Strange Boutique (April 2014)

A bit late updating this, but my April column for The Japan Times was on the local organisers who keep grassroots music culture going in Japanese towns outside the cultural gravity well of Tokyo. I hate using the word “curator” to talk about this amalgam of live venue staff, organisers, musicians, record store workers and journalists, but that’s what they are and it’s hard to come up with another, equally useful term for what they do.

As I mention in the article, it was being on tour that really drove this home. I often hear people remarking with an air of worldly wisdom that music should be left to sink or swim based on its own merits and it’s always hard to justify the existence of a shitty band, but anyone who seriously thinks popularity is this magical division bell that separates out the wheat from the chaff is operating under a delusion. There are numerous factors that influence popularity, very few of which have anything to do with how good something is. People can’t even agree on what a definition of “good” is, so what hope for an impartial measure?

In the mainstream music industry, popularity is influenced to a vast degree by who has access to the media and the infrastructure (basically only the majors) and in this sense, even popular taste itself becomes “curated” through constant reinforcement of certain images, and lyrical or musical tropes. As I mention in the article, once you step away from the big cultural centres, geography, age distribution, economics and transport connections become important factors. “Let the market decide” ends up denying areas the infrastructure to even allow anything to happen for reasons totally unconnected to the actual quality of the music.

So going to places like Kagoshima, Saga and Takamatsu, and seeing people working hard, against the prevailling market conditions, to make uncommercial but artistically vibrant music happen is exciting. It also suggests that as more conventional, mainstream music becomes increasingly remote, dedicated local curators could end up having an influence in curating taste as well. Because taste is to a large degree social, based on your peer group and your exposure. I’m a big cheerleader for local music as anyone who read my recent tour diary will I think know, and I’m particularly interested in anything that subverts the influence of the mainstream music industry (this is why I was so alternately intrigued by and suspicious of groups like BiS, because I was never entirely convinced that they offered any real kind of subversion, operating within a very conventional marketing structure and business model and merely substituting gross or violent images into it).

Anyway, the event is really just a bit of rare praise for all the great local organisers, including those who helped out with my tour and many more all over the country. I’ll just leave you with some more of my favourite “local band” in Japan, Saga’s Nakigao Twintail.Nakigao Twintail: full live set at Saga Rag-G

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