Category Archives: Features

Top 20 Releases of 2016: Afterword

If you’ve read through all of my 2016 top 20, congratulations. If not and/or it would be handy for you to have them all listed in one place, here is the full rundown with links. I’ll do my best to get a selection of these discs in stock in the distribution section of the Call And Response online store over the coming weeks, just in case anyone wants them shipped overseas.

20. V/A – Provoke
19. Asuna + Fumihito Taguchi – 100 Keyboards x 100 Record Players with 100 Sea Wave Records
18. Code – Code
17. Soloist Apartment – untitled
16. Transkam – Blueshade of the Omegasound
15. tepPohseen – Some Speedy Kisses
14. Masami Akita & Eiko Ishibashi – Kouen Kyodai
13. macmanaman – New Wave Of British BASEBALL Heavy Metal
12. V/A – Drriill Session
11. Foodman – EZ Minzoku
10. Hijokaidan x Jun Togawa – Togawa Kaidan
9. Sonotanotanpenz – Conga
8. Kuruucrew – Kuruucrew
7. Sea Level – Invisible Cities
6. Limited Express (Has Gone?) – All Ages
5. Masami Takashima – Fake Night
4. Convex Level – Inverse Mapped Tiger Moth
3. Narcolepsin – Mojo
2. Kafka’s Ibiki – Nemutte
1. NOISECONCRETEx3CHI5 ‎– Sandglass/Suna-Ji-Kei

As I said in the intro, there’s a lot of good stuff I didn’t talk about in this top 20 rundown, either because of the inherent art-rock biases of my selection process, because I didn’t hear it, or that it just wasn’t in my mind at the time. I mentioned some of the same artists, along with a few others, in my Japan Times year-end indie review. I’m also not the only person coming up with these lists, and some other less tardy commentators have had their own rundowns available for months now.

If your taste leans more pop and electronic, Make Believe Melodies has a top 30 that will be rich in delights for you.

PART 1 (30-21)

PART 2 (20-11)

PART 3 (10-1)

Meanwhile, international music site Beehype produced their own Japanese music rundown, with more of an mainline J-indie tilt.

BEEHYPE TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2016

Finally, if you’re the sort of person who hates reading and prefers to have their music reviews read to them by an American man with a beard, music vlogger Zach Reinhardt made a series of punk/noise-edged year-end review posts, which cover some of the same ground as mine, with the additional inclusion of basically all my own Call And Response label’s releases of last year (which I ban myself from including in this site’s year-end lists).

TOP 10 EPs OF 2016

TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2016 (20-11)

TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2016 (10-1)

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Features

Top 20 releases of 2016: Intro

As any readers this site has somehow managed to retain may have spotted, updates have dried up over the past couple of years. The main reasons for that have been down to my finishing writing, editing and promoting my book, Quit Your Band! – Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground (released late 2016 from Awai Books) and my decision to spend half a year travelling around Japan by bicycle, documenting the local music scenes in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures (partially written up on my Burn Your Hometown blog).

The other thing that’s kept me occupied has been my Call And Response Records label, which has been getting more and more active over the past couple of years. Last year we put out four new albums/EPs:

Looprider’s Ascension was a hardcore- and noise-influenced collection of raw, fast sonic violence.

Nagasaki art-punk trio Mechaniphone’s Uholic was a collection of quirky, pop-inflected tunes that come at you from a variety of rhythmical angles.

Tropical Death’s Thunder Island EP was a Cassette Store Day special, combining a Japanese underground background with ’90s post-hardcore/alt-rock influences.

Finally, Nakigao Twintail’s Ichijiku was an eclectic explosion of pop, surreal humour and teen angst.

With Looprider’s third album, the post-rock/progressive Umi, and instrumental electronic/psychedelic duo Lo-shi’s new Ninjin already out in 2017 and at least four more new releases in the works, the label is picking up the pace still further this year.

Nevertheless, with the end of my Strange Boutique column in The Japan Times this March, I have had more time for writing, and I’ve spent the last couple of months belatedly introspecting over the best and most interesting Japanese music of 2016. Whether anyone apart from me still cares about the Japanese underground music of a year that ended nearly six months ago is up for debate, but I’m doing it anyway.

The usual caveats apply. These releases have been selected from EPs, mini-albums and fill albums. I include compilations, but not singles, which I loosely classify as a disc with two or fewer tracks. There are experimental and psychedelic releases that may only include a single track of immense length, so obviously I make exceptions for those. I exclude anything Call And Response released, since I’m too close to it to be able to assess it critically in the same way I would something I didn’t have a hand in the production of (although obviously all four of our releases if last year would be right up there if I were ranking the music purely on what I love). The order of the ranking is by no means scientific subject to all sorts of competing considerations. Some are simply interesting ideas or good representations of something I think deserves to be represented, others are albums that I found myself engaging with on a creative or intellectual level, others are simply fun collections of songs.

