Sunday, July 31, 2011

Basic Training: Japanese Hip Hop as a Legacy of Militarism

Note, 2013: Those with University Access can now read the fully-fledged article that came out of these ideas in Communication, Culture, and Critique. 

Second Note, 2013: I now blog at  It's much prettier to look at, and more focused on fun stuff like weird fiction, extreme music, and awesome art.  Also check out my Tumblr at

Image and some info from Mixtapetroopers

This is the cover of a mix CD put out near the end of 2010 by DJ Muta of Libra Records and Juswanna, Mega-G, and DJ 49 (not really familiar with the latter two guys, but Mega-G apparently hosts an occasional Ustream show).  The cover echoes an earlier Japanese hip hop CD cover - I think by Buddha Brand, but I'm not sure? - and the idea of the CD is using the instrumentals from old records and putting new vocals over them.  The title connects to military themes and images that have long been prominent in U.S. and, in turn, Japanese hip hop.  Examples that jump to mind include Public Enemy's S1W security/dance troupe and the Wu-Tang Clan-affiliated Killarmy, who took the contemporary trend for camouflage to a logical conclusion.

But in Japan the military connection is particularly deep and multidimensional, going back the better part of two centuries and connecting contemporary Japanese hip hop to the forces of Western imperialism and Japanese modernization.  And "Basic Training" is specifically part of it.  In his book Kokka to Ongaku [Nation and Music], Okunaka Yasuto tells the fascinating story of how the bakufu, the military government of Japan in the fading years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, came to introduce Western music to Japan for the first time (with the exception of missionary music that Christians had brought in the 15th century before their exclusion).

The motivation was not aesthetic - the introduction of the fife-and-drum corps was part of the bakufu's efforts to upgrade their military forces to modern standards of uniformity and organization.  The Japanese military before the mid-19th century had their well-known equivalent of knights - the samurai - who mostly engaged in single combat on open fields or rode independently on horseback..  Then they had foot soldiers, who were decidedly not the equivalent of relatively well-organized English men-at-arms and bowmen.  Rather, they tended to be utterly untrained and undisciplined peasants who ran around in chaotic masses. This was all well and good when they were fighting each other, but as soon as the bakufu became cognizant of the threat posed by the better-organized and -armed Western powers, they became quick students of modern military arts - or at least, to the extent that they could through the somewhat narrow channel of information they had access to, Dutch scholarship.

Along with technology (mainly guns), the bakufu realized they needed to adopt discipline, and this was strongly rooted in drilling and marching.  There are some pretty fantastic scenes in, if I remember correctly, The Seven Samurai that suggest just how important the drum would have been to implementing uniform drilling.  The townspeople that Takashi Shimura's character attempts to teach have a firmly ingrained habit of running at top speed and with no sense of unit cohesion when under the duress of training, up to and including running into each other.

Shogunate Troops with Drum

I found a trove of great information about this period over at Axis History (a site whose politics I know nothing about). The drum was introduced, along with other reforms, by Takashima Shuuhan, as a tool for management, giving marchers a guide for timing their step, regulating their speed, and in turn, staying out of one another's way.  Here is a frame of drum scores from the book he released, and here's a great video of a contemporary troupe re-enacting what a pre-Meiji Japanese military band might have looked and sounded like:

This was, of course, a pivotal moment in Japanese history, of which the musical impact was among the smallest parts.  But the link between music and militarism continued.  Take, for instance, the so-called gunka, military or patriotic songs largely derived from the Prussian tradition (which replaced Dutch Learning as the basis for Japanese military practice in the Meiji era).  And while the flowering of jazz in Tokyo starting in the 1920s was part of the strongly anti-militarist "Taisho Democracy," the groundwork for it was no doubt laid in part by the exposure to Western sounds that had started with Japan's military - particularly since military instruments were much closer to the sounds of jazz than the palette used in classical music, the other musical import aggressively promoted by the Japanese government as part of Meiji reforms.

