Monthly Archives: June 2013

Why music industry rapprochement with the Internet might not work to fans’ benefit

The music industry in Japan is afraid, that much is clear. Even behemoths like Sony Music Entertainment are being forced to admit that the Internet exists, industry figures are looking with greedy eyes at the attention their Korean neighbours have been gaining abroad, and artists deemed to have the potential for overseas appeal like kooky fashion icon Kyary Pamyupamyu and electro idol trio Perfume are being tentatively shipped out on carefully stage managed tours, playing tiny venues guaranteed to sell out. No one knows how things are going to play out, and they are worried. They are afraid.

And for music fans, it’s good that industry is afraid, because their fear comes from a lack of control, and the control the music business exerts over its product is bad for music. Troubled times create cracks in the system, through which unexpected things may pass. Idol music might not be everyone’s cup of heart-shaped latté, but the explosion of new acts incorporating a variety of increasingly bizarre musical and visual styles is at least something different, and is the direct result of an industry unsure of where to go. The aforementioned Ms. Pamyupamyu and Perfume are also artists who emerged from the cracks, propelled by subcultural appeal into unexpected success.Kyary Pamyupamyu: Invader Invader

And there are signs that the music industry might be starting to come to terms with its fears, finding a way to work with the still new (to them) technology of the web, and reconfiguring their marketing to deal with the way fan behaviour has changed over the past ten years. Needless to say, music fans will likely not be the first to benefit.

One way we can see these changes occurring is in music videos. Having traditionally enjoyed a healthy income from video cassette and DVD sales, the music industry’s initial reaction to video streaming sites like YouTube was one of abject horror, and they blamed them for everything from Hurricane Katrina to the Kennedy assassinations. The viral success of Kyary Pamyupamyu’s “Ponponpon” in 2011, however, did a lot to encourage them that maybe video streaming sites could be made to work for them. Nowadays, all major labels have a YouTube channel, and are raking in a smidgeon of cash from the advertising.

In terms of fans, there has been a clear decline in the amount of money what we can loosely call “mainstream” music fans are willing to spend, which leaves the industry with the option of either looking outwards like the Koreans, or consolidating inwards like, let’s say, the British Empire.

As someone who has spent the past nine years involved in indie promotion in Japan, insofar as I have any kind of strategy at all (something many who have had the misfortune to work with me may choose to strenuously doubt), it tends towards fostering a core group of fans who are genuinely into the music, and who are dedicated enough to come to the shows and buy the CDs. Everyone’s welcome, but some kinds of people are obviously going to be more receptive than others and it makes sense to give them more attention.

On the face of it, a popular, major label group is faced with a slightly different set of circumstances. If they’ve got this far, they most likely already have a core group of fans, and these fans are going to buy the records regardless, so their goal would seem to be to reach outside this core group and try to capture the stray dollars of people with a more casual interest in the band.

One thing that seems logical for both indies and majors here is the value of having a nice video, ready for people to share on YouTube. An indie video can be shared via specialist blogs or networks of genre aficionados on Twitter and Facebook, helping to introduce them to prospective fans; a major label video that goes viral shouldn’t impact on sales to core fans, and might bring in a few extra sales from elsewhere.

Not so for the Japanese music industry though, where companies seem to be even more aggressively than ever pursuing a core fan strategy. And this is where the issue of videos comes up again, because look once more at YouTube and while major labels are happy to take Google’s advertising crumbs and seed the ground with videos from smaller acts in the event of an unanticipated viral harvest, they are focusing ever harder on maintaining tight control over the image rights of their key properties.

“Gentleman”, Psy’s attempt to follow up the success of viral sensation “Gangnam Style”, racked up millions of YouTube views and posted U.S. sales of around 70,000 in its first week. For a song inevitably doomed to be seen by History as the first step in Psy’s inexorable slide back into relative international obscurity (I’ve still got money on him finally getting big in Japan about three years after everyone else has forgotten about him), those numbers aren’t too shabby. So why is the Japanese record industry running shy of these possibilities?Psy: Gentleman

Part of this is probably because they’ve decided that on balance, it isn’t worth it. My back of a fag packet calculation gives a viral video about one sale for every thousand YouTube views. I would imagine there’s a lot of variation from video to video depending on how viewers are engaging with it, and there’s probably some sort of curve involved depending on the level of saturation, but in any case, we need millions and millions of views to make any meaningful impact on a major label act’s sales figures.