There are lots of albums I enjoyed or appreciated that I didn’t include here but which on another day I might have, and there are still more I didn’t get a chance to listen to but which may well be worthy of inclusion. However, this is the list I came up with, so this is what I stuck to when writing it up. I’ll post the 20 reviews individually in a flurry of updates over the next few days.

3 Comments

Filed under Call And Response, Features

Interview: The Bathhouse Show

For those of you in Tokyo tomorrow (Saturday, February 13th), I recently did an interview with Ella Krivanek and Dorothy Siemens, who have put on this fascinating looking free art and music event at an abandoned bathhouse. The event features Melt-Banana and Hikashu, who are two of the best bands in Japan, as well as relative newcomers The Fin and The Boys Age, so get on down there early and check it out.

Here’s the interview in The Japan Times, so please check that out.

Because of the limited space, there was a lot of fascinating stuff that I just couldn’t include. Obviously as a music writer, the musical aspect of the event was the angle that I approach this from, although the event is clearly designed so that the art and music interact conceptually in various ways. As the person in charge of the music, I was particularly interested in some of what Siemens explained about how the music functions as art and how the borders artforms can be crossed, subverted or blurred.

“I was interested in getting bands that bridged a certain gap between art and music,” Siemens explained, “Koichi Makigami from Hikashu also works as a sound artist, and Melt-Banana have broken a lot of barriers – there’s a juxtaposition there in the whole descriptor of ‘noise music.’ Meanwhile Boys Age make music out of their bedroom – it’s very DIY and it’s very immediate.”

In the context of my travels around Japan and my interest in the relationship between music and the place in which it happens, this event touched on a lot of themes that I find interesting as well. I remarked on the way smaller towns and more remote areas push different kinds of stuff together that would never usually interact in Tokyo, and how this often leads to more interesting, unexpected or imaginative work as a virtue of necessity.

“The most exciting projects have taken place outside Tokyo,” agreed Krivanek, “There’s a side of it that says because there aren’t as many spaces, people have to make do with sharing space, but the other side is that they have the opportunity to do that because space isn’t nearly at such a premium, so you can rent physically bigger buildings. And people who are slightly weird in the countryside are drawn to one another regardless of whether they’re all fine artists or all musicians or whatever.”

There is also a sense that through this approach, it might be possible to point a way towards a new way of thinking about and doing music and art in Tokyo as well. In the music scene especially, I get the impression that some of the structures, like the live house system, are fraying at the edges, with people increasingly looking to alternative spaces to perform.

“There’s a need to look at new ways of doing things and beak out of these rigid structures of ‘this is how you become an artist or a musician’,” explained Siemens, “There are people who get sponsorship from galleries or sign to a major label, but that’s not the majority of people. It’s an opportunity to start a discussion in Tokyo about how we can do this in a new way, how we can create a new community of artists and musicians that support each other here in Tokyo.”

As Krivanek adds, “In terms of an intersection between fine art and music, I don’t think either that’s a new thing or something to be afraid of.”

This also brought to mind one of my pet concerns about music, which is the way that as it loses its value as a commercial product, it increasingly seems to be becoming subservient to lifestyle accessories and fashion, when really it deserves respect and consideration as an art in its own right. Perhaps aware of the near-Satanic position that one particular kind of goods holds in Call And Response Records demonology, this point kicked off a little exchange that made me chuckle:

SIEMENS: “There are so many of these lifestyle-branded bands that come with the pins, the t-shirts, the mechandise…”

KRIVANEK: “The tote bags!”

SIEMENS: “We have this opportunity to pull music back into this conversation of exploring it as a fine art”

All of which I absolutely agree with (even if they were taking the piss out of my irrational disdain for poor, innocent tote bags a bit).

Another related point we discussed was the way they decided to keep enough of a separation between between the musicians and fine artists, so that each has the space to be considered in their own right rather than as simply a soundtrack to the art or a visual accompaniment to the music. However, Krivanek and Siemens are intrigued by the possibilities this juxtaposition might open up in terms of what visitors take with them from the music into the art and vice versa when travelling between areas. In any case, like I say, if you get a chance, check out the show.

The event page on Facebook is here, or on Tokyo Gig Guide here.

4 Comments

Filed under Features, Live, Live previews

Top 20 Releases of 2015: Afterword

With the end of this latest countdown of the past year’s top Japanese music, it’s worth drawing attention to what other writers did for their own rundowns. The other main English language sites that go deep enough to put these kinds of extensive lists together are Make Believe Melodies and Beehype. Neither list had anything in common with mine, and precious little in common with each other, which just goes to show how diverse the indie scene in Japan is. In any case, both lists are worth checking out in order to get a different perspective on what Japanese indie (and a bit of pop – Patrick at MBM remains inexplicably attached to E-Girls) music has to offer.