But the biggest further impact of militarism on Japanese music came, of course, during the American occupation.  During this time there were massive food shortages among the Japanese general public, and working musicians would certainly have mostly belonged to this group of the not-particularly-elevated.  The only people with food and money in abundance were the occupying forces, so Japanese musicians quickly learned to play what the American soldiers wanted to hear - initially jazz, which they would have already understood well, and later early versions of rock and roll.  The same dynamic continued into roughly contemporary times, though not in Tokyo - even today, the areas of Okinawa's capital city of Naha surrounding the American bases have clothing stores and music shops catering specifically to black American soldiers, forming a cultural resource for Japanese youth with any sort of interest in hip hop.

The bigger questions here are profound.  I had long assumed that the story of Western music in Japan began with Admiral Perry's landing and the group of minstrels he brought with him, making the entire ensuing history of Western music in Japan a matter of imperial imposition.  But this isn't the case at all - as happened again and again throughout Japanese history, something was consciously adopted from abroad as part of attempts to transform Japan into a nation that could compete internationally (that 'internationally' is complicated but key - at this point the Bakufu were reforming the military as part of a frantic rearguard action against international interference, so in some sense they were trying to keep from internationalizing - but were nonetheless doing just that).  The same pattern would continue over the next century-plus, in music as in other things.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Percussion Lab - Saturn Never Sleeps - Exclusive DJ Mix

This is some really compelling stuff, a mix of a huge variety of understated dub-pop and fractured science-fiction soul. One early revelatory moment is the "Billie Jean" remix at about the five minute mark, which turns MJ retroactively into a Frank Ocean from 1985:

Percussion Lab - Saturn Never Sleeps - Exclusive DJ Mix

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Oricon and Corruption: The Ugaya Case

Just a quick set of links I need to follow up on later.  In 2006 freelance journalist Ugaya Hiromichi was sued by Oricon for having been quoted suggesting their rankings were not objective, and were perhaps influenced in unethical ways, particularly in connection with Johnny's artists.  He does seem to have eventually prevailed, but I haven't yet found details of that aside from a 2009 post made to Ugaya's personal homepage.

Exile and Avex: The Very Platonic Form of Shady-Ass Japanese Culture Industries

Just a quick note about an interesting tidbit I dug up a few days ago.  In my conversation with Kuzoku, the creators of the excellent film Off Highway 20 (my preferred translation of the title is a little different from the official one), we got to talking about the 'Yankee Culture' that is so central to their sensibility.  Yankee, in this case, refers of course to down-and-out proto-thugs who ride cheap motorcycles and generally don't have much going for them but their hair. There's a scene in Highway 20 where one of the main characters sings a Namie Amuro song in a karaoke box.  Amuro, along with  Ayumi Hamasaki and Exile, is under the Avex umbrella, though their levels of involvement vary and I've not dug deep enough to determine who's managed by Avex and who just releases their music on an Avex label.

Regardless, the Kuzoku guys painted Avex as pretty much specializing in "Yankee Culture."  Exile, with their deep tans, careful facial hair, and upwardly mobile bling-bling image, embody a certain 'neo-yankeeism' that has replaced the more rock-influenced, explicitly anti-authoritarian yankee ethos of the '70s and '80s.  Supposedly, EXILE sell pseudo-customized cars reflecting their "VIP" image, though a quick search didn't turn up evidence of that.  This is in stark contrast to the "chopped and dropped" customization style that prevailed among Yankee in the past.

Anyway, all that is sort of secondary.  The most arresting thing is that Avex both sell this new Yankee ethos and embody it through some pretty shady business practices. The best example is that Avex owns a lot of pachinko parlors, and gives out Exile CDs as prizes, while counting these as 'sales.'  Pachinko isn't legally supposed to constitute gambling for money, so counting these CDs as having been 'sold' in exchange for little metal balls seriously calls into question either Japanese gambling law or the Oricon charts.  I'm not sure which.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Academic Cliche Watch, Minisode 2: Dyer on "Argumentation by Announcement."

