Big In Japan Debunking the International Myth

Big In Japan Debunking the International Myth
Big in Japan. It's the rock'n'roll myth that countless legends are made of. It's the fantasy of many young band basement dwelling North American bands. Yet, for most premiere Canadian artists, it's as elusive as success south of our border. How many of us aren't familiar with the Spinal Tap-like images of venues such as the Budokan (first made famous by Cheap Trick's 1979 live album). Or of crazed Japanese fans worshipping their rock god heroes, offering gifts of robot toys and fluffy pink bunnies? Or of far-reaching myths that Japanese kids will show up to see any band — just because their Western?
There may have been some truth in such stories in the 1960s or early ‘70s, but as with every other major music market, Japan has become a slick marketing machine and music fans have become as sophisticated and informed as their North American or European counterparts.

The appetite for foreign music in Japan has dramatically declined in recent years. In 1996, overseas music was estimated to be 32 percent of the market. In 2000, it was only 11 percent. The start of this decline can surprisingly be traced back to huge multi-national music retailers entering the market in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Chains such as Tower Records, HMV, and Virgin were instrumental in supporting independent Japanese music, stocking titles that Japanese-based chains wouldn't touch. Suddenly indie labels and artists found themselves with opportunities for national distribution and a certain degree of respect. In turn, properly financed indie labels started popping up all over the country, and started achieving major sales. About ten years ago, two separate indie labels hit pay dirt: the UK Project label with the Brit-pop influenced Venus Peter, and Trattoria with guitar-pop duo Flipper's Guitar (who would later split; band member Keigo Oyamada became Cornelius). At the same time, Tokyo's Pizzicato 5 started finding success in America on Matador, which in turn was turned into a cool backward success in Japan.

The real explosion in the Japanese indie scene started around 1994, when hundreds of new labels started feeding a pent-up demand for everything from punk to grunge to electronic music to R&B. Suddenly, new magazines started appearing at news stands that exclusively supported this new scene. MTV Japan, and their biggest competitor Space Shower TV, started playing videos by these indie artists. A revolution was brewing.
Traditionally, major record companies in Japan didn't "sign" bands — they created them in co-ordination with production companies. Singers and musicians joined such companies after graduating from music colleges and modelling schools — much the same way they might join a car manufacturer or law firm after graduation. They were placed in bands and trained accordingly. Songs were written specifically for them by staff songwriters. Stylists designed their looks. Choreographers co-ordinated their dance moves. And these new-found pop stars had little if any say in the choices being made for them and in the direction of their careers. In fact, they could sell several million albums and still only make a monthly salary on par with a full-time department store clerk.

By 1996, the major labels started paying attention. Indie bands were now being signed to majors — and they weren't being so blatantly manipulated — and the tastes of the general population swayed to more organic music than what was previously offered in the mainstream.

In 1997, Tokyo punk band Hi-Standard saw their second album, Angry Fist, enter the charts at number one, selling over a million copies in Japan within a year. Hi-Standard's success not only raised the bar for ambitious indie labels and bands, but it also showed that there was no turning back. This was not a phase or bump in the road, but a permanent shift in the nation's tastes.

As bands became more and more successful domestically, their desire to find audiences overseas increased. Suddenly overseas major labels and indies were picking up Japanese bands, and tours connected them to curious audiences receptive to their seemingly fresh sounds and amusing take on popular music.

Guitar Wolf and Thee Michelle Gun Elephant found notoriety in America — their motorcycle CBGB sounds appealed to garage-punk fans from coast to coast. The Zoobombs dirty funk sounds made inroads in Canada (a live recording of their April 2000 performance at Toronto's infamous El Mocambo is being released this month on Teenage USA) and especially in Australia, where the band charted two consecutive top 50 albums. The 3Peace, who stalk a similar sonic terrain, headed towards South America and Mexico, landing on charts and co-headlining rock festivals with Guns n' Roses and Elton John. The Boredoms, pioneers of whacked-out experiments, shocked American and Eastern European audiences into submission. Dynamic all-girl trio turned heads at festivals such as NXNW and CMJ by dressing up in frog costumes and covering forgotten disco classics — which helped them become a staple at forward thinking U.S. college stations. Melodic ska-punk party-mongers Kemuri are the only Japanese band signed to Roadrunner, and toured the U.S. extensively with bands like Rocket from the Crypt and Less Than Jake.

Electronic music and Japanese DJ culture has also broken out internationally in recent times: DJ Honda is probably Japan's most internationally recognised DJ. Honda favours slicing hip-hop grooves and has worked with De La Soul and KRS-1 in the past few years. Another innovator is DJ Krush, who regularly plays events in New York and London, and is signed to Mo Wax internationally. Sugiurumn, whose albums have pushed the boundaries of big beat and house by adding gargantuan rock arrangements to what can be a simplistic genre, has found Australian and British dance floors receptive to his grooves. Fantastic Plastic Machine practically invented a new dance genre by mixing elements of ‘60s lounge, bossa nova, and French pop. And Boom Boom Satellites, who specialise in spacy techno, became a major international priority at Sony after cleaning up in Europe after a series of 1999 summer festival slots there.