Make Believe Melodies: Best Japanese Albums of 2015
30-21
20-11
10-1

Beehype: Best of 2015 – Japan

As I said before embarking on this latest countdown, the fact that my own label’s releases were disqualified had a big influence on the makeup of this list. It’s always an issue, but it was a bigger one than usual this time round since we released so many albums and EPs featuring so many of our favourite bands in 2015.

Looking forward into the rest of 2016, I’ll be dealing with a similar situation next time round, with a lot of new Call And Response releases already in the pipeline. Looprider’s debut only came out six months ago, but they already have a second album recorded and ready to go this spring, and a third album written. Lo-shi have already recorded their third album and first CD release, with the album currently being mixed with a view to a summer release. Mechaniphone, whose first EP came in at No.4 in my best of 2015 countdown, have a new EP ready to go, which I’ll be helping them put out in a limited release very soon. Other bands in the wider Call And Response family have new material at varying stages of completion, including Han Han Art, Sharkk, Trinitron and Tropical Death.

More broadly, I’m (maybe hopefully) picking up vibes that indiepop may have peaked and that the cool kids are ready for something a bit more discordant. If there is even the faintest possibility of a postpunk/no wave revival, I’ll be doing everything I can to jolly it along and then report on it as if it’s some spontaneous thing I just discovered.

Basically, my theory is that the indie hipster cred Hysteric Picnic/Burgh have been building up over the past couple of years has now reached such a level that young, cool kids want to hang out with them and be in bands like them. There has always been a seam of arty, angular Japanese underground music scraping away metalically beneath the surface of the music scene, and the emergence of younger bands like Deviation and Ms. Machine, as well as the welcome return of the still ludicrously young and inspired Nakigao Twintail, suggests that at least in some limited sense Japanese skronk might be getting a shot of young blood.

Any look at stuff to look forward to should probably begin with Afrirampo’s spring reunion tour, followed by an appearance at the Taico Club festival in June. Whether any new recordings will emerge is still uncertain, and I’m not sure if that would even be a good idea at this stage. Pika already has a new album titled Sun Ra New, in collaboration with Yuji Katsui and Yoshihide Otomo, and quite what role Afrirampo could play in her ever-evolving musical explorations I don’t clearly see.

New releases I’ll be looking out for include Kyoto bubblegum hardcore/postpunk band O’Summer Vacation’s new 7 Minutes Order, which I’ve already heard and is awesome, and hopefully a full album by my favourite band in Tokyo right now, the wonderful Falsettos.

I’ll also be embarking soon on the second stage of my travels to every prefecture of Japan to research its indie music scene. Following my return to Tokyo, my long-promised book on the Japanese indie music scene is now back from the editor and pencilled in for a summer release, so keep your eyes open for more on that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Features

Top 20 releases of 2015: Intro

As is custom with the start of a new year, this blog is going to kick off 2016 with a month-long look back at the past year’s musical highlights. As usual, this task is complicated by a number of factors and naturally limited by my own prejudices and interests as a music fan. For longtime readers, this will perhaps be unnecessary, but I’ll ask you to bear with me as I go over the background against which this rundown will operate.

Firstly, it’s all Japanese music, which I’m defining here as music made either by Japan-based musicians or Japanese musicians based overseas but with some significant connection to the music scene here in Japan.

In theory, there’s no particular rule dictating major or underground music, but in practice that means it’s all indie and underground music, for at least as long as all J-Pop and idol music remains utter garbage. If you think that’s unfair, feel free to complain to your heart’s content in the comments but I’ve tried really hard to like Suiyobi no Campanella and they’re just not that good.

The kinds of releases I’m covering range from EPs to full albums, which generally means three tracks or more and upwards of ten minutes in total – naturally with some wiggle room to take into account things like psychedelic albums where one track can last an hour or hardcore albums where ten songs can go by in eight minutes.

I don’t include any releases from my own Call And Response label, which was doubly hard this year, because the compilation/tribute album Small Lights – A Tribute to Mir which came out on Call And Response’s December 27th ten-year anniversary is a release I’m more proud of than anything I’ve ever worked on and is in my honest (and naturally unbiased) opinion easily the best album released anywhere in the world in 2015 and making a mockery of the actual list.

With that in mind, I’ll beg your indulgence for a moment as I run down the various releases on Call And Response this year in which I had varying degrees of involvement:

Sharkk: Sharkk EP – Buy cassette HERE

sharkk-smallA distinctly poppy collection of alt-rock/emo/punk tunes, recorded by Tokyo-based American musician Sean McGee and a menagerie of collaborators. Self-released via Bandcamp and distributed in physical form via Call And Response as a limited edition cassette.

