Strange Boutique (April 2013)

My Japan Times column last month talked about the collapse of the Tokyo Rocks festival that was due to take place this coming weekend. Rather than examine the specific reasons for its failure, which seem to have been internal management issues, I focused instead on the reactions of fans, because I think they revealed something different about the festival and what it might have done wrong. I gather from some comments people made to me afterwards that the point I was making in the article wasn’t very clear, so I’m just going to re-state here, I wasn’t really interested in the internal gossip of the event organisers, I’m more interested in what they actually did, how they presented and promoted the event, and what impression that approach gave. Because really, when the cancellation announcement came, no one was in the least bit surprised. In fact, for some people I spoke to, the cancellation announcement was the first they’d even heard of the event.

In addition to what I said in the article, there are some spurious and unsubstantiated comments I’d like to make here. Firstly, the rumours going around that despite being booked to take place in a 60,000 capacity stadium, Tokyo Rocks only sold a few hundred tickets, and secondly that the event producer Takashi Yano had come into a lot of money and was just playing at being a rock promoter so that he could hang out with bands and feel like a rock star. Like I said, no idea of the truth in these things or where the information would have come from if they were true, but they play into a narrative among fans of the event as being small-time, underpromoted in the Japanese media (as opposed to the UK/US media, where it received a lot of coverage) and the fanboyish way Yano came across in his Facebook comments. Ragardless of any truth that these rumours might have, they’re exactly the kind of rumours that were always going to come out of an event that was promoted and presented the way Tokyo Rocks was.

So while in my Japan Times piece, I tried to explain as well as I could in the space I had what fan reactions revealed about how fans think and how the music scene is structured, here I want to go into a bit more detail and use personal examples relating to a couple of my own musical activities that would be inappropriate to discuss in my column (I sometimes talk about bands I’ve worked with in the Japan Times, but I don’t think it’s right for me to talk about my own projects directly). I don’t want to slag off Yano because that would be kicking a man when he’s down. It would also be hypocritical of me, because the problems he and the Tokyo Rocks team had are like a massive-scale, catastrophic condensation of all the problems I’ve experienced as an indie event organiser in Japan over the past eight or nine years. In fact, a lot of the things he did would have been precisely the right thing to do in an indie environment, and it was only the transference of those ideas onto a bigger scale that made them wrong.

Firstly, the Japanese music press and music media in general is shit. No one reads it, they won’t write about you unless you pay them for the column inches, which means no readers trust anything they say anyway. The kind of promotion major producers do is coordinated across all sorts of media and simply bludgeons fans into submission. It requires a lot of money, but also experienced staff who have personal relationships with all the relevant press, TV and record store staff.

When I released the Dancing After 1AM compilation album on my own Call And Response label last year, rather like Tokyo Rocks, it got much better coverage in the English language media. This was I think partly because I knew more people in English language media, partly because it tends to be more open to submissions from people they don’t know, and partly because Japanese indie music doesn’t have the network of well-read and respected blogs running beneath the level of the professional music press that are always on the lookout for new things. No Japanese media even replied to my mails introducing the album, and the only place I got any serious column inches was Kyushu local free music magazine Time Market — tellingly the one media outlet where I was reasonably well known as already. Tokyo Rocks was a relatively small event trying to jump up to the big leagues and they weren’t able to bring the media with them on the scale they needed.

There’s also the fans. In an indie event, social media is the most useful kind of promotion you can do. Twitter is the main one, but Facebook is growing among Japanese users. In this sense, Tokyo Rocks weren’t so far off base. Nurturing a group of fans via social media works for events up toa few hundred in size. Even so, a homepage is still the primary port of call for music fans, where updates can be clearly presented and linked to. The Tokyo Rocks homepage was sparse, with ugly, navigation-unfriendly Facebook carrying all sorts of important stuff. More importantly though, music fans, even indie and underground fans, get gooey at the knees at slick, professional stuff. My own label and events are as cheap, amateurish and chaotic as anything and then some, but this is why other people waste so much money printing expensive, colour flyers for their tiny gigs in shitty 100-capacity venues — they may not have much direct impact, but they do a lot for the “brand”, telling the audience the organiser is serious and that they care. Now magnify that to stadium-level, and imagine the kind of expectations for professionalism fans have? They want to be bludgeoned into submission, and will feel insulted if you don’t do it.

And then there’s booking. People in the Tokyo music scene always complain about the booking at indie shows focusing on such a narrow range of artists for each event. Musicians say they enjoy playing shows with different kinds of people, fans tend to agree that a range of music is more interesting. Don’t believe them. Everyone says they want variety, but they won’t back it up with their time or ticket money. Tokyo gigs are ¥2000 a throw, and most fans won’t go to a gig unless they already know and like at least three of the bands, which means organisers who want to book interesting shows have to make sacrifices as they navigate the delicate balancing act between booking good shows and getting enough audience to pay for the venue they’ve booked. For example, you don’t book mod/garage bands for postpunk/alternative gigs, no matter how logical it might seem for two individual bands to play together. Mod/garage fans are the most narrow-minded little clique in the Japanese music world and will not go to an event unless every single band sounds exactly the same. Part of the reason Ozzfest the same weekend seems to have worked was because it was a metal-only event with solid, internationally famous bands running quite deep into the lineup. Fuji Rock books a lot of Japanese bands, but again, the core of the headliners as well as most of the bands on the main stages tend to be foreign.