Several months ago, I wrote a post about the phrase "I want to argue that . . .", pointing out just a few of the reasons that it's worthless and destructive to the integrity of academic writing.  Geoff Dyer, the genius author of unparalleled books like But Beautiful and Out of Sheer Rage, seems to have noticed the same thing - though not surprisingly, he's responded with a level of subtlety and comprehensiveness that outstrips my modest effort by several degrees of magnitude.

In my defense, he seems to have found the perfect target in Michael Fried's "Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before," which he dissects with a precise brutality that could be paralleled to what Christian Bale did to all those poor women in American Psycho, if it were done in defense of decency and clear thinking.  Geoff Dyer is easily one of the most brilliant cultural essayists alive, right in the league of Joan Didion or . . . well, very few others.  So to be on the receiving end of such a performance from him, while certainly painful, could also be considered receiving a scolding from someone so elevated the rest of us could hardly be expected to even aspire to the same plane.

That said, I have no sympathy for Fried, who I hope is enjoying the comforting sleep of reason in the bed he's made for himself.

The Dance of Fate: Success and Failure in Music Business and Music Life

I spent much of yesterday helping a friend move into a new place.  This friend is also the owner and manager of a mid-sized independent record label in Tokyo - I met him initially through my research and have spent a lot of time with him since. There were about a dozen people there to help, but since he'd also hired a super-efficient group of professional movers, there wasn't quite enough to keep everyone busy.  In the end, it was more than anything a group celebration of a new stage in the life of a man who was to various degrees friend, business associate, or boss to the rest of us.

The condo he was moving into with his fiance was pretty great by Tokyo standards, a three-story with space for a guest room, a room that will serve as the fiance's home office, a really nice kitchen, a ground-floor patio AND a second-floor balcony - and most important, room for the baby they'll be having in just a couple of months.  I also got to see the apartment they'd occupied for the previous five years, a small, cramped space that I could hardly believe had held the two of them and their dog.  The move was a moment of success, mostly paid for by the truly righteous work my friend does providing a place for artists outside of Japan's major-label system, putting on shows that attract thousands of people and festivals that attract tens of thousands.

I was reminded of a quite different celebration I went to a month or two ago.  Another friend of mine, a DJ and producer, held a release event for his latest EP.  It was in an obscure bar in Shibuya, not even really an event space, just barely big enough to hold the fifty to sixty people who showed up.  The release was a CD in a hand-stamped/painted sleeve.  It was a fun event, full of people who were friends with the star of the evening, and with each other, but who had basically no potential to make money from or through one another.  I talked to my friend after the event, and learned that the EP had been released in a miniscule run of 300, and also that he hadn't DJed or done any shows in the six months preceding.  He had, however, recently met a woman he was planing to marry, and said he was going to start looking for work more reliable than his current gig at an amusement park.  He knew that if he took a full-time job, he wouldn't be able to keep going with music consistently.  But he said that he had accomplished many things he wanted to (releasing an album or two, playing plenty of shows, working with other gifted musicians) and was ready to move on.  He struck me as genuinely happy.

I'm at a stage in my life where I inevitably think about success and the long arc of human life quite a bit, and the comparison between these two is fascinating, if not entirely illuminating.  They've arrived at similar stages of their lives in dramatically different shape.  One had built a small empire and was able to live comfortably.  He works incredibly hard, but is moving in a straight line that seems to lead only upward.  The other is about to go through a transition that promises to be both exciting and wrenching, as he tries to launch a sustainable career in his early thirties.

What's the difference between these two?  One reason it's an interesting comparison is that their musical interests are about equally accessible - not pop, but not noise, either - so we can eliminate that as a determiner of "success."  In many months of getting to know these two guys, the difference seems to be simply how hard and consistently they've worked, and how goal-oriented they've been.  From my friend the DJ/producer, I always got the sense that music occupied a vague space between hobby and ambition.  He was around people with an equally hazy vision.  On the other hand, the label head has had his priorities very much in order since he was in his late teens, when he skipped college to pursue music promotion.  In addition to working about sixty hours a week, he very much treats music as a business.