Hakuchi: Chindon DING DONG! ~ Minokurui March ~ – Buy CD HERE

hakuchi_chindondingdongThis frenetic collision of postpunk, grunge, 1970s Japanese pop and children’s songs, by a band from Saga in Kyushu that I have been keeping tabs on for a while, was an album I proudly shepherded through from early stages to release. Hakuchi are a rare band who embody the carefree attitude of much of what’s popular in the alternative scene at the moment, while retaining the breakneck energy, arty contrarianism and strong musical core that I demand of my favourite bands.

Lo-shi: Baku – Buy LP HERE

lo-shi_bakuCall And Response took a minor role in distributing this limited edition vinyl release of an album the band had self-released in 2014. A mixture of dark, nightmarish psychedelic soundscapes and skittering electronic beats, kept from falling into the abyss of ambient goo by a krautrock-ish sense of momentum that constantly drives it forward and gives it structure and shape.

Looprider: My Electric Fantasy – Buy CD HERE

looprider_myelectricfantasyThis mini-album that sometimes fuses and sometimes juxtaposes elements of metal, shoegaze, psychedelia and pop is just part one in an ambitious cycle of releases from this new band that will cover even more eclectic ground as it works its way over the next couple of years towards the completion of its first phase. The Tokyo indie scene was utterly baffled by Looprider’s failure to conform to any of its usual scene/genre boundaries. People from outside seemed to find it far less confusing.

V/A: Small Lights – A Tribute to Mir – Buy CD HERE

car69As I mentioned before, this compilation stands as the work I’m most proud of in my whole ten years of releasing music, and while — as an 80-minute tribute/concept album dedicated to an utterly unknown Tokyo indie band — its commercial potential even/especially in Japan is next to zero, it still to my mind stands alone as a coherent, singularly powerful and emotionally moving album. I know it’s ludicrous to say this about an album I helped produce myself, and I can’t possibly know whether I would love it quite so much if delivered from another’s hand, but I can at least say that this is as clear and coherent a statement of What I Like as has ever existed.

6 Comments

Filed under Features

Idol Music’s Garden of Forking Paths: Yurumerumo!’s “Hamidasumo!” and Perfume’s “Pick Me Up”

In this day and age where pretty much any musical or fashion subculture is ripe for co-option and exploitation by the idol scene, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at where it all kicked off.

The love affair between idol groups and indie/underground music, in its current form at least, started with Shibuya-kei and neo new wave – two genres that were already long on the road to convergence. The fading from the mainstream of Shibuya-kei around 1998 or so coincided with the brief bubble of retro new wave and technopop that grew up around the Tokyo Newwave of Newwave ’98 compilation album and bands like Polysics, Spoozys and Motocompo.

Gradually, some of the technopop remnants of the neo new wave scene coalesced with a sort of dead cat bounce of Shibuya-kei, around labels like Vroom Sound, Softly! And Usagi-Chang. Plus-tech Squeeze Box, Hazel Nuts Chocolate, Eel, Aprils, YMCK and others floated around in similar circles to the still extant Motocompo and Shibuya-kei revivalists like Capsule, sometimes guesting on each other’s records.

The emergence of Perfume in 2003-2004, produced by Capsule’s Yasutaka Nakata, set off a lot of light bulbs in the collective imagination of this post-neo-new-wave, post-post-Shibuya-kei scene and people started to realise that even as their own music had been sidelined by the music industry, the idol scene was musically malleable enough that they might be able to do something within its structures. More than that even, Perfume were a ray of light through the whole indie, underground and punk scenes who perhaps needed a splash of colour as they laboured under the receding shadow of brilliant but discordant and angry bands like Number Girl. Perfume were cute, colourful, cool and contemporary, but at the same time, there was a nostalgic sort of retro-futurism to them. They may have been heavily influenced by Daft Punk, but one of their earliest songs was a cover of the new wave classic Jenny wa Gokigen Naname by Juicy Fruits, and their path from technopop through electropop left echoes of beloved bands of eras past, particularly YMO.

Yurumerumo are an idol group very much in that tradition. Drawing from a songwriting and production talent pool rooted in new wave-influenced artists, they regularly work with lyricist Ai Kobayashi from technopop duo Miami (Yurumerumo often perform the Miami song Shiratama Disco, the original version of which appeared on my own Call And Response label’s 2005 debut compilation) and it should come as no surprise to see TNWONW98 alumnus Hayashi from Polysics taking charge of them for Hamidasumo! (side note: Dan Cervi, who plays the newsreader in the promotional video, is another figure I remember from the scene back in those days and man does it make me feel old seeing his face crop up again).Yurumerumo: Hamidasumo!