So what countervailing advantages does pursuing a core fan strategy have for the Japanese music industry? Well, at one extreme, just look at mass idol collective AKB48 and their legions of obsessive fans, some willing to spend millions of yen on thousands of copies of a single in order to gain multiple voting rights in the group’s annual “senbatsu election” of the most popular members. Not only the CDs, but an ever growing pile of goods that the fans are encouraged to buy and buy again in order to show their devotion to the goddess of their particular sect within the AKB cult. AKB48 are an extreme example, but they’re the big success story in the domestic industry, and their success in monetising fans within a shrinking market has been noted with interest by their competitors.

One problem with the AKB method is that it is so reliant on CD sales, which in a marketplace increasingly having to come to terms with iTunes and similar legal download sites, and where streaming services like Sony Music Unlimited and soon Spotify are gradually carving out a place for themselves (several years too late, but well done anyway), this model is already an anachronism. AKB48’s enormous sales are the Tyrannosaurus Rex stalking the late Cretaceous of the CD format’s lifespan. One download buys you the song, and if you want to download it again, well it’s already yours. If a fan who spent ¥2,000,000 on over a thousand copies of the CD single wants to give them that ¥2,000,000 via Music Unlimited, he’s going to be busy.

So it’s not music, but goods that are the key to exploiting (and I do mean exploiting) the core fanbase, and the key to goods is image rights. Videos can also be monetised, not as promotional materials, but as commodities in their own rights, and by ruthlessly shutting out YouTube users from access to the videos, they can then sell exclusive broadcast rights to the videos to certain TV channels, to which the core fans must obediently turn, or flog them as video downloads to fans’ smartphones. This shift can be seen in the way the music industry in Japan now refuses to use the term PV (“promotional video”, i.e. for promotion) and has en masse adopted the term MV (“music video”, i.e. a discrete product whose value is intrinsic).

So a group like Perfume, having taken the big step by Japanese industry standards of making their music available to buy online internationally (still few of their J-pop peers have been willing to take the risk, whatever they imagine it might be), have been preparing to embark on an international tour with a new single and a clever, imaginative and quite charming video that their management company, Amuse, has until recently been vigorously battling to make sure none of their fans were able to see.

Yet Perfume are among the radicals, the trailblazers of modernity, and as a rule, they seem to be releasing the videos from captivity eventually, allowing them to roam their natural online environment after they have completed their terms of indenture to whatever broadcast organisation into whose service they were sold (Magic of Love finally appeared on Perfume’s official channel last week). The broader picture though, of an industry suspicious of the outside, not just of other countries but now of potential domestic fans from outside core fanbase groups, turning with ever greater cynicism towards the cultivation and exploitation of those fans devotion, is a profoundly depressing one.Perfume: Magic of Love

It’s inevitable in a way that once it begins to become accustomed to a new technology, an industry will first seek ways to retain control over it, and of course it’s natural that businesses will want to protect their profits before all else. It would be naive to attempt to deny this. At the moment, the Japanese music industry is still afraid, but what’s really dispiriting in all this is the way that in the midst of seismic changes in the marketplace, they are still channeling their resources into attempts to chart a path that turns the clock not forwards but backwards.

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Merpeoples: Silent Sleep

Merpeoples have been humming around the edge of being almost sorta kinda popular for a long time now, ever since they received the curse of being tipped by me in one of those “artists to look out for in the forthcoming year” articles I no longer get asked to write back at the end of 2009. Anyway, one mini album and one full length release down the line, they’re still much where they were, with a fanbase divided between those who seem to treat them like a sort of idol band and those indie/new wave types in the alternative scene who are always on the lookout for fun bands with a grasp of melody to counteract some of their own scene’s occasionally oppressive self-seriousness. Sadly, that role in the alternative scene has increasingly been outsourced to straight-up pre-fab idol confections, leaving Merpeoples not quite an idol band themselves but without really enough muso prog-pop seriousness to work as a kind of Negoto-esque Rockin’ On magazine type girl group.

