Johnny Manahan, better known as Mr. M, speaks with the wisdom that comes with being at the forefront of discovering, training, and managing the country’s biggest stars for over 50 years. As the founding director of ABS-CBN’s Talent Center — now known as Star Magic — he helped lay down the foundation of the Philippine entertainment industry as we know it today.

In 1995, Mr. M became the director of ASAP, the country’s longest-running variety show that showcases the biggest hits in Filipino music. For 25 years, he witnessed the rise of acts like the Eraserheads, Parokya ni Edgar, Gary V, Yeng Constantino, Sarah G, and many more. 

The esteemed starmaker sat down with Billboard Philippines to talk about how artists should react to the changing tides of the music industry and the challenges the country faces with finding our identity in the face of globalization.

Billboard Philippines: As someone who’s been a mainstay in the industry, how would you describe the state of pop today?

Mr. M: We are at a transition. In the past, you had Gary [Valenciano], you had Martin [Nievera]…these two guys brought a lot of excitement to the scene. When they were younger, parang K-Pop ang audience nila! [Their audience was like K-Pop!] They brought a lot of qualities that made them stand out over decades. Those qualities were excitement and a unique sound that made them authentic. They had something of their own. You could see the passion in these people. Later on, you had Sarah [Geronimo], KZ [Tandingan], the bands, like Ben&Ben, people like Chito [Miranda]…there was one time where I had to escort my daughter to [this place], and when I heard [the band] sing they sounded like The Beatles. O, sino ‘yun? May idea kayo? [Oh, who’s that? Do you have an idea?]

Billboard Philippines: Eraserheads?

Mr. M: Oo! [Yes!] E-heads dominated the scene for a long, long time especially because they had their own sound and their own lyrics. They weren’t much to look at, I mean tatayo lang sila [they just stood on stage], but the excitement came from their lyrics. They had very simple lyrics, everybody could understand it, but if you study it, may sophistication sila [they have sophistication] like The Beatles. The bands followed, like Chito, Kamikazee. Kamikazee had a distinct sound…maybe it was noisy, but performers sila [them]! They had passion. That’s what you have to have: the passion to sing your songs the way you want to sing them, and everyone else will fall in line and be excited as well.

I think now we’re in a transition period because of K-Pop. Ang lakas ng K-Pop [K-Pop is so strong.] The fanbases, all of a sudden, are hearing this sound from Korea and they’re crazy about it. Ang nangyari [What’s happening today], some bands [try to] imitate that sound or try to take something from the K-pop sound, like SB19. 

Now, [people] are asking, “where do we go from here?” The Korean phenomenon is worldwide. I think people are trying to figure out now what kind of sound they could have to maybe match that sound from Korea. If it’s not the sound, maybe the passion, like SB19. SB19 tried so hard, and finally, they made a dent into the Korean avalanche. Nagkaroon sila ng [They created] space to make their own sound, even if it’s a little influenced by Korea. I think the ones who have kept to their sound all these years are the bands, like Ben & Ben, that have their “Pinoy” sound. Iba na ang landscape now [The landscape is different now.] Part of the transition is acknowledging the fact that the stage now is not just the local stage. It’s for the world because of all these gadgets and platforms. 

Billboard Philippines: Because of the democratization of platforms, do you think that media still plays a pivotal role in music today? 

Mr. M: Before, you had a very narrow range. Now, you have the whole world, literally! You do something on TikTok, it’s not only seen [by people here]. The Koreans will see it, the producers in the US will see it, the stars [will see it too]! You have the whole world to contend with. I don’t think you can just keep to a “Pinoy” sound…I think if you want to be successful now, that means you’re going to have to challenge the whole world. It can be your own sound, a “Pinoy” sound, but I think you have to put something there for the people abroad. Katulad ng K-Pop [Just like K-Pop,] half of the lyrics are in English. I think our artists will have to recognize that if they want to be on an international stage. It’s okay if they write for the Pinoy people, but if they want to compete with the international artists, they have to start by having an authentic voice — hindi na gagaya ka lang sa K-Pop [not just copying K-Pop,] you have to put something authentic there — you can take something from the past, and make it your own. That’s what our artists, in transition, have to realize. It won’t be easy…but it will pay off.

For Mr. M, Filipino pop is entering a new phase in its ever-evolving sound. While music trends may change through time, his advice is crystal clear: as long as Filipino artists stay true to their own sound, Filipino music will continue to thrive in the years to come.