So namedropping aside, what does all this mean for the song? Well, for all their new wave gloss, Yurumerumo have until now always sounded pretty much like any other generic idol group (i.e. awful) but Hayashi stamps his identity over Hamidasumo! far more distinctively. It sounds like a Polysics song – which is really the whole point of getting in someone like Hayashi in the first place – with all the good and bad that entails. It’s a high-fructose explosion of colour with frenetic beats darting every which way and skronky guitar bits around the edges. It’s all handled with the utmost confidence and control, and well it should be since Hayashi’s been writing essentially the same song over and over for the best part of seventeen years.

Now it’s a solid track, but if I sound weary and cynical here, that’s because I am. The whole nexus of idol music and indie or underground musical subcultures is built around the novelty of “Ooh, it sounds underground… but it looks pop!” and those juxtapositions can only be reproduced as time goes by to diminishing returns. Take a bit of time and listen to Ryotaro Aoki over on the It Came From Japan podcast, talking about Dempagumi.inc’s Neo Japonism and you can hear the word “crazy” turn to ash in a person’s mouth. It’s not that there’s anything in particular wrong with this stuff – it’s just that it’s a musical approach that relies for its whole existence on its freshness, and it’s simply no longer fresh.

For a Japanese pop group to sound fresh right new, what they’d need to do is get back to making pure, unpretentious, shamelessly straightforward pop music, completely free from triangulating subcultural market niches, and there’s something satisfyingly circular about the fact that the group who do that most consistently and best right now is Perfume.Perfume: Pick Me Up

Pick Me Up is the most striking thing Yasutaka Nakata’s trio have done since 2012’s Spending All My Time, with its opening crash of synth chords and relentless ‘90s Hi-Nrg pulse. Nakata even lets the girls try singing properly, and while I’d normally be utterly opposed to such dangerous innovations, such are the joyous, anthemic, dancefloor good vibes of the song that they get away with it.

Talking about musical progression is an increasingly futile exercise in a world where evolving styles generally just means magpie-like hopping from one influence to another rather than any real development. With that in mind, it’s nonetheless interesting how just as so many 80s new wave musicians graduated from synthpop to techno (Dave Ball’s transition from Soft Cell to The Grid is a classic case study, and in Japan Tetsuya Komuro’s career took a comparable trajectory), Perfume have taken the same journey twenty years down the line. More importantly, however, Nakata and Perfume have navigated these shifts while remaining consistently and instantly recognisable as themselves.

There’s plenty to criticise about Pick Me Up, and a permanent bugbear of my music producer friends is Nakata’s dedication to “anti-music” brickwall mastering. Personally I can count the number of shits I give about that on no hands — it’s the sonic equivalent of the Hollywood summer action blockbuster and while there are undoubtedly plenty of people for whom this style is without exception an act of cruel violence against art, I take the view that it’s a tool that can be wielded for good (Marvel Studios) or evil (Michael Bay). In any case, those who find Nakata’s brickwalling tendencies annoying will hate this as much as everything else he does.

It’s also an elaborate advert for a department store chain, with a suitably confusing and pretentious video that may or may not be ripping off the closing scenes of classic 1980s Jim Henson fantasy adventure Labyrinth (sadly sans David Bowie – and a return cameo from OK Go doesn’t really make up for it) and seems to present the store as a malevolent nightmare hall of mirrors that sucks you in, terrorises you with armies of shopper-zombies and then spits you out complete with bags of shopping. Now delightful as it would be to paint this as somehow subversive, it’s still an advert masquerading as a pop video, and regardless of how ubiquitous that becomes, being annoyed by it is a bare minimum moral duty.

As I say though, and stupid video aside, it’s a marvellous song. It’s pop that only cares about being pop, and for all its frisson of EDM embellishments, it’s reassuringly old-school dance-pop with an earworm synth hook that digs in and never lets go. More Eurobeat than Asiatica, it diverges slightly from the formula Nakata has built up for Perfume songs since roundabout the time of Voice in 2010 (and which he perfected with Laser Beam the following year). A song it shares a lot in common with in fact is Korean idol group Kara’s 2011 hit Step, which remains one of the most outstanding songs of the K-pop boom for the same reason: its foregrounding of classic pop songwriting, melody and hooks ahead of fancy zeitgeist-grabbing studio fun.

Representing diverging paths from a common origin, both these songs have a lot going for them. For all that Yurumerumo’s transparent triangulations leave an icky feeling, it’s a solid and distinctive track within its field, and as with Nakata and Perfume, Hayashi’s own identity as a songwriter and producer stands out, which bodes well for the role of musicians behind the scenes in Japanese pop, even if it also underlines the depressing fact that they are simply unable to get the same level of attention without a cluster of girls in the roles of dancing marionettes in front of their music.

