Strange Boutique (May 2015) – The 80s band boom and Tokyo’s live music infrastructure

The topic of my May Japan Times column deals with the relationship between the 1980s “band boom” and the current state of the live music scene in Tokyo and some other parts of Japan.

It came out of a conversation I had with Koichi Makigami of Hikashu when I was interviewing him for my book (which is nearly finished now, so keep your eyes on this space), when he noted that the explosion in the number of bands in Japan in the early-to-mid-80s went hand-in-hand with both a rapid growth in the number of venues and a rapid reversal in the financial relationship between venues and bands. If anyone wants to know where Tokyo’s annoying pay-to-play live system comes from, this is it.

As I’ve said before, I dislike the “noruma system” but at the same time I’m ambivalent about it in some ways. Basically, noruma means that a large majority of shitty, no-mark bands subsidise a huge, well-equipped infrastructure for those who can make it work for them. This may not seem fair, but a system where venues depend not on bands’ pockets but on their fans for revenue would be unfair as well – it’s just that a different sort of music would benefit (a sort of music that already does pretty well out of the current system actually).

However, I do wonder if that system is finally crumbling after all these years. Young bands (those that even bother playing live rather than just making wispy indietronica on their laptops like wusses) increasingly seem drawn to the many alternatives to paying noruma at regular live venues, and that may be starving the more traditional venues of the next generation of bands. When Shibuya Echo was open, it became a sort of hub for young indie musicians and DJs, and that role seems to have moved mostly to Ebisu Batica now. Neither Echo nor Batica are/were good venues by typical Tokyo standards, but they are/were cheap to use, and in the end the compromises in terms of sound quality, space and (at Batica) high drink prices appear to be worth it to many.

Similarly, the small studio complex Koenji Dom, which has always hosted occasional gigs, now seems more like a venue than a studio, with events on every weekend. It’s leading to a slightly frustrating trend towards over-stuffed gigs at venues that are too small to handle it, simply because the venues are cool and easy to make money from, but then who is to blame for there not being a viable alternative?

The counterpoint to this argument, however, is that these venues are simply petri dishes where bands and scenes can grow before stepping up to the “real” venues. Shibuya Home seemed to occupy that role for a while, and perhaps thanks to friendly booking staff Shimokitazawa Three seems to have taken its place now. In this sense, maybe a sort of new synthesis between DiY and “real” venues is forming.

Still, making that step up is difficult. At a small 30-50 capacity venue, you can set a ¥1000 ticket price and not lose money – maybe even make a small profit – but as soon as you step up to a 50-100 capacity venue, suddenly the rental bar necessitates a new standard of ¥1500-¥2000 tickets, instantly wiping out a large part of the attraction of your smaller events. You either have a choice between overcrowded and shitty sounding but financially viable events or spacious and nice sounding but money-losing events. The infrastructure as it currently stands really doesn’t provide much in between.

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