Terno at Ten

I pose ten questions to Toti Dalmacion, head of Terno Recordings, which marks its “tenth” anniversary this year with a concert featuring the French indie pop sensation, Tahiti 80.

Q1: What made you think of starting your own record label back in 2001?

Technically it was around 2003, but the thought of starting my own label has been around since high school, and that’s in the 80’s for those who don’t know. Anyway, I jumped the gun by a year, calling it the “10th” anniversary, because we never had an anniversary, ever; and well, the world is supposed to end next year!

Q2: Did you draw inspiration from the main character of Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity (Rob Gordon) who went from owning a record store to starting a label? Like him you owned a record bar.

Actually, it’s the other way around. I might have been his inspiration because the story is just so autobiographically spot-on; it’s uncanny! Seriously, it was inevitable, really, and the most natural progression for me.

Q3: Is there a particular Terno Recordings sound or ethos? How would you go about recruiting bands; or perhaps more to the point, what do you look for in a band before signing them?

At the start, it was supposed to be strictly “indie pop” in the jangly and twee sense, but being that I really like all sorts of music under the “indie” umbrella, it became more of a varied bunch.

I never really made it a point to seek bands. They’re mostly recommended, or I chance upon them, or they approach me. I look for good material first and foremost, and if that’s not apparent, then at least good musicianship which can be developed with some guidance from me. Or if the band has neither of those two, then it has to have some interesting quality which hopefully translates onstage.

Q4: The diversity and breadth of talent under Terno is truly amazing. They seem to appeal to different niches that no one in the local scene seems to be serving at the moment. Is that your basic strategy? To tap into those unserved sections of the market?

It is the basic strategy particularly because I wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s just me and my penchant for being different. I don’t think I’d get a band that’s a dime a dozen in the scene or just typical. I have made some decisions and choices before wherein I chose to deviate from this to adjust to the bigger market or play the local music industry game a bit, and I’ve suffered for it. But yes, I’m interested in those bands or segments that no other record company, major or independent would want to touch with a ten foot pole… as long as they tickle my fancy.

I don’t really tailor fit or plan according to the “market” here. Crazy as it may sound, I’m my own market in the sense that other similar individuals who are more adventurous and open to new ideas and sounds will tune in to the same thing. They’re out there. Not in the millions, yes, but there’s THAT market for sure.

Q5: What were the obstacles and challenges you faced in building the Terno label at the onset?

The major difficulty has always been money. It was then, as it is now. Terno’s not making money because it’s purely about the music first and business second, being pro-artist in the creative sense as well. It’s that passion for music that’s fuelling it. If Terno was probably a label abroad then we would see financial rewards due to the size of what being ‘niche” there is.

Here, with piracy, illegal downloads and my 50-50 policy with bands–and as an aside, I don’t even own the material forever–makes it difficult for me to recoup my investments, but somehow we find ways to get around that and continue. Terno could use some funding, definitely, and it should be bigger; but for the past years, it’s more about the passion, blood, sweat and tears.

Q6: What would you say were the major milestones or memorable moments in building the label?

I really think the initial label gigs, TERNO AU-GO-GO, held quarterly from 2005 to 2006, were a huge factor in creating the buzz for the label and the hype for the bands. Up Dharma Down for example gained their initial audience from Terno Au Go Go then, creating the buzz that propelled them. So, yeah, the early days were very memorable when we would pack Saguijo with 500-700 people with the crowd spilling out on to the street.

Early days: an old poster promoting Terno Au Go Go, the quarterly event that was instrumental in generating a buzz for Terno artists like Up Dharma Down.

It’s still fun these days, doing the various Terno nights in other venues and at Saguijo wherein I’m told Terno’s is still the biggest draw. It’s a continuous process building the label and the bands on the roster, and this is done through the gigs. I don’t really feature anyone outside of the roster, except for opening slots for aspirants and new bands who want some help. Terno is not a “prod” wherein I get big name bands to pull in the crowd. As you can see, it’s triple the effort for Terno ever since, just relying on its own roster.

Terno just promotes those who are on Terno, and we build our audience as we go along. Amazingly, it does grow with new faces every year joining the die hards. Other than that, it’s the recognition the label gets for pushing the envelope. As far as milestones are concerned, Terno has loads of medals and accolades. Hopefully, money follows at some point.

Q7: Can you compare the domestic scene from when Terno began a decade ago and the present? Have there been major gains as far as the music and the audience are concerned?

There was definitely more of the usual then and not many of the new and global sounding acts. Typical Pinoy rock and “opm” but that has changed and presently, there’s a plethora of new bands that are fearless with their music, knowing they will not reach a wider audience but still having a go at their dreams.

Music appreciation has definitely improved from what I’ve seen when we’re booked for other events, at schools, etc. As far as the Terno audience goes though, it has always been about the music, and you really feel and see it via the gigs where people really “listen” to the bands playing.

Q8: What changes would you still like to see in the future as far as the music scene is concerned?

(I would like to see) Help from the government via grants, especially for acts that have the potential to reach a wider international audience as is the case with most Terno artists, to be able to tour abroad. It’s connected to tourism as well as these bands represent the country wherever they go. Other changes might just include raising standards, really: raising the benchmark for good quality in order to really compete with what’s out there.

Q9: For your tenth anniversary, you have chosen to bring in a French indie pop band, Tahiti 80. Why Tahiti 80?

Well, there are loads of other favorite foreign acts of mine that I could have brought in. The Blue Nile for instance would’ve been a nice coup or The Wedding Present. Paul Weller–I wouldn’t be able to afford. XTC’s out of the question but I wanted a band that was neither too “in” nor too new and current. An act, that had longevity and made very good, accessible pop songs that were of good quality. Not pop in the Black Eyed Peas sense but good, timeless pop that grabs the ear easily at first listen.

There’s but a limited number of bands, who are consistent like that, and with Tahiti 80, I was supposed to bring them in as far back 2007 and the years that succeeded, but I didn’t have the funding or the sponsors. (It was) Not much different this time around, but I figured why not grab the bull by the horns and celebrate Terno’s existence with a really good, credible fun band. Not commercial enough but not too underground, ear friendly for first-time and/or female listeners. Just as an aside, 95% of the ticket reservations so far have been made by women who make up quite a chunk of Terno’s audience.

Q10: After these ten years, what’s next for Terno Recordings?

Hopefully, we continue to trudge on, make some money, and put out more good stuff, not just for the local market but for an international one and really put the Philippines on the map, cliché as that may sound…. Well there’s that and the further fuelling of my ‘messianic complex’, ha-ha!

After all these years, Toti Dalmacion’s passion and determination seem just as fervent as ever. There aren’t that many individuals in the Philippine music scene who have contributed to the flourishing of new talent while sticking to their principles the way he has. If the last ten years is anything to go by, we can expect much more creative talent to blossom from his label in the future.

In celebration of Terno Recordings’ “tenth” anniversary, Tahiti 80 will be playing for one night in October, Friday the 21st at The Tents, Alphaland / Southgate. They will be supported by Terno’s very own Up Dharma Down and Radio Active Sago Project. 

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy (www.thecusponline.org) and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.