Tag Archives: Live houses

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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Strange Boutique (November 2011)

November’s column came out of a growing sense of unease among musicians about the way police all over the country seem to be cracking down on clubs and live venues for allowing people to dance after certain times. Needless to say I think this is a ridiculous state of affairs. It’s not one of my better-written columns, but I think the basic point stands. I understand that the police are probably acting in response to other issues such as noise, litter or loitering (Japan really can’t stand people standing still in public spaces of any kind, for any reason), but using an archaic law like this, seemingly randomly, presumably to intimidate the scene into behaving itself, is like cracking down on rude, sweary London taxi drivers by randomly arresting them for breaking the 19th Century law that requires them to carry a bale of hay and a bag of oats in their cab. Silliness.

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Strange Boutique (October 2011)

October’s column dealt with an issue that I’m still ambivalent about, namely the pay-to-play system in place throughout most of Tokyo’s live scene. On the one hand, it’s obviously shitty to make bands pay for the privilege of appearing onstage, especially since more often than not, there’s no one there to see the gig. However, it’s also pretty easy to understand why venues make the bands pay, since more often than not there’s no one there to see the gig.

It’s not just that though. I think part of the reason Tokyo manages to produce so many wonderfully messed up, completely uncommercial bands is down to the fact that they all know there’s no chance of them ever making any money to begin with, so their attitude is just, “Fuck it, I’m going to make whatever the fuck kind of music I want since I’ve paid for this shit.” It’s a well-known phenomenon among indie and punk musicians that if you dangle a bit of money in front of them, they’ll sell out before you can say Billy Idol, so I half wonder whether or not it might just be better for the whole scene to keep them in poverty. Obviously this view is not shared by many of the musicians I know, and I suppose ideally there should be some kind of medium that can be reached.

One friend of mine pointed out that the situation with audience might be improved if venues could arrange themselves in a way that makes them more friendly to casual audiences who might just want to drop by for a drink. That seems like it could be a positive step towards getting better crowds at shows and reducing the reliance on the bands themselves to cover the costs. Perhaps another column dealing with ways of making venues more inviting might be an idea for the future.

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