But there seem to have been tradeoffs, corollaries to these two men's different natures.  My friend the DJ is a profoundly warm person, generous and cheerful and relaxed.  He is surrounded by friends who like him for himself, many of whom enjoy making music with him, but as a communal rather than commercial activity.  The ties that bind them are personal and intimate. The label head, on the other hand, is surrounded almost entirely by people he works with.  Now, this is a million miles from the sad workaholism it might sound like - the reason he got into the music business in the first place was because he loved working with artists, with musicians, photographers, writers.  These are people with interesting personalities, and maybe we should all be so lucky as to enjoy the permeable boundaries between friendship and work that my friend does.  I certainly know I enjoy this in my own life - the relationship we share is exactly one of these business/friendships.  But I also know firsthand that there's a certain gnawing emptiness to it, a need to get outside of the circumference of the functional and be with other people purely for their own sake.  I sometimes sense that this label head has sacrificed more than might be immediately obvious - that the cost of making his own path has been a hypervigilance that separates him, every so slightly, from the rhythms of normal human social life.

There's no line here between good or bad, the right or wrong way to do things.  Both of these people have led incredibly rich lives, and done great services to the rest of their community and culture.  Certainly the more important distinction to be made from those who have not felt empowered to pursue their grand dreams, or those who were never lucky enough to have them in the first place.  Those are the people - arguably, the 'normal' people - who I truly can't understand.  But even within the realm of the creative, there is  a wide spectrum of approaches, ambitions, ideas, personalities . . . and we eventually find our way back to the most difficult question of all, that of will.  My friend the label head indulged in some very rare self-mythologizing last night, telling the brief story of his (entirely legal) entrepreneurialism as a teenager.  The money he made from this early dip into business let him buy the records that inspired him onto his current path.  None of what followed would have happened without  that early moment when some built-in impulse to buy low and sell high kicked in - but at the time it was with no goal in mind, something you could even call instinctual.  In turn, he's had a profound impact on hundreds, maybe thousands of Japanese kids by putting interesting music in their hands.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Megane Super Rapper

Megane Suupaa (literally, "Glasses Supermarket") is a pretty bland chain of big-box glasses retailers throughout Japan.  But this one guy in Shinjuku is semi-famous for pitching their deals on glasses and contacts in the form of high-speed and basically not bad rap.  Just another little sign that, while it might not be nearly as dominant as it is in the U.S., hip hop has nonetheless penetrated deeply into the fabric of Japanese life (well, okay, at least urban life).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Least Wu-Tang of All Wu-Tangs: AKB48 and the Bulbous Egg Sac

Credit for the strange title goes to, whose review of Darksiders sussed out the idealized features of "Zelda" as a game type, and used that as a rubric for finding Darksiders "particularly Zelda" (though not particularly a good game).  I had an apparently similar insight last year when I first started learning about AKB48, a hugely popular pop idol enterprise, who superficially capitalize on a music marketing trick first pursued by the Wu-Tang Clan.  AKB, started in 2005, has (yes) 48 members, and they are divided into a series of ranks, grades, and 'teams' which form a variety  of sub-groups, fulfill different roles, and appeal to a variety of different fans, all while operating under the same umbrella.  This makes AKB48 a many-headed dragon, each head strengthening the constantly-growing body - pretty much in the same way Rae and Ghost would go off and do a couple things, building their own brands and Wu-Tang's all at once.

But AKB48 take everything a step farther.  Today was the release date for the first single, "The Extinct Brunette," by NMB48  [warning: don't watch if your faith in humanity is tenuous, it's an unbelievable mess].  Founded just last year, NMB are a parallel AKB, with the same massive, complexly tiered internal structure. While AKB stands for Akihabara, NMB stands for Namba, a section of Osaka.  There's also SKE48, started in 2008 and based in Aichi Prefecture. Finally, there's the slight variation of SDN48, with the SDN standing for "Saturday Night" and suggesting the very slightly more adult orientation of that group, composed in part of 'graduates' from AKB (aka women who can no longer pretend to be little girls).