Rather Merpeoples are a peppy, new wave-influenced guitar pop group who make music of the sort that journalists used to call “foot-tapping” before that term became damning with faint praise. That’s not to say their music is simplistic though, and Silent Sleep plays a couple of neat games with the rhythm, introducing a half-hiccup in the beat (which is always a super cool thing to do in dance pop — make the bastard audience work for it!) and slowing it down for the bridge, and bringing in a funkier, more propulsive bassline in the second verse. It’s an elegantly constructed pop song with melodic elements that hop between spiky, yearning and sweeping, each instrument stepping to the fore in successive sections and each element doing its pop job of being catchy but at the same time intelligent pop music.Merpeoples: Silent Sleep

The B-side, Tinkle, is a similarly accomplished new wave-influenced pop tune, with the keyboard-let arrangement, meandering guitar and overlapping vocals recalling Fukuoka art-wave supergroup Miu Mau. On the chorus though, the band seem to go for broke and aim for something epic and anthemic, in the process losing an important aspect of the tension that their music has between the more oddball and the J-pop elements when it’s at its very best and most distinctive. Taken as a whole, however, it’s hard to fault the two sides of this single, and one has to hope that there are people outside the group’s small coterie of dedicated fans still willing to give them a listen.

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(Rebuild Of) Client/Server: 3 Song Demo

Among the many CDs and demo CD/Rs that I get handed at gigs, most of them I never get around to writing about, but I’m going to draw your attention to this three-track, forty-plus minute CD/R by Tokyo-based multinational drone/noise band (Rebuild Of) Client/Server. Like the most excessive, scuzzed-out, lo-fi extremes of Flying Saucer Attack, they bring an almost pastoral, psychedelic bliss to their particular brand of earsplitting fuzz/feedback jams, and as you might expect, it’s music that’s far more about texture than it is about tunes per se. That said, the second track, the comparatively restrained just-short-of-ten-minute Hanging Rock, manages to temper the brutality with something genuinely pretty. You can listen to demo recordings of all three tracks that to be honest, aren’t a million miles removed in terms of sound quality from the appealingly rough-edged CD versions at the band’s Soundcloud or it can be downloaded in its complete form here.

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Live preview: Shinda Shinda Shinda (June 15th 2013)

A bit of self-promotion this, as after a long break and some touring, I’m back to organising reasonably regular live events in Tokyo now. I tried a small show at the lovely Art Bar Ten last month, which went off so spiffingly that I’m planning to make it a regular monthly thing from August, so now I’m ready for something bigger and louder, at my favourite venue in Japan, Higashi-Koenji 20000V (Ni-man Den-Atsu).

There’s a bit of a story behind the venue. 20000V or 20000 Volt was a famous punk venue in the lower basement of a building on Koenji’s Pal shopping arcade. It catered to hardcore, alternative and noise bands, while the slightly smaller Gear on the upper basement floor was more orientated towards pop-punk and garage bands. The booking manager of 20000V was Hayakawa from punk legends Kirihito, and when he left, Ishida from Firebirdgass and Mochizuki from Groundcover. took over, maintaining the uncompromising spirit of the place. On the second floor of the same building there was an izakaya called Ishikari-tei which had the most awesome staff and stayed open until 10:00am every day, so that’s where you went after the gigs finished down in the basement.

The trouble came in October 2009, when a fire at Ishikari-tei gutted the building and killed four people, including two staff. It made national news and was a terrible blow to the local scene. I was friendly with one of the waitresses, but she was in Paris at the time with a dance performance group and I don’t know to this day who the people killed were. I don’t want to know.

Fortunately, apart from a small amount of water damage, 20000V wasn’t harmed, but the owners, SOS Group, decided to close it and Gear down anyway. One suspects they’d been looking for an excuse to shut it down for a long time, and this gave them the chance they’d been looking for. The team who ran the venue were a close-knit crowd, who worked together brilliantly. They were widely respected in the local scene and had a lot of loyal bands and events, but the decision was final, 20000V was shut down and they were out of their jobs.

