Paper: Migrant talent agents as ‘infrastructure’ (2013)

Here’s an excerpt of the paper I wrote from the recently concluded ARI workshop entitled Migration Infrastructure in Asia and the Middle East (I posted the abstract of  my paper here). The excerpt below is my attempt to suggest two things:

1. the role of agents, especially those who specialize in sending foreign musicians and other cultural workers abroad, may be understood as a kind of infrastructure. This simply means that we can get a clearer idea of what agents do and why they’re important by thinking of them ‘infrastructurally’, performing a kind of mundane and behind-the-scenes function that supports and holds together the industry for migrant cultural labor

2. the infrastructural dynamic unique to agents of migrant cultural talent can be understood as an action of ‘packaging’.

The excerpt below just sketches out the bones of this idea. I was intrigued by Abdoumaliq Simone’s 2004 paper on ‘people as infrastructure’ as a way of understanding how the activities of urban poor entrepreneurs in Johannesburg keep the city afloat. Later on I intend to develop the ‘agent work as packaging’ concept further by looking at three senses of packaging, then matching them up to some of the more common (or ideal) services/activities of the agents I interviewed: 1. assembling compatibility: group formation, training, and development; 2. grooming talent: marketing, promotion, and image management; and 3. securing documentation: administrative, legal, immigration processes necessary for overseas work.

(I’ve only done about 10% of transcriptions though, so this may change as I re-listen to and re-create my interviews. Oh, the secret life of data.)

As per usual, please don’t cop anything without permission. Thanks!



The work of regular live musical entertainment in distinctly transnational leisure venues in Asia—such as cruise ships and land-based leisure venues as varied as clubs, hotels, theme parks—is mostly done by foreign musicians. This sector indicates an as-yet under-theorized overlap of two putatively disparate industries: the export labor migration industry and the cultural industry of music. In both labor sectors, the agent emerges as a crucial but notoriously ambiguous figure, always believed to be exploiting the gap between supply and demand, production and consumption. What kind of infrastructure do agents of migrant cultural work operate in and reinforce? Is the agent an infrastructure unto herself or himself? If so, then how might the infrastructural dynamic of agents be conceptualized?

Agents fulfill a basic role in the precarious and competitive labor sector of transnational musical performance: they supply entertainment venues with a steady stream of foreign talent, and provide musicians with access to overseas work contracts and future opportunities of steady work.  However, this intermediary work of ‘bridging the gap between production and consumption’ (Negus, 2002) encompasses a much broader and flexible range of activities and services, which varies according to the agent’s skill specialization, migrant work destination, performance venue, as well as changes to the larger infrastructures of immigration and market demand. Some agents simply book suitable musicians on behalf of employers, while others are concerned solely with the processing of visa requirements. Others still are actively involved at all stages of the overseas work trajectory: recruiting and training complete beginners to become competent musicians, forming and managing bands for specific projects, overseeing visa application processes, and addressing the concerns and complaints of musicians when they are abroad.

The flexibility and variability of activities that comprise the basic function of ‘bridging the gap’ suggest that the figure of the agent is better understood as an infrastructure unto itself, rather than simply a fixed role. Infrastructure may be understood as a multi-layered and taken-for-granted relationality, organizing the day-to-day mobilization and utilization of resources and practices across multiple sites and times (Star, 1999). Following Abdoumaliq Simone’s (2004) notion of people as infrastructure, I suggest that to be an agent in the market for migrant cultural work is to initiate and/or actively influence a ‘process of conjunction, which is capable of generating social compositions across a range of singular capacities and needs […] and which attempts to derive maximal outcomes from a minimal set of elements’ (410-411).

Here the metaphor of ‘packaging’, as a dynamic set of processes, seems to me potentially fruitful in thinking through the complex of resources, roles, and responsibilities accrued by agents as they meet and in some ways shape the demand for migrant cultural work. To package does not just involve the process of physically moving an object from point A to point B; it entails rendering the object suitable for movement—gathering together and organizing different elements into a spatial coherence that will make sense to the recipient.

Rather than think of the agent in focal or centralized terms, such as a ‘human hub’ connecting vertical and horizontal networks (Kiwan and Meinhof, 2011), the spatial logic of infrastructure seems to better describe the doings of agents in the overall ecology of migrant cultural work: they promote and reinforce the racialized discourse of ‘Filipino musicality’ as a kind of competitive advantage in an oversaturated labor market, and negotiate what Bobby*, a cruise ship talent agent, calls ‘a bureaucratic gauntlet that has become a nightmare for the musician, his agent, and his employer’. I suggest that the ways by which agents-as-infrastructure manage and profit from sending talent abroad are summed up by the organizational dynamics of ‘packaging’.

The entry for ‘package’ as a verb in the New Oxford American Dictionary recalls these three infrastructural dynamics:

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The movement of material goods across borders and through various spaces hinges on packaging. In retail, sales of slow-moving items will pick up speed if they are sold together as a ‘package’ deal, at a reduced price: more for less, all in one purchase. Media, marketing, and PR executives package potentially unpopular projects or personalities in a certain way to glide them through the suspicion or skepticism of the public. Finally, in the delivery logistics industry, it is packaging that constitutes the possibility of movement, insofar as it enables the organization of disparate objects into a compact, mobile space—destination and proof of tariff marked clearly and indelibly on the external surface of this space.

In retail, communications, and logistics, the dynamic of packaging is a taken-for-granted infrastructure, the only visible points of which emerge in the point of reception of the good itself, or of the designed presentation of the press release. I want to extend this line of thinking to consider whether packaging brings any symbolic and operative valence to the doings of agents in the industry for overseas musical talent. How might the infrastructural dynamics of packaging emerge in the specific industry of migrant cultural labor? If the OFM onstage in the overseas club, hotel lounge, or cruise ship deck is the product, a ‘total package’ possessing all the necessary material and symbolic competencies to deliver a truly entertaining performance—then perhaps the constitutive infrastructure is to be found in the ‘backstage’ of agency work, which for the moment I locate in the three packaging dynamics of assemblage, presentation or ‘grooming’, and securing documentation.

* Respondent’s name has been changed to preserve anonymity.

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