Even in that, there is something positive to be gleaned, in how in their own different ways Yurumerumo and Perfume both manage to avoid the creepy, sexually exploitative imagery that pervades the idol scene. If the growing convergence of indie subcultures and idol groups has done one good thing, it’s been to foster a less overtly regressive (if still highly infantilised) set of roles for girls in the idol scene.

Nevertheless, it’s the Perfume track I feel far more comfortable with. As someone whose interest and musical background lies firmly in the indie and underground scenes, I don’t need pop groups holding up a mirror to my tastes in an attempt to sucker me in as a customer. Pop music is at its best when it doesn’t try to be anything other than pop, and in Japan right now, no one does pop better than Perfume.

3 Comments

Filed under Features, Reviews, Track

Paying the Piper — Art, value, and why musicians don’t get paid

I was originally planning to write about this for one of my Japan Times columns, but as I thought about it more, I realised it was really a personal issue related to my own rather parochial experiences and concerns in the Tokyo indie scene, and not the sort of thing I should be bothering my editor with. It also struck me as the sort of idea that I could end up rambling about for pages on end without reaching a satisfactory conclusion, and a selfish fear gripped me that the sort of tightened and simplified version I’d need to present for a column wouldn’t allow me the space to take the reader on the convoluted journey through my thought process that I vainly hope might protect me from some of the criticism I’m opening myself up for.

And this is a fraught issue, because it’s about money.

An increasingly common complaint that arises from all around the music world is one of musicians being asked to play for free or “for the exposure”. Musicians are doing work, the argument goes, and we wouldn’t treat any other worker in this way – we wouldn’t ask a chef to cook us a free meal “for the exposure”, we wouldn’t ask a doctor to operate on us as publicity for his surgical services.

Or would we? I’m from the UK, and I absolutely would expect a doctor to operate on me for free, because the UK has a system where medical care is free at the point of delivery and funded behind the scenes through the tax system. In fact, to a certain extent a system somewhat like that exists for musicians across Europe, with government funding supporting the arts to a greater or lesser degree across the continent.

It’s a system that brings with it a host of its own problems for musicians of course, because unlike surgeons, outcomes for musicians are not so easy to measure, which leads to musicians crafting their art to ensure it ticks the necessary boxes to receive the funding. “Why should I have to suck up to these ignorant pen pushers? What do they know about the value of my work?”

Outside of the arts funding model, the standard measurement of musical “outcomes” is sales – either of tickets or music or whatever – but this doesn’t necessarily chime with the musician’s demand to be compensated fairly for their work either, because it leaves the assessment of their value entirely up to what the market decides it is. An excess of supply (lots of people making music) and finite demand (not that many people willing to give up an evening to watching it) leads inexorably to a situation where musicians are playing for free.

This isn’t limited to the music world. Across the creative spectrum, people are now expected to work for free. If you enjoy what you do, the argument seems to go, you shouldn’t also demand to be paid for it. Now this is a bit of an odd argument. What has your enjoyment of the work got to do with how much time, effort or skill it takes to do? And what kind of economy would we be living in anyway if the only work people were allowed to make a living from was stuff they hated?

Of course that’s not really the argument: it’s a post-rationalised moral explanation for something that’s just mundane market forces. Enjoyable work leads to an excess of supply in the labour market and therefore its market-assigned value drops.

This can be exploitative, and without a doubt there are clubs, bars, promoters, labels etc. who use the fact they can get away with not paying people as a means to make money. It’s not only that though. In a world where mainstream music across the board is all unmitigated garbage and the industry itself is sick to the core with creativity kryptonite, the willingness of creative people to work for free or next to nothing is the only way anything good gets made.

In Tokyo, you find yourself in a position where people are paying you for playing gigs and you instantly put yourself out of the range of the organisers and suchlike who are doing the most interesting stuff. It usually means you’re playing in that muddy nowhere realm of gigs at places like Shibuya O-Nest, with beige coloured, dazzlingly technical but musically dreary Rockin’ On-style bands with ticket prices hovering around the ¥3,000-¥4,000 zone.

I work as a writer and I face the same situation. If you can find the work, you can make good money as a writer by doing advertising and corporate copywriting. You can make a bit of money here and there in the media, writing about a topic that broadly interests you like music, although the kinds of places that will pay you are mostly looking for what basically amounts to PR for major label or major-wannabe acts. Or you can write about stuff that interests you, or do stuff that you find creatively rewarding, and get paid jack shit. There is no connection between the time, effort and skill you put in and the compensation you receive at the end of it.

So what writers tend to do is they accept their work occurs on multiple scales: stuff you do for money, stuff you do for exposure or to maintain your profile (and occasionally a bit of money), and stuff you do for creative satisfaction (usually for no money). It’s not easy, and there are certainly plenty of eager idiots out there willing to do corporate PR for free (hello there to pretty much all J-pop blogs), but it’s a balance that’s just about possible with the right amount of perseverance and luck.

