Monday, June 27, 2011

Characterizing the Japanese Music Industry

I've been trying lately, as I move toward the end of my time in Japan (for now) to do a little summing up - to think about what I've learned, how I can structure it meaningfully, and what holes I want to plug before I leave.  Much of what I've learned revolves around the daily lives of musicians, but I want to place that within the broader context of the general conditions within which they're working.  So what can I say about Japan as a context for the production of music?  As an initial stab, the Japanese situation is one of:

1. Intense stratification and hierarchical control.  For musicians who want to reach a mass audience, there are no strong alternatives to the major labels and management companies.  For a variety of reasons (including strong-arm tactics by dominant management companies and, just maybe, high-level ties to organized crime), it is almost impossible to access television except through these channels. Where in the U.S. we've become used to seeing independent musicians on late-night talk shows, hearing their music on commercials, etc, there's no real equivalent to this in Japan.  Meanwhile, for musicians who bow to the structure, management companies tightly control their talent (even those with genuine musical talent), approving and limiting their releases as well as non-music projects.

Do you really even need to listen to this?
2. Partly as a result, there is Palpable Contempt for Mass Audiences.  This is not a cultural constant - Japanese pop music from the sixties and seventies was of high quality and often aesthetically or culturally progressive. But music of the recent past is simply insulting, pandering to an (admittedly often true) image of mouth-breathing otaku and blandly disinterested housewives. Of course, AKB is the apex of this (the recent CGI affair is only a rather patent manifestation of the plasticine idiocy they represent), but it's everywhere - teenage girls singing meaningless lyrics over cookie-cutter tracks.  Even artists who use visuals promising something interesting usually . . . aren't.

3.Thorough Domestication, at least at the top. The very biggest Western artists still get some traction (for instance, currently, Lady Gaga), and there is a genuine 'Korean Wave' of bands like Girls Generation.  And if you look at the culture more broadly, of course, there's a huge engagement with, in particular, Western (mostly American) pop, rock, jazz, soul, and hip hop from the fifties through nineties.  But charts are dominated by domestic artists. This might not be a problem, maybe not even notable, except that this insularity is self-fulfilling in the export market - the failure of the Japanese pop machinery to engage with global aesthetic developments over the last ten years has left Japanese pop relevant abroad only to a marginal, if not exactly small, group of international otaku. Again, this doesn't apply nearly as much to indie and underground acts, for example bands like Boris, Acid Mothers Temple, and Melt Banana who are active, relevant contributors to global music.

This, on the other hand, you might want to actually check on.
4. Tons of Creative Potential in the form of artists who can't find the audiences they deserve. Obviously, in my perfect world, this would include the array of super weird stuff that I love the most, from Origami's abstract hip hop to EYE's weirdo psychedelic worldbeat techno.  More realistically, there are tons of creative but very accessible artists, like Chinza Dopeness, the singer UA, instrumental beatmakers Hifana - the list goes on and on - who labor in relative obscurity because so much of the market is dominated by manufactured pap.

5. A Hugely Sophisticated Live Music Network covering the entire country.  Tokyo is a brutal place to play music, as many venues of any size impose ticket minimums on bands, who often effectively end up having to pay to play.  It's musical neoliberalism - offloading financial risk to the bottom rung of the ladder.  But the benefit to audiences is huge, as the greater security afforded to clubs  helps them last longer than in the U.S., making it worthwhile to install truly spectacular sound systems.