With international bands, they’re usually a wasted booking at an underground event unless they’re already well known. What happens usually is that bands will play with them out of genuine interest and maybe the hope of some help if they themselves try to play abroad, and venues will put them on for the prestige, hoping to recover any money they lose on the night in the long term as their status in the local scene rises, allowing them to attract better local bands in the future. Tokyo venues will almost never pay touring bands, and some will even charge them the same standard pay-to-play “noruma” as a Japanese act (Koenji Roots, to name and shame but one).

With well known overseas bands, the situation’s different. They can get an audience, but it’s a different one to the local bands. International and Japanese music are marketed separately and occupy different sections of record shops regardless of the music’s similarity, and the fans are different crowds of people. Japanese underground/alternative fans may well like overseas bands, but fans of overseas bands don’t necessarily like similar-sounding Japanese bands — in fact, they’re often inclined to look down their noses at them as embarrassing imitations. Not only that, but overseas bands are expensive to bring over. A ticket to see a local band costs ¥2000, but a foreign band will cost ¥6000 or more. A Japanese band supporting a touring foreign band will not bring significant numbers of their own supporters to a show when those fans can see them three times elsewhere for the same cost.

The biggest financial loss I’ve ever experienced off a single event was when I put together a last-minute booking for Bristol powerpop/new wave trio The Stingrays in Tokyo a couple of years ago. When I booked Dutch/German band Anatopia in Tokyo last year, I had to get six local bands to support them in order to bring in the crowd I needed to pay them even the small guarantee I’d offered. When I DJed with Bo Ningen in Tokyo and Kagoshima earlier this year, the organisers needed similarly bloated local band and/or DJ lineups to support the cost of the tour. In all these cases, we had to keep the ticket prices down as low as we could, so that fans from the local indie scene would be able to support the show. When the excellent You Got A Radio supported Gang Of Four earlier this year, I took one look at the ¥7000 ticket price and laughed my arse off. Many others did the same.

So what Tokyo Rocks did with getting a couple of big foreign headliners like Blur and My Bloody Valentine and then populating most of the rest of the lineup with Rockin’ On-ready local bands was doomed to fail to satisfy on two counts. Too expensive for the people who might have liked Andymori etc. it also offended the Blur and MBV fans by booking them with a load of local bands they were either disdainful of, uninterested in or had never heard of.

So while I think Takashi Yano and co. made mistakes, and I find his “stay young” sign-offs as cringeworthy and annoying as anyone, I have to feel sympathy with him because some of his mistakes were actually just cases of doing the right thing to the wrong people, while some were really just actions that reveal prejudices and habits of Japanese music fans and the music scene here that I also find infuriating. In the end, I think he might have just got too full of the success of his earlier, smaller one-day festivals and overreached. This is a temptation that every organiser is sometimes subjected to, myself included. With each success, like a gambler you think “I’m on a winning streak, lets raise the stakes!” and you have to step back, look at the reality of the music scene, assess the danger, and hedge your risks.

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2 Comments

Filed under Features, Strange Boutique

2 responses to “Strange Boutique (April 2013)

  1. miffy

    Man, the scene is so “clique”-ish. I expect this from corporations or high school kids but not the so-called liberal and inclusive indie scene. How do you as a foreign artist based in Japan survive there ?

    • Economic necessity makes it like that. The pay-to-play system means any band, no matter how terrible, can get a gig, and tickets are so expensive that audiences cluster around things that are familiar. Because of this, event organisers wanting to get decent sized crowds have to concentrate the signal to avoid scaring the audience with unfamiliar things. That then leads to music scenes becoming cliquey and focused on small, limited audiences, so bands are never able to reach out to new fans. Because the bands don’t have many fans, the venues have to charge the bands pay-to-play and set ticket prices very high, and so on and so on…

      I’m not an artist myself, just an organiser/label guy, and I basically keep it up by not worrying too much about the huge amounts of money I lose. It helps that I’m fairly closely embedded in a couple of these scenes and cliques by now, something my journalism and blogging probably helps, especially since there don’t seem to be many other people writing (in English or Japanese) about the kinds of bands I focus on. Actual foreign musicians over here seem to either (1) just play with other foreign bands, to the kind of audiences who like foreigners (yes, this is as bad as it sounds), (2) do what I do and slowly work their way into the system as best they can to the point where they’re if not exactly accepted, at least recognised as something that isn’t going to go away, or (3) go mad with frustration.

      The liberalism and inclusivity of indie music and whether it’s a legitimate thing to expect is something I sometimes think about, but it seems like it might be an issue fraught with cultural baggage. I don’t know what I really think about that yet.

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