So obviously, they did what any right thinking punks would do and they opened up a new venue just across town near Higashi-Koenji Station. They got a new sound system that was even louder than the one they’d had before, and this time they would run it themselves. SOS Group refused to let them use the name, so they called it Ni-man Den-Atsu (the four kanji literally mean “20000 Volt”) and lots of people who know the venue’s history still call it by its old name anyway, as they should. Anyway, it’s a venue I’m very close to and where whenever I can, I try to do shows there (the Penguin House on the north side of Koenji, where my wife and I had our wedding party, is the place it shares space in my heart with).

So this Saturday, June 15th, 20000V is where I’m organising my show, which I’ve put together in collaboration with the band Jebiotto, also veterans of the original venue. It’s named “Shinda Shinda Shinda” as a pun on the high school girl rock band movie Linda Linda Linda and the Japanese for “Dead Dead Dead”. I put the full details up on my label’s blog here, but here are some clips previewing the bands who are playing.

First up, there’s the brilliantly named I Know The Mouse, a young band who if they have any web presence at all, I’ve been unable to find it. They’re an instrumental guitar and synth-based band, whose demo shows elements of new wave and krautrock, but to find out more, you’ll just have to go and see them.

Then there’s Jebiotto, another synth-based band. Time Out Tokyo describe them as a “scrappy indie-disco trio“, but they’re heavily postpunk influenced too, with a sense of rhythm focused on dancing, but with an approach to playing that emphasises energy and enthusiasm over technical perfection. The vocalist Madoka has an alarming habit of screaming “Rape me!” at the audience at inopportune moments during the set (she’s a Nirvana fan) and making everyone in the room feel deeply uncomfortable, but she’s also a charismatic, brilliantly frazzled frontwoman.Jebiotto: Beat End

Probably the best-known band on the lineup is Kuruucrew. Mostly instrumental, although they have been known to yell stuff over the top of their music from time to time, their music falls into a couple of patterns, both characterised by extreme noise and a high level of technical skill. Firstly, there’s rhythmically diverse, stop-start avant-garde rock, and secondly, there’s repetitive, groove-orientated psychedelia, heavily influenced by krautrock and I suspect also by genre-defying 70s oddities like This Heat.Kuruucrew live

Mir were one of the reasons I started Call And Response Records in the first place. Their music is fragile and beautiful, but shot through with a kind of anger, intensity and desperation that carries over into their live performances, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. I’ve seen them play sublime sets, but I’ve also seen their gigs collapse into drunken incoherence, tears, violence or all of the above. Watching Mir live is like watching a man put his head into the mouth of a lion. If he survives, the joy is tempered by a huge sense of relief, and if he doesn’t, it’s horrible, but hey, you did just see a guy getting his head bitten off by a lion. It’s always an experience.Mir: Machiawase Basho wo Kimete Yokou

Mir used to be a more rock-orientated three-piece but they’re currently down to a synth-based core of the twin male and female vocalists, whose onstage relationship is often quite a fraught thing. The tension that often exists between them is reflected in the music, which often plays out in the form of duets that set Yoko’s sweet, glacial female voice against Kyohei’s emotional, often tortured, yowls of alienation.Mir: Ya Ne Mogu Bez Tebya

Finally, there’s Hyacca, who I’ve written a bit about recently, and who are another of the reasons I started Call And Response. They’re another band who make use of multiple vocalists, although they have a more obvious frontperson in Hiromi Kajiwara. One of their great talents is in taking something musically quite complex and making it into something that feels very natural and accessible, never losing sight of the fact that what they’re making is fundamentally dance music.Hyacca: Stress / Sick Girl

Sorry for using this space to big up my own projects at the moment, but in the end, this blog, my label and my events all come from the same place: the need for a forum to shout about bands I think are worth listening to (and since most of my readers are based in the United States, it’s probably only on this blog that most of you will be able to hear these bands anyway). There’s more of the same coming next month as well, with another five bands playing on July 13th, this time at the Penguin House, so forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