6. Limited Internet Channels for marketing and distribution.  Though digital downloads via keitai (mobile phones) are a huge revenue stream for major labels, this is a tightly controlled structure and not open to independent artists.  At the same time, Japanese independent labels don't have the profusion of engaged blogs that are now taken for granted in America and the rest of the West - at least, I haven't found them, and everyone I talk to says they're not a major force in music marketing.  There is a major exception in the website Ele-King, which is making a bid to be Japan's Pitchfork, but a) it focuses disproportionately on international music and b) the very fact that Pitchfork is so clearly its model makes it outdated.  That's because blogs featuring mixes and downloads are more relevant and effective for breaking obscure bands - and in case you haven't noticed, that's what I'm really talking about here - the conditions for indie bands to have an impact.  (It bears mentioning that Ustream is vastly more important here than in the West - Ele-King is actually part of the same company as Dommune, a tiny club that streams all of its events live.  I still don't get the impression this compensates for the lack of blogs).  Things may be changing here, as some niche-catering sites offering mixes and free downloads have popped up - they're still far from influential, but I'll be posting a bit about them soon.

7. Latent Demand for creative culture.  This is the most abstract point, and the most open-ended.  In fact, it's more of a question - just how much potential is there for Japanese people to suddenly realize that they're consuming garbage and start pushing some of the nation's deep bench of spectacular bands towards onto the charts?  Successful, ambitious independent labels like W + K Tokyo Lab, Rose Records, and my own home base, Pop Group Records, have carved out substantial audiences for themselves, but they're essentially restricted to 'music people,' sophisticates and self-starters who make it to record stores and live houses at least occasionally.  This would seem to indicate that, if the industry was freed of the jimushou and their apparent inability to take risks on anything not slickly factory-shat, these artists, with their greater substance and significance, would be able to use the currently strictly-controlled channels of TV and advertising to reach a huge number of potential fans who are now simply unaware of their existence.  All the conditions for an early-'90s-America-style 'indie takeover' - except for that uncertain x-factor, public demand.


ddellacosta said...

Hey Mr. (先生?) Morris, I'm really happy I found your blog. I too am a music nerd and Japanophile. I'm coming to Tokyo in about a week to stay for a while (not sure how long yet, but at least 3 months) and your blog will be a great resource to help me explore the music scene there. I also enjoyed your posts on Japanese hiphop (which is how I found your blog in the first place, a lazy google search on "best underground japanese hiphop" I think...didn't really expect it to yield such quality results...). I'm still going through that hiphop mix, enjoying it a lot.

Anyways, this post in particular helped me understand the Japanese music scene much better. I've been trying to "find my way in," so to speak, and so your comments were a revelation. I had been making assumptions like, maybe there is a lively indie blog culture I just haven't found yet, or maybe there is a solid indie music industry there that I haven't tapped into yet because I'm not there, etc. etc. I've been into bands/musicians like The Boredoms, Merzbow, KK Null and 池田亮司 (and Hifana too, love their videos!) and others for a while (and, deride me as you will, I will admit to the guilty pleasure of really enjoying some Perfume/Capsule tracks here and there...I think 中田ヤスタカ is an interesting character), but I've never been able to understand the music culture in Japan as a whole, how one thing relates or acts in opposition to another.

This post has helped me put a lot more into context. Of course I'm know this one post didn't cover everything but it gives me such a great place to start.

You say you're leaving Japan, for how long? Do you have a professorship somewhere else in the world? If we are ever there at the same time, I'd love to buy you a beer and pick your brain more about the music scene...

Dave D.

David Z. Morris said...

Dave, Thanks so much for the compliments. Best of luck in finding your way here - it's a hugely exciting city and music scene, even if there are serious structural problems at the top. And while things here generally do change VERY slowly, as I mentioned there's a huge diversity of potentials, so you never know what you might learn or find.

Lowly Urbanite said...

Dave, stumbled upon your humble blog while looking for articles about the Japanese music industry. You’ve just hit the topic spot-on as I thumb upon my 400-500 Japanese pop CDs. I think the record labels are just too way controlling with the music industry there, squeezing out every bit of juice from their artists but hey, they keep a steady stream of music and creativity. The approach is nearly communist, yes, but we won’t listen to more creative bands if we don’t have cash cow ones.
Speaking of which, you haven’t explained thoroughly why Japan gets more bonus tracks, has 30 dollar newly released CDs, and that nasty system of theirs that controls this all.
I’m from the Philippines by the way, currently listening to B’z’s 1st album.