And there is certainly more to come. The conditions that fostered this scene are still in place, and the potential to explode globally is edging closer and closer to reality. Don't be surprised if a couple years from now, music critics are hailing Tokyo as the new Athens, Manchester, or Seattle.

With traditionally manufactured bands and pop idol sales declining, Japanese major labels started to panic. A major source of their income is being threatened by the trend — as publishing royalties in the land of karaoke and TV commercial tie-ins are a lucrative business. The past few years have seen labels begin to balance their rosters and promotional efforts with a mix of former indie artists and traditionally acceptable bands.
While most anybody in the music business would be quick to point out that such excitement by consumers for domestically produced music is extremely healthy (and no doubt it is) the flip side is that it's getting more and more difficult for international artists to break into the market.

In 2001, most radio and video stations play almost exclusively Japanese music. Only a handful of magazines review new foreign CDs or interview foreign artists. And Japanese retail chains such as Shinseido and Tsutaya are becoming more and more conservative in the international artists they stock.

Major record companies are also putting out considerably less international product as well. And why shouldn't they? They can put the effort into a new international artist and sell 500 or 5000 copies, or they could put the same energy and budget into a new Japanese band and sell 50,000 or 100,000 albums. A spokeswoman for EMI Japan, who asked to remain anonymous, says that "We will only release about 25 non-Japanese albums this year. We've also stopped licensing albums from outside the EMI group from this spring." This is about a quarter of what the label were putting out just a few years ago.

Another stumbling block for international artists, and particularly Canadian artists, is that most majors in Japan prioritise U.S. and U.K. releases from the pool of international albums available to them. In fact, being Canadian (or Australian, French or Swedish) already counts against the artist. And unless there's buzz in either the U.S. or UK market, there's little chance of the major being interested. In fact, a Canadian artist could sell 500,000 copies at home, and Japanese majors will still not bat an eye.

Few credible indie labels have stepped in to fill this void. There are fewer than a dozen labels that actively pursue international licensing for the market. Though indie companies can survive by selling less volume than a major, they also don't have the financial backing of major and the flexibility to make mistakes. Thus, indies have become equally as cautious about taking on new product.

The concert situation in Japan is also completely different than any other place on the planet. Whereas in most countries, overseas bands can string together a tour playing small clubs and bars for small fees, Japan is the exact opposite. Most live venues in Japan (which are called "live houses") are basically rental spaces. The bands or concert promoters either rent out the venue or must guarantee a certain number of ticket sales with cash in advance. A typical venue in Tokyo for a foreign act costs about ¥1,200,000 (about $14,400 Cdn.) to rent out for an evening. There are no agents for overseas acts in Japan. Most concert promoters work with UK agents. Generally, such promoters won't be interested in an act unless the band have sold more than 5000 copies of their last release, or the record company is willing to bankroll the tour. Most concert promoters are quite large companies that are running several tours at any given week. There are very few small players in the field as the cash necessary and risk involved in touring bands here is a deterrent.

Bands can't just jump into a van and drive across Japan. Despite the obvious problem of finding shows to play, Japan's highway network is all fee-based. Driving from Tokyo to say, Osaka costs ¥13,000 ($156 Cdn.) one way, plus petrol. Van rentals start from ¥25,000 ($300 Cdn.) a day, on the cheap end.
To complicate things further, Japanese venues usually open at 6:30 p.m. and close by 9:30 p.m. — for most Japanese music fans, it's not really a night on the town. Concert tickets cost about ¥6000 ($72 Cdn.), so Japanese fans only go out to see bands that they really want to see. Add to that, it's generally frowned upon to see international bands opening for Japanese artists. Most fans and media look at that as a sign of weakness — that the band "isn't good enough" to play as the headliner.

But even though the Japanese market sounds near impossible to penetrate, there are a number of Canadian artists doing particularly well in Japan, and for a number of different reasons. Of course, certain obvious international superstars have found themselves well established here, as they are most everywhere else. Celine Dion and Bryan Adams are two of Canada's most recognised ambassadors. Alanis Morissette commands a massive audience. Holly Cole also keeps a small but enthusiastic fan base, encouraging her supporters with regular shows (including an upcoming seven-day run at Tokyo's Blue Note Café). But what's interesting is the odder artists who have made their presence felt in the land of sushi and blowfish.

Montreal's Godspeed You Black Emperor! is possibly one of the most unlikely Canadian artists to breakthrough in the past year. The band's eccentric chamber-rock hit a nerve last year with the release of their album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. Halifax's Sloan have become hugely popular here, starting in 1996 with One Chord to Another, hooking into a trend in jangly power pop that was gaining momentum at the time. Along with regular touring and a keen interest by Japanese magazines, the band have found themselves entertaining a fanatic fan base. With a new CD just weeks away, Japanese fans are gearing up for another period of Sloan-mania.

Ron Sexsmith's biggest market is Japan, a result of a really big push by his label here for his first two albums, and the fact that Sexsmith writes dreamy acoustic rock songs that drip of earnestness probably help the Japanese identify with his offerings. Sexsmith also tours here regularly, which has helped keep his fans loyal.