Akimoto Yasushi,
 who I hope is proud of himself.
So, with four groups of 48 members each, and numerous smaller formations within each of those, the AKB empire begins to look like a Wu-Tang of Wu-Tangs, as if Killarmy and Sunz of Man had each become a hit factory in its own right.  Except, that is, for the part where this Meta-Tang (copyright) is put together by a svengali-like behind-the-scenes producer, Akimoto Yasushi.  Wu-Tang negotiated its revolutionary deal as a true group (albeit initially with RZA in a clear leadership role), from a position of little power, and with an eye towards a democratic future in which they could all be equals, without at the same time having to submit entirely to the risks of rule by committee. By contrast, AKB and its spawn were the creation of one man, and every move made can be assumed to have the goal of further enriching him.

You can question a lot of what Wu-Tang have done over the years, but despite the strategic nature of their business arrangements, their music has never been carefully market-conscious.  Frankly, they just got really lucky for a few years there, and have since returned to their proper place as vanguardists.  The AKB organization, on the other hand, applies the Wu-Tang model to aesthetic, image, and marketing decisions that range from run of the mill pop-machine exploitation to borderline sociopathic mind-fuckery to just remarkably dumb.  An instance of the former was the recent introduction of "Aimi Eguchi," a new member who turned out to be a computer amalgamation of five other top members (and whose name was actually a play on the gum she was digitally created to promote).  More nefarious, and vastly more fundamental to the AKB plan for domination, is the annual 'election' of the most popular member of the group. This is like a less-democratic version of American Idol, especially since to be able to vote you have to buy a copy of the group's most recent single.  There are images floating around of obsessive AKB fans who supposedly bought dozens or hundreds of copies of the single to vote for their favorite member - in other words, the entire scheme aims to exploit some seriously desperate shut-in otaku.  (Oh, and for the "just dumb" part? There's an annual intra-group rock paper scissors tournament that takes place AT BUDOKAN).

Of course, as much as it's exploiting the audience, AKB is almost certainly exploiting the girls in the group.  Unlike the Wu-Tang, AKB members haven't shown much ability to move into productive solo careers, even as they (Menudo-style) get shuffled out of the main group as they get older.  Some go into the older-skewing SDN48, but others take, well, less conventional paths.  Most dramatic is Rina Nakanishi, who now works in Adult Video under the pseudonym Yamaguchi Riko.  Note, this is not softcore or private sex-tape stuff, but actual hardcore porn starring a former member of the currently most succesful pop group in the country.  Of course, the path to that outcome was well paved, since the girls of AKB are trained primarily in dance and dress-up, including donning skimpy clothes for photo shoots, sometimes from a very young age.  Not that I'm against half-naked women in principle (or for that matter, totally naked ones), but the unremitting focus on youth is pretty icky - for instance, the video for the new SDN single has them all in schoolgirl outfits, which is standard through the AKEmpire.

Finally, just to reiterate, none of this is anything but a total disaster for Japanese fans or the quality of culture.  The core fanbase of socially maladjusted and detached Akiba nerds has resulted in music that would seem to be targeted at children if it weren't for all the overblown synth and sexual innuendo (So, half-deaf, horny children).  Ian Martin of the Japan Times makes the apropos comparison to the Korean band Girl's Generation, who while still managed to within an inch of their lives, are also quite clearly being given better music to work with.  Pop is pop, no doubt, and maybe America has been spoiled over the past - what, forty-five years? - by the constant availability of some slight counternarrative amidst the pap, whether it was Kate Bush and Blondie cropping up inexplicably in the Eighties or the more recent likes of Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga (whose music is disposable but who is at least genuinely opinionated, provocative, and let's just say it, gay).  What exactly is it that has kept Japanese pop so docile and irrelevant for so long?  The more I learn about it, the more I believe it has something to do with the hierarchical nature of the music business . . . and the more I wonder how long this crap can survive the internet, however clever the branding structure.