Musicians are in a similar position: if you want to get paid, your best chance is to suck up your pride and start making stuff to other people’s specs, and even then it’s a lottery whether you’ll get anywhere.

I’m reluctant to romanticise the situation, but the truth is that, in Tokyo at least, whenever anything good happens, there’s a whole network of people – not just musicians – making fuck all out of it. The organiser might cover the cost of making flyers and get a bit of loose change to give to bands or subsidise part of the post-gig drinking party with, but basically they’re working for free; the DJs and bands might get a tiny bit of money if they’re lucky, but basically they’re working for free (Tokyo’s live scene is mostly pay-to-play, but the good events almost never are); the artist who made the flyer and poster did that for free; the people who wrote about the bands on blogs or music web sites mostly did it for free (you can get paid as a music journalist in Japan, but again, not for writing about anything good); the people who took the photos and made the videos probably did it for free; the people who went around distributing flyers probably did it for free.

“So what, am I just supposed to bow my head and be grateful, and say thanks for giving me the opportunity to work for nothing? Is that what you’re saying?”

No, although as someone who does all of the above tasks at one time or another, it’s always nice to get a nod of appreciation from the artists I work my nuts off trying to get people to listen to. What I’m trying to lay out here is that the problem is much more fundamental than any simple confrontation between musicians and organisers/bookers really addresses. There isn’t much money around the place, and even a crowded gig in Tokyo is often operating on a pretty narrow financial margin, with bands touring from out of town getting priority on any cash that comes in. Certainly some organisers and especially venues exploit the fact they can get away with paying bands nothing, but often the organisers and the bands are in the same boat: enthusiastic hobbyists who lose rather than gain money from their work, and who rely on people working for free to ensure they are able to make something that they love happen.

Let’s look at two scenarios here. The first is the one we’ve already discussed: A band plays to a decent sized crowd, the venue brings in a solid amount of money off the bar, but the band walks away with nothing. The band complains to the organizer, but the organizer can’t help because they only just made back the cost of renting the venue in the first place and the venue keeps all the money from the bar. Complain to the venue and maybe they’re being dicks, but maybe they’re just doing what they need to stay afloat given the rental costs, payments to local mobsters and various other overheads in a town where audiences don’t flock out to shows every night and where they often have to make it through many a slow night on the bar to get to the occasional good one like this that brings in a solid crowd. Who now? Complain to the building owner? Can’t pay the rent, get out and I’m sure a sex club or pachinko place will be able to pay the market value, and probably bring in a better class of clientele too. Was the band unfairly treated there? Certainly it’s unfair in that they didn’t get paid for work they did, but then they’re doing something they love.

Here’s the second scenario: An organizer wants a certain band and invites them to play an event. That band is widely agreed on as being very good by people in the music scene, and they are in a lot of demand by organisers. The band says they can play, but they want a guarantee of a certain amount of money. Now while this band are popular among event organisers, they don’t bring very big audiences, so the organiser here has to balance their artistic value against their financial value and decide whether to take a hit on the money side in return for the satisfaction of having done the best event they possibly could. The organiser can argue that the band don’t understand their own market value by setting a financial demand disproportionate to the audience they bring, or the band can argue that hey, the value is decided by the willingness of organisers to book them, so if you can’t pay, just don’t. Is the organiser being treated unfairly here? Certainly it’s unfair that they are paying out for something that won’t return a value commensurate with that outlay, but then they’re doing something they love.

In both instances, the real problem is that people are trying to bring to light art within a commercial mechanism that has only the crudest means of measuring value.

To some people, the answer is simple: Be better at working the levers of that commercial machine – musicians reading inspirational biographies of entrepreneurs and implementing five-step business plans that they got from a book somewhere, organisers shifting their role from something akin to an arts curator to something more like a retailer. Both these moves might bring benefits, and navigating a path is certainly possible, but let’s not mistake them for anything other than what they are: They’re artistic compromises, and compromises of this nature are never simple.

There’s always an attraction of falling back on the market for answers, because its rules seem simple. There’s also an attraction in the way adherence to the market reflects a sort of tough, hard-nosed, no-nonsense image back at oneself – in fact if you find yourself thinking like that, basking in the glow of your own tough-mindedness, you ought to take a moment to catch yourself, because you’re probably in the middle of saying something facile and idiotic. In any case, the market is not the artist’s friend here, and no matter how loudly you insist on your value, you’re up against a system that doesn’t have the best interests of anyone except those at the very top at heart. The market can explain, but it can’t justify.

So the difficult question, as always: What can be done?