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Yokan System: Sasurai Tutu Sasayaku / Tete

Yokan System are a new electronic duo formed by Tsukasa and Mai from psychedelic postpunk/alternative band Praha Depart. They’ve been jamming and experimenting as a duo on and off for a long time now in between Praha Depart’s semi-regular jaunts to Europe and the United States but with Yokan System they seem to have formalised their project and these two tracks are the fruit.Sasurai Tutu Sasayaku

Both Sasurai Tutu Sasayaku and Tete are built around looping melodies, with the former track taking Tsukasa’s cascading guitar line, a repetitive synth chime and adding Mai’s overlapping, chanting vocals over the top of a stumbling beat. Tete forges ahead and builds relentlessly to the end where Sasarai allowed the beat to drop out for a moment before the climax, adding a more straightforward and insistent dance beat with bass synth straight out of the gloomiest days of the late 70s and early 80s (think The Human League’s Being Boiled). There are clear parallels with Liz Fraser’s layers of unearthly vocals in The Cocteau Twins (Yokan System would sit well on 4AD’s 80s roster, while Praha Depart would fit in better with its 90s lineup), as well as perhaps interesting echoes of Japanese composer Yoko Kanno’s 90s diversions into eastern European choral music, which stands in contrast to Mai’s emotionally raw delivery when singing with Praha Depart. In that sense, Yokan System are a side project in the very best sense of the word, complimenting the members’ other work and neither seeking to replace it nor contenting itself to sit in its shadow.Tete

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V/A: World Awake

World Awake

Download, Ano(t)racks, 2013

Net labels are something the indie scene (in Japan at least) is still in the process of coming to grips with. In many ways, a net label has more in common with music aggregator blogs that simply introduce new music, functioning primarily as a taste curator rather than participating actively in its creation, and with the financial investment the label makes next to zero, the relationship between label and artist is fundamentally different. However, the boundaries are more blurred than that, and on the basis of this compilation, Ano(t)racks are certainly putting some excellent new music out there.

One of the advantages net labels have is that because money isn’t the same issue that it was, they can afford to take a more relaxed and eclectic approach to the artists they select, with less of the ruthless honing and focusing in on specific types of artist and cultivating specific audiences in real, physical live spaces. The Web allows them to float more freely and catch their audience more passively. Still, the online environment naturally acts as a kind of filter in itself, and where punk labels thrive in the alcohol-fuelled, claustrophobic intensity of small live spaces, the audience for a net label is more likely to be found surfing the web, semi-conscious at 2AM, so it’s natural that the sort of music a label like Ano(t)racks gravitates towards is suited to that listening environment.

Ano(t)racks are a self proclaimed twee pop label, and there’s nothing much on this compilation to dispute that, with the exception of Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s vampish, defiantly lo-fi Fanaticalia. Built around a riff that Patrick over at Make Believe Melodies rightly identifies as having been stolen wholesale from The Kinks’ You Really Got Me (to be honest, something that iconic barely counts as stealing now; like the chord sequence from Hang on Sloopy, it’s surely public domain by now) it makes occasional diversions into Rolling Stones territory but fundamentally, like much of Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s self-titled debut album, released earlier this year and sure to be one of Japan’s albums of the year come December, its closest cousin in terms of construction is Can, with the way the music slips and slides over the disorientating rhythm and the emphasis on trancelike repetition.

Eschewing the lo-fi approach and emerging as genuinely lovely indie rock songs as well as highlights of the album are The Fin.’s Floating in the Air and Come to my Party’s Paraffin Lover. I can sense a distant echo of Frozen Years by British pub rock legends The Rumour in the former somewhere, but more than that, it’s simply a pure rush of sentimental, timeless guitar pop comfort food. The latter also provides some tunespotting opportunities for new wave geeks, with the main melody reminiscent of Echo and The Bunnymen’s Bring on the Dancing Horses, although sonically it has a lot in common with Japanese turn-of-the-millennium alternative rock, in particular Supercar (and particularly the song Aoharu Youth), with its mixture of shoegaze, synths and electronic beats. Ghostlight’s Koi no You na Uso also harks back to the turn of the millennium like a more laid back, lo-fi take on Quruli’s C’mon C’mon.

