato, which started as a video production house, took his music career in another direction.
“I fell in love with directing and ended up directing over 100 music videos for Sindikato. Because we loved working with artists, we eventually started managing artists by 2015,” Valdez tells NME. His success with the talent management firm eventually paved the way for his appointment as managing director of UMP in May this year.
“It was quite a hard decision to leave Sindikato and the artists we managed, but I felt that I had a calling to join UMP because it would mean I could help the music scene on a much larger scale. What can people expect from me? I’m bringing two values I learned as a leader from Sindikato: to be a risk-taker and a trendsetter,” he says.
Immediately tasked with steering the hip-hop-oriented Def Jam Philippines, Valdez found himself faced with an even more formidable challenge as he needed another sub-label “for all the artists who had an edgier approach to music”.
“Island Records was the perfect match as it is an iconic label that stands for creativity, authenticity and adventure. And I think this is very apparent with all the six artists we’ve initially signed,” Valdez says.
Among those six artists, three – singer-songwriter Lala Vinzon, and alternative bands juan karlos and Over October – were originally signed with MCA, another label under UMG.
Led and fronted by JK Labajo, for whose initials the band was named, juan karlos scored a huge hit for MCA in 2018 with the sexy, stop-and-go ballad ‘Buwan’ (Tagalog for ‘Moon’), which to date has raked in over 141million views on YouTube.
The band’s latest single, the maiden release of Island Records Philippines on July 24, is the reggae-flavoured ‘Bless Ü’. Written before the COVID-19 lockdown took effect in Manila, the song was recorded only recently when the government started to relax restrictions.
With over 868,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, juan karlos are considered the fledgling label’s most popular artist. “It really feels good to know that there are people that are willing to support you with whatever crazy shit you come up with,” the band’s outspoken frontman says.
Lala Vinzon, on the other hand, was a runner-up in the 2017 season of The Voice Teens Philippines – her performance videos from the show have consistently cracked the two-million-view mark on YouTube. And her wide-ranging sound, which swerves from blues and pop-rock to country and reggae, makes Island Records the perfect home for her, she says: “I’m still on the path of discovering myself, but I know what I want… [and] Island is the best fit for my music.”
Alongside these seasoned artists, Zack Tabudlo, Fern. and One Click Straight represent the fresh faces in Island’s roster. Tabudlo will become the second Island Records Philippines artist to release a new single, with ‘Nangangamba’ (Tagalog for ‘Apprehensive’) dropping August 7.
Outside of juan karlos and Zack Tabudlo, Island Records Philippines has not made any announcements on forthcoming releases. And given the market trend in the country that favours singles, it may take a while before the label releases EPs or full-length albums.
Despite the uncertainty brought about by the ongoing pandemic, all six acts are optimistic about their future under Island Records Philippines. One Click Straight, in particular, say that being signed by the label “just shifted our art into a different gear”. “Sum 41, one of our favourite bands, used to be under Island Records and they released some great records under the label. We hope to achieve that here, too.”
Just the same, the label intends to expand its roster with more artists to be signed in the coming months, as Valdez works on fulfilling his vision of establishing Island as “home to some of the most impactful and important artists from the Philippines while introducing them to new audiences around the world through UMG’s global network of companies”.
Ambitious as it sounds, industry experts in Manila are not surprised that Island opted to set up its Asian presence in the Philippines.
“The Philippines is practically the social media centre of the world and a key market for online music consumption, in addition to being a content creation source,” says Mony Romana, a former record executive for the Philippine offices of Warner Music and the now-defunct EMI-Virgin. He is now an academic who teaches music business courses at Meridian International College, where he is also the school’s Marketing Program Head.
“I recently watched these metalhead reaction videos from the US, and a lot of the music they reacted to are from the Philippines. Filipino music being used on TikTok are also clicking big time. Filipinos also have a voracious appetite for online music and the good thing about what’s happening now is the market welcomes new talent,” Romana adds.
Belle Baldoza, former head of PR and communications for Spotify Asia, says the launch of Island Records in the Philippines is “a testament to the recognition of the country’s diverse array of musical talent – as diverse as its over 7,000 islands – and the massive potential for Original Pilipino Music (OPM) to be showcased on the global stage”.
“As a music enthusiast, I’m looking forward to Island Records providing unique opportunities to showcase not only Filipino talent but also the Philippines’ deep-rooted relationship with music as a form of expression.”
As for Chris Blackwell, the man hailed by the Music Week Awards in 2009 as the most influential UK-based music industry executive of the last 50 years, he may have long ceased his involvement with the trailblazing record company he founded in 1959. But Blackwell is still thrilled with the way Island continues to expand its global footprint. In a message to the newly launched label cited a Bob Marley tune to express his elation, he quipped: “I’m so proud to hear that Island Records has started in the Philippines. One Love.”
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