Dipset Trance Party: Witchhouse Without Prejudice

As the kids say I've got this "On Blast," after reading about it way late in the game in a review of AraabMuzik's new album.  It's absolutely gold from beginning to end, dark and electronic and hyperactive and grimy/shiny, full of cheap-sounding drums that'll puncture your eardrums.

Front Cover
Dipset Trance Party

The greatest/weirdest part, though, is that it basically sounds like the best Witch House compilation imaginable - like what would happen if Salem actually knew what the fuck they were doing, Holy Other lost all that dreary self-reflexivity, and Pictureplane stripped away his melodic hooks in favor of raw chunks of emotive horn stab.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

James Blake in Japan: How to Import An Enigma

Update 7/24/2011:  A friend told me that the Tokyo radio station J-Wave plays James Blake "all the time."  They did, at least at one point - "Limit to your Love" peaked at 47 on the Tokio Hot 100 back in February.

A friend just let me know about the fantastic and fascinating article "Japan in Japan: Notes on an Aspect of the Popular Music Record Industry in Japan," by Toru Mitsui (Popular Music, Vol. 3, Producers and Markets (1983), pp. 107-120).  It's a detailed and well-informed description of, first, Japanese labels' practices in the late 1970s and early 1980s with regards to the import of foreign records, and second, of the popularity of the English band Japan in the early 1980s. Though of course not quite current, it's a great window into the subtle processes that can dictate how culture travels between modern societies.

What Mitsui primarily focuses on is the fact that by the 1970s, bidding wars between Japanese labels had made artists already well-known in the West progressively less profitable as higher and higher royalties and advances were promised.  This led to Japanese labels more aggressively scouting unknown international talent, who still held a broad appeal for the Japanese market. Particularly interesting to me is that Japan were essentially an art-rock band, but they managed to attract a teenybopper audience in Japan because of their heavily made-up, androgynous image.  This audience supported them through three early albums that didn't sell particularly well in England or America.  David Sylvian, once a member of Japan, is now one of the leading avant-garde musicians in the West, a position he might not have achieved without the financial support of the Japanese market.

Cases of bands not popular in their home turf succeeding wildly in Japan are so common they've become a cliche.  Mitsui cites the early success of Kiss in Japan, and the paradigm case is the band Mr. Big, who are essentially unknown in the West but still tour incessantly in Japan.

More recently, there's the case of James Blake.  My general impression is that while he's become quite well known in the U.K., he's definitely a niche product in the U.S., pushed by fringe indie websites like Pitchfork and Gorilla vs. Bear.  In Japan, while still not a star, his extremely bleak and fairly abstract album has reached the 70th spot on the Oricon album charts since its release about six weeks ago (I'm really wishing I had a full Oricon subscription right now).  According to an interview with Ele-King, his import singles were selling out back in February, the kind of thing that builds great buzz for a domestic release.  That qualifies him to represent a sort of indie/underground version of the more thoroughly dominant, but also clearly more straightforwardly marketable, likes of Kiss and Mr. Big.
Courtesy Kishimen

It's not entirely clear why or how this happened.  He's backed here by the Universal International label, but there aren't overwhelming signs of where that power is going.  He's had prominent listening station placement in Tower Shibuya, but that's not something that requires a major label's backing.   He was recently featured on the cover of Sound and Recording magazine, a very prominent magazine but hardly directed at the masses of people buying records.  It's hard to argue that the music itself is in tune with the "Japanese market" as a whole, since that's overrun with a pestilence of throwaway pop that seems, at least superficially, to be satisfying public demand.

