Strange Boutique (September 2014)

My September column for The Japan Times was about live venues in Japan, and Tokyo in particular, so read it here.

This is a topic I’ve visited before, and I stand by my earlier position that there are some benefits that the pay-to-play (“noruma“) system has brought to the scene, primarily in allowing bands to experiment free of commercial considerations. It’s also something no one really likes to say, but the truth is that for a lot of venues, the shitty no-mark bands paying noruma are subsidising the actually good bands who while they don’t bring big crowds, the venues still want to support. A good band, even if they aren’t that popular, can usually play without noruma easily enough.

However, the point in this latest column isn’t about noruma so much as simply ways venues can encourage audiences and help make shows a better experience for them. It poses the question in terms of what venues should do “if they want to attract customers” and of course that presupposes that they actually do want to attract customers, which for a lot of venues really does seem to be an afterthought. But assuming a lot of them do, there are a few thoughts I have on the issue.

Personally I don’t like the idea of a smoking ban — smoke can be annoying, but it’s not as annoying as all my smoking friends buggering off outside every 20 minutes for a fag — and the food aspect is going to depend massively on whether the venue is big enough to accommodate a seated section in addition to the dance floor. Financially, a lot of these ideas seem to be a little idealistic given the extra staff and extra space needed. In addition, the idea of halving ticket prices to increase audience is one that while I like it, I have my doubts about its effectiveness. As a general rule, cutting door prices from ¥2000 to ¥1000 will increase your audience by about 50% when it needs to increase it 100% to maintain balance, especially if you go ahead with eliminating compulsory drink charges. The idea that eliminating the compulsory one drink order and cutting drink costs will encourage people to spend more at the bar is also questionable. Young people in particular don’t drink very much — one venue manager friend of mine had a show with a hundred people in attendence, and when they counted up the money at the end of the night, they had only sold two drinks in addition to the compulsory orders. Without the compulsory orders, they would have hardly sold any. Several venues have experimented with cheaper drinks, and most of them have been forced to jack the prices back up — ¥500 seems to be the market level unfortunately. Combined with some other ideas, it might work as part of a more comprehensive re-focusing of the venue though, and it’s certainly an ideal state of affairs.

One suggestion someone made that I liked was the idea of giving over one slow night to a band to perform a residency, where they would play every Monday or Tuesday for a month, booking their own support acts. This would help the venue build an identity, build its relationship with bands, and by doing some of the booking manager’s work for them they might be able to pay the band a bit. It needn’t even be a band doing the residency: it could be a label, a DJ, an event organiser or even a shop, fashion brand or restaurant. It would certainly be a difficult idea to pull off in smaller cities with fewer bands, but certainly in Tokyo it could work. I’m tempted to discuss this idea with some venues to see if they think it would be plausible.

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3 Comments

Filed under Strange Boutique

3 responses to “Strange Boutique (September 2014)

  1. The “one slow night” idea is how it worked in Houston in the early 80’s. A club called “The Island”, which on good nights hosted bands of the calibre of Black Flag and The Dead Kennedy’s, would allow ‘starter’ bands–new, struggling, little following, etc–to get on stage on off-prime-time nights, generally about once per week. Tough crowd, good experience, and if you could haul in enough friends to help the club turn a decent profit, it could actually become an opportunity–rare, but possible. The clubs were happy with it.
    In other news, I wanted to ask you, since you’ve analyzed the business side continuously: Sony is going to lose $2 billion this year, without a solution in sight. This is necessarily going to change the Japanese music business, yes? Perhaps they will finally start transitioning away from the CD-focused market?

    • The “slow night” as you describe it is basically any weeknight at a Tokyo venue, except the bands are paying to be there and there’s no audience except they people they bring. Giving one night over for band residences might help foster more of a sense of community on weeknights, but it might just take money away from the pay-to-play money or hall rental fees they can otherwise take on those nights. The better path musically is obvious, but reality bites so who knows?

      Sony’s losses are mostly coming from the consumer electronics division, and the big losses this year have a lot to do with the disastrous performance of the mobile phones division — they’ve been expanding profitably into financial services, real estate and TV distribution, the games division is going strong, and their cameras seem to be doing really well, so it’s not a story of unmitigated disaster. Sony music isn’t doing brilliantly but also isn’t in such a bad state, although I think it relies a lot on Animax, the anime production division, which is part of Sony Music Entertainment Japan rather than Sony Pictures for some reason — a lot of the music SMEJ is pushing now is anime stuff, drawn from Animax shows like Madoka Magica. Sony have been laying the groundwork for decoupling from CDs for a while, and their Music Unlimited streaming service is packaged as an integral part of the PS4.

  2. Banning smoke here in Poland a few years ago helped a lot. Only after it was introduced you’d notice how often it was a reason for not going to a concert or a pub. Or taking kids to a concert.

    Plus it’s a free advertisement in winter for those hidden clubs you talk about. If you notice some freezing guys having a smoke in front of a building, there’s something happening inside.

    The identity thing is very true about Warsaw too. The clubs that have been most successful recently are very careful about programming – and decoration too. And they have fancy names (like “Pardon To Tu” – “Sorry It’s Here”).

    Even though they play niche music like avant jazz, it’s often difficult to get tickets, and they tend to be full even on nights when there’s no concert at all.

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