Well, bands can just refuse to play for free and see how they do with that. My guess is in most cases not very well. Bands in Japan will most likely have to spend a long time playing for free or even doing pay-to-play gigs in order to build up the connections and get well enough known that they’re getting enough gig offers to be able to start putting the squeeze on organisers.

And even then, unless they’re super-popular with audiences as well, they’re just pushing an additional share of the burden onto the organiser, who’s already getting squeezed by the venue from the other side. Musicians can self-righteously declare at this point that this is none of their concern, and sure, go ahead and pat yourself on the back for being so tough, hard-nosed and no-nonsense, but you’re still being a dick.

More ideally would be a situation where a rising tide raises all boats. This would require cooperation and compromise, and would be fraught with contradictions (art is inherently unequal in that it lays itself open to judgment – a process that would have no value if it were equal). It would mean creating a sort of parallel economy incorporating the means of delivery (venues, labels), of dissemination (media, promotion) and content (bands, artists) and then ensuring the benefits are fairly and transparently distributed. Much of this infrastructure already exists, but not in an integrated way.

Integrating it, however, brings its own problems, since there is often tension or even opposition between the roles of these elements. Curatorial roles like the media, labels and organisers pick and choose which artists to promote, so asking musicians to support a system that inevitably excludes a large number of them is going to meet resistance and leaves open the danger that you’re just recreating a smaller-scale version of the same industry system that has already excluded all of us.

But then as long as money is the driving factor, you’re already implicitly buying into some form of capitalist economic model for art, and the inequalities and power dynamics of that are always going to be recreated along recognisable patterns. You can try to keep access to the infrastructure as open as possible, but you need the filter provided by the various curators to get an audience, which inevitably ensures only a select few artists get to be in the club. You can let people set up their own “clubs” but the more those proliferate, the more the system fragments, the more the audience dissipates and the smaller the pie gets for everyone.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not a pessimist, and I do think the situation can be improved for musicians and other participants in the music scene. Even just being aware of these potential pitfalls can help make things better.

  • If everyone just asks themselves, “Am I screwing someone else over here?” and avoids self-serving justifications along the faux-hard-nosed lines I’ve bitched about above, there’s a chance that even if there’s not more money, at least there’s a bit more fairness and understanding within the scene.
  • If we all recognise that the scene in Tokyo is still at the stage where it has to get over pay-to-play before it can consider “play-for-pay”.
  • If we can accept the financial reality that there’s a certain threshold that any musical endeavour has to reach before it produces profit for anyone.
  • If we accept that there are multiple people, not just ourselves, involved in reaching and exceeding that threshold.
  • If the curatorial side can get its act together and start integrating its efforts in a more coherent, accessible way.
  • If the creative side can make the compromises in terms of quality of equipment they’re prepared to use, their own promotional efforts, and either appreciate that whether they like it or not, by seeking to put their art in the public arena they are subject to the judgments and whims of others (or to adopt more of the roles of curators themselves, which many bands already do).

If all these things happen, maybe then we’ll start to see a meaningful alternative growing (again, there are people who do these things in a scattered sort of way and it basically works).

To return to my own personal experience, I realise that in my discussion I’m being rather selfish and self-justifying too. As a label owner and event organiser, I do better than I used to, but nearly all the money flows upwards, to the venues and CD presses, and the whole thing would collapse into financial ruin if I didn’t rely on the good will of people invested in simply being part of something good for its own sake. Part of my problem here is also a very personal fear of money, and in particular a fear of how money can poison the relationships I’ve forged. When I find one of my own events lurching into profit, the money feels ugly and awkward in my hands, and I usually can’t wait to get rid of it (I nearly always bring bands from outside Tokyo to play my shows, and they usually get most of the money, while anything left goes on subsidising a post-gig party – and I realise this is partly a way of dodging the responsibility of money).

As a DJ and someone who occasionally plays in bands, I’m always happy when I get paid for a show, but I try not to expect it: again, the good will that drives much of what I find beautiful in the music scene in Tokyo is poisoned by financial expectations and demands. There are people out there who will screw you over, and that’s an environment that fosters a me, me, me attitude among participants. That’s an environment and mindset I’ve never wanted part of, and I try to avoid those kinds of people and venues.

I also realise, however, that as a part of the broader picture, the scenario of this little artistic niche is not a model for how the music industry as a whole should operate. I don’t run a business, but lots of people do or aspire to, and they shouldn’t be able to cannibalise the values and methods of an essentially cooperative subculture for their own gain. And the borders between art and business aren’t so clear that it’s easy to separate them and say, “Well, this doesn’t apply to me.” Even those of us operating on the fringes – protected from difficult decisions by our own unprofitability – need to be aware of how money interacts with and influences the shape of the scene as a whole. And to return to my earlier point once more, if money is going to be made, the only fair way is as a tide that lifts all boats.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blogs, Features