This may have been one moment of a trend I would like to substantiate.  What if, as the music industry as a whole declines (and it is declining in Japan, albeit more slowly than in the U.S.), artists who people are more deeply invested in decline less steeply than more disposable pop?  What if owning an album like "James Blake" is more intimately tied up with identity creation than owning an AKB48 record?  And of course, that's where my little hypothesis breaks down, because it's undeniable that the otaku gain a great deal of identity from their purchase (sometimes en masse) of AKB records and merchandise.  The fact that it is inherently less valuable and interesting than James Blake, that these people are building their identities on sand, doesn't seem to make their activities any less persistent over time.  In that context, the question shifts - we have to ask not, "What made this strange James Blake record successful?" but the rather more depressing, "What kept this excellent James Blake record from being a much, much bigger success?"

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Red Bandana Lab, Ochiai Soup, 7/2/2011

Had a really fantastic time Saturday at Soup, normally a home for experimental music, this time more focused on political messages and satire. The first act was a Ukelele/drag singer.  The prominence of broad drag on the Japanese radical left is something I've only just really noticed, and I haven't quite processed it. It's particularly interesting because the same scene is home to a higher-than-normal concentration of transgendered people.  It was a lot of fun and in good humor, but still I wonder how those in the audience (a couple) felt about seeing this:

June 2011

The main attraction was Red Bandana Lab, who I knew from their appearances at numerous sound demos going back years. They really blew me away, both with their otherworldly track selections and MC Yuso's furious styles.

June 2011

The event attracted a huge swath of Tokyo's radical left.

June 2011

Kei of Irregular Rhythm Asylum

June 2011

Taku from Shirouto no Ran

June 2011

Photographer Goso Tominaga.  I wrote a mini-essay for a book of his pictures coming out sometime in the fall.

In conclusion, stay away from awamori, that stuff is dangerous.

Event Announcement: Understanding (and improving) Independent Music in Japan

From The Ground Up: Possibilities and Obstacles for Independents in the Japanese Music Industry

A conversation with Hiroki Sakaida of Pop Group Records

Toukyou Geijitsu Daigaku (Geidai), Kitasenju Campus, Lecture Room 1, 18:30-20:00, Tuesday January 12th

[I've put together a fairly informal event for next week, and I sincerely hope you can attend.  Information follows.]

In 2005 Hiroki Sakaida independently produced and released “Kaikoo,” a DVD chronicling the activities of a group of hip hop and electronic artists in Tokyo.  Building on the huge success of that release, he founded Pop Group records, which has become the home to a wide variety of artists, from hip hop to punk rock and R & B.  Pop Group’s aim and philosophy is to introduce innovative artists with an exploratory spirit into the Japanese mainstream.  With an entrepreneurial ethos and constant eye for new channels that can carry the label’s message, Sakaida has grown the business consistently over the last five years, including establishing the annual Kaikoo festival.

However, considerable obstacles face efforts to operate outside the traditional channels of the Japanese music business.  Many independent artists perceive an “indie glass ceiling,” a limit to success due largely to the cozy relationships between mass channels, such as television, and powerful artist management companies and large labels.  Independent labels such as Zankyou and Rose that have launched the careers of successful artists, but such cases seem comparatively rarer than in, for example, the post-Nirvana U.S. music market, where the route from indie to major is more well-worn.

In an informal conversation format, Sakaida will discuss his experience founding and expanding an independent label in Japan, and consider how infrastructure, policy, and culture have impacted his efforts to champion new aesthetics.  We will attempt to draw lessons from his experience about what changes to these conditions, if any, might make it easier to foster and spread adventurous Japanese popular music.

The conversation will be in Japanese, with English translation available as needed.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sleep of Ages - Hercules Against the Moon

Sleep of Ages - Hercules Against the Moon-Men by Sleep Of Ages

I've been trawling Soundcloud (or is that trolling?) while I do a last mad set of JLPT drilling.  This track in particular jumped out at me.  Of course, if you're not into noise, it's unlikely to connect, so enter at your own risk.