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?|
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.|
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.