Kid Koala has also found a niche market among Ninja Tune aficionados; participating in last year's Ninja Tune Night club tour of Japan further established his reputation as a mad DJ and all around cool guy.

Harem Scarem and their Rubber alter-ego also found a massive audience of kids thirsty for their take on L.A.-style hard rock in the early ‘90s, and they released two different "Live in Japan" albums in the past five years.

Kinnie Starr is also finding an audience, partly propelled by her tour last year, which had her playing with Pizzicato 5 main man Konishi as well as with members of Japanese punk outfit Brahman. Starr's attitude and sound has recently struck a chord with young Japanese women, who are attracted to a strong independent female rapper who can experiment with dub and hip-hop while at the same time playing crunchy guitar rock.
Strangely, one of the most bizarre cases of a Canadian band having a passionate following is Vancouver's Pointed Sticks. While the band haven't existed for nearly two decades, a pent-up demand has caused a generation of musicians and new wave fans to dub copies of copies of copies. And there is hope that the band's Greatest Hits album, released in the mid-‘90s by Zulu, will be re-released sometime soon.

Winnipeg indie Endearing Records have had some limited success in Japan. Vancouver Nights and B'ehl both established themselves here in 1999 before quickly disappearing from the musical radar. However, recent months have seen releases by the Salteens and the Pets. Both bands are planning to tour the country (separately) at their own expense this winter.

Canadian punk has a patchy relationship with Japan. NoMeansNo and SNFU have both toured extensively and have found respect in the Japanese punk scene, though both band's profiles have been diminishing of late. And D.O.A., though perhaps not selling many albums, are considered to be pioneers of the genre, and Joey Shithead and pals have a tour planned starting next month. Also, special mention should be made of the Smugglers, who have twice toured here and have a small but dedicated following, and have benefited from being associated with Oakland, California's Lookout! label. An absolutely hilarious account of their first experiences can be found on the Mint Records web site.

Who you know can also help bands make inroads. The Grapes of Wrath drew attention in 1991 by convincing John Leckie, who had two years previously worked with the Stone Roses, to produce These Days. Unfortunately, the band split shortly thereafter and were unable to capitalise on their initial success. Bran Van 3000's association to the Beastie Boys' recently defunct Grand Royal label also helped the band gain recognition and encouraged sales — as it no doubt has helped out non-Canadian artists such as Bis, Ben Lee, and Japan's own Buffalo Daughter.
And Spookey Ruben has found a positive response to his odd conceptual pop. In fact, his ill-fated 1999 TVT album What's a Boy to Do? was only ever released in Japan. His new Canadian albums, Bed and Breakfast, have been combined to create the Japanese-only Brunch, which was recently released.

While all these artists have all found limited success in Japan, several other key Canadian acts have just had their latest opus released here — or are about to take a stab at the market in the coming months. These artists include Tegan & Sara, Paloma, the Special Guests, Novillero, Chin, Gob, Lily Frost, Delerium, the Northern Pikes, Duotang, the Russian Futurists, Paloma, and Jerk With A Bomb.

Oddly, some of Canada's biggest artists have barely made a blip on Japan's music radar, which must be really frustrating considering their status at home and elsewhere. The casualty list includes Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, Nelly Furtado, the Tragically Hip, 54-40, the Tea Party, Matthew Good Band, Shania Twain, Rascalz, Our Lady Peace, Treble Charger, Maestro, Choclair, and Nickelback.

So how can Canadian artists become big in Japan?

A good start would be to lower your expectations. Very few international acts sell more than a few thousand copies. If an album sells over 15,000 copies then you are well on your way to becoming big in Japan. If an album sells 500 copies, you're not doing too bad at all. Japanese people also associate bands by their place in the international music scene. Success in the U.S. or in the U.K. will automatically pique interest. Getting released on an internationally cool indie label will help. And being associated with any kind of emerging genre (post-rock, lo-fi, breakbeat, etc.) will help jump-start a career.

Japanese also tend to prefer music with simple melodies and clean production. This is probably one of the reason's UK indie product sells so well — the production standards tend to be snappier than Canada's fondness for layered production sounds and acoustic arrangements. However, it should be noted that this isn't a market for anything even slightly country-oriented. There aren't many Japanese cowboys round the back streets of Tokyo.

And basically, it's up to Canadian artists to really work towards getting any kind of buzz happening there. That means sometimes sacrificing any chance of making a profit on an album or tour, just to get a foot in. This is, unfortunately, something too many artists and labels are not willing to resign themselves to do. But as I figure it, selling 300 albums at no profit and getting a buzz happening is better than selling zero albums and not being any the wiser.

Lastly, it always amazes me when I hear stories of somebody's cousin's friend's basement death metal band being big in Japan. It's just another rock'n'roll cliché. You have to either do the work necessary to create a real buzz, or go get a haircut and a real career, you slacker.

Wes Smith is the owner of indie label Massive and the former editor of Tokyo music magazine Juice. He has been involved in the Japanese music industry for the past 11 years as a label owner, concert promoter, author, music journalist, editor, and publicist. He also knows where to find the best ramen in Tokyo. [email protected])