There are more low-key, acoustic numbers such as the gorgeous Coastline by Genki Sakuradani and the quirky, banjo-based 1940s cabaret jazz of Annie the Clumsy’s Gold Crescent Moon, as well as the beach pop of Superfriends’ How True My Love Was and the decidedly Lennonesque blues of Slow Beach’s closing Surfin’ Day and there’s really not a duff tune among the eight tracks on offer.

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Groundcover./Tacobonds: Summer 2013 U.S. East Coast Tour (June 15th-21st)

Two of the best bands in the Tokyo underground music scene are hitting the U.S. east coast this month in what I promise will contend for the title of most intense, visceral and plain thrilling live shows you will see this year.Tacobonds / Groundcover. tour promo

Groundcover. (the dot is part of their name, presumably to annoy subeditors at English language publications) are a six-piece whose music ranges from heavy, spaced-out dub to screaming, hardcore junk. Like the conductor of a noise orchestra, Ataraw Mochizuki directs the chaos from behind a portable mixing desk, leaping skyward and punctuating the music with echo-effected shrieks and yells, leading it through sonic peaks and troughs but maintaining a brutal, relentless momentum that grabs you in the pit of your stomach from the word go and wrenches tighter with every shift in gear, every new level of noise they reach for, until your ears have long since ceased to be the primary means by which you’re able to experience the music and that panzer rumble in your gut is the only way left to sense the shifts in tone and rhythm. Drawn from a tradition that includes such luminaries as the Boredoms, Groundcover.’s music is a deep sucker punch, at once primal, physical and transformative, it’s also a monolithic sonic experience.Groundcover.: io

Tacobonds are like Groundcover.’s hyperactive kid brother, a flurry of jittery guitar and frantic beats that shift restlessly from groove to groove, marking changes in intensity through these changes in rhythm rather than attempting to reach for the same heights of raw noise that Groundcover. soar. Tacobonds are at their core a postpunk/skronk band in the mould of the Contortions, Gang of Four or The Pop Group, and they tap into the same jagged electricity, combining it with a more fluid approach to rhythm, where songs drift between time signatures rather than sharply jackknife from one to another, often making the boundaries between tracks indistinct in a way that has more in common with dance music than punk.Tacobonds, live at Higashi-Koenji UFO Club, 2012

Where Tacobonds and Groundcover. are firmly united, however, is in the uncompromising intensity of their performance, the virtuosity of their musicianship, and the intelligence, imagination and instinctive physical power of their music. I know this reads like a piece of PR fluff, but these bands are absolutely not to be missed if you have any kind of opportunity to see them on this tour.

Groundcover. & Tacobonds, East Coast Tour, Summer 2013:

(Facebook event info here)

  • June 15th, Baltimore MD, Golden West Cafe, with Echo Hey Hello, 11:00pm, $7
  • June 16th, Philadelphia PA, Phila Moca, with Echo Hey Hello, Heavy Medical, 7:00pm, $10
  • June 17th, Brooklyn NYC, The Knitting Factory, with Echo Hey Hello, Uzuhi, Tom Blacklung and The Smokestacks, 7:00pm, $10
  • June 18th, Wilmington DE, Spaceboy Clothing, with Kind of Creatures, Echo Hey Hello, 7:00pm, $5
  • June 19th, Silverspring MD, Joe’s Record Paradise, with Weekends, Sleep Disorder, Chaos Destroy, 5:00pm, $5
  • June 19th, Washington DC, The Sunshine District, with Weekends, The Flying Tuna, Radiator Greys, 8:30pm, $8
  • June 20th, Frederick MD, The Rats Nest, with Weekends, Cosmic Halitosis, Heavy Breath
  • June 21st, Baltimore MD, Club K, with Natural Velvet, Echo Hey Hello, Adam Lempel, Jeff Carey, Sexgender, 7:30pm (all night), $6

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