A Eulogy for Zest Records

archive2

A friend told me last night that the Shibuya record store Zest Records has closed up shop. A sign on the door states simply, “We have closed. Thank you,” and with no new address provided and the webpage non-responsive, I have to assume that they are permanently out of business. According to Japanese bloggers, they ceased operation in early July. No goodbye party or official announcement — Zest ended not with a bang, but a whimper.

Zest Records began its life as a noise/avant-garde shop, but a new owner named Wakabayashi Yukinori turned it into the central record store of the Shibuya-kei movement. They stocked old bossa nova, ’60s groove, mondo, European club-pop, plus all the records from domestic labels Escalator, Crue-L, Trattoria, and Readymade. Kaji Hideki, Naka Masashi (Escalator founder), and Matsuda Gakuji (Cubismo Grafico, Neil and Iraiza) worked there as store clerks. Zest primarily handled vinyl, which gave it a flavor unique from the CD super-warehouses down the street.

In the mid-’90s, the popular “alternative” girl’s magazine Olive featured the store in an issue, and suddenly, trendy teens started crowding the little space on the weekends, looking to buy into what they perceived to be the most fashionable sound on the planet. But vinyl sales peaked in ’99. In 2002, I asked Wakabayashi in an article for Tokion how the future of the Japanese analog record market was looking. He answered, “a dark shade of gray” at the time, but evidently, it’s finally gone all the way to black.

Shibuya-kei died a lot sooner than vinyl, however, and for the last few years, Zest had tried to reinvent themselves as a dance music store specializing in hipster club music (think Royksopp and Junior Senior instead of tech-house or hip hop.) DMR across the street already had the corner on that market, unfortunately, and a lot of longtime Zest fans felt that the store had sold them out.

When the indie record store Maximum Joy closed down last year, those with interest in international indie pop consoled themselves by saying, hey, at least there’s Zest! But now, there’s no Zest, and while Jetset and Cafe Escalator can pick up some of the slack, there is the fundamental issue that this entire unique field of independent music has lost its market. Shibuya-kei is dead and now buried — with the alumni going into left-field experimental music (Kahimi Karie, Cornelius), dance punk (Escalator), or just repeating themselves ad nauseum (Konishi Yasuharu). The Neo Shibuya-kei kids have Oricon chart aspirations, mostly because they saw the original musical stream as stylish domestic pop and not the anti-major label struggle it really was. Most importantly, there are fewer and fewer young consumers who are interested in taking a chance with relatively experimental or innovative musicians, and as Japan veers further towards neo-Nationalistic navel-gazing, that collective impulse to explore diverse historical sounds from abroad has faded.

I am surprised that Zest lasted as long as it did. The heart behind that one-time energetic community has withered away, and we can now only expect the castles to fall one by one.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
September 25, 2005

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

35 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    I used to visit Zest, but I never really enjoyed it. First of all, it was way up on the 5th floor. Secondly, as a participant in the scene it was promoting, I had that uneasy feeling on not knowing whether I was supposed to report to the desk and offer to sign my own records, or whether I hadn’t met one of the employees backstage at some point and was being rude ignoring them, or whether they’d tell everyone that I headed straight for the M section to see which records of mine they had, and how much they were charging for them. Thirdly, flipping through the stock was like attending a school re-union. The usual suspects! Hi, Louis Philippe! Hi Bertrand Burgalat! Hi Citrus! You know, like flipping through La Decadanse at Other Music. Fourthly, I’d declared Shibuya-kei dead in 1998. When I moved to Tokyo in 2001 I hardly had any contact with people like Cornelius and Kahimi Karie. That was already ancient history, 1994-8. My favourite Tokyo record store became Onsa in Shimokita (later also at Think Zone), not Zest. I suppose, like the others, I’d shifted leftwards, in the direction of esoteric experimentation and electronica. In fact, I hardly even went to Shibuya. Vulgar, dirty place full of foreigners and orange-faced kids hollering through bullhorns! Yuk!

  2. Dave Says:

    Jeez, remind me not to invite you to a funeral Momus.

  3. Momus Says:

    The point is that the funeral for Shibuya-kei was held in 1998. I was there, and it was very sad. You and Marxy missed it. Your solemn speeches sound a bit silly in 2005.

  4. Momus Says:

    …especially when the message is effectively “Zest has closed, Shibuya-kei is over and there is nothing to replace it but neo-nationalistic navel-gazing”. Rubbish! Shibuya-kei stores like Wave and Zest declined and were “replaced” in the hearts of progressive young Japanese record fans by a whole slew of shops stocking experimental records from all over the world: Onsa, Warzawa, Bonjour records. And mainstream taste moved on to things like reggae and hip hop, hardly “neo-nationalist”! So come on, Marxy, give me directions to my nearest Tokyo neo-nationalist record store, the one where I’ll find today’s kids?

  5. Momus Says:

    (I do think, though, that “we can now only expect the castles to fall one by one” would be a great motto for Neomarxisme, if ever you get T-shirts made up.)

  6. marxy (with a broken laptop) Says:

    Momus is a faster harbinger than I.

    I reward you 20 cool points. Spend them wisely.

  7. Chris_B Says:

    Momus: why you so kranky today? Someone piss in your porrige or not do so? Not all of us are as kool and ahead of the curve as you so this likkle history lesson was worth reading for me.

    Interestingly enough, speaking of things being declared dead, the french guy who runs akihabaranews.com recently declared that the opening of a Yodobashi Camera mega store in Akiba means that Akihabara is now dead. Not that any wonderful little stores were closed to make way for the new modern behemouth, but I guess whatever your interests are/were its always a shame to see them mowed down in favor of the modern.

    Maybe someone will come along and tell me thats the beuty of life in Japan, enjoy tings while they last (favorite music/food at combini/part of town/etc) for dey wills be gone tomorrow.

  8. nate Says:

    “continue” magazine published sort of a memorial issue where they took one last spin around akihabara before the giant renewal projects come in. They seem to agree that akiba’s never gonna be the same anymore.

    I think we may have found the spot where momus is pretty well in the right. Bully for him, he was due… but it’s strange how this time he comes off as the pessimistic one who has specific cases and evidence. It’s backward day at neomarxisme!

  9. alin Says:

    popped into a design shop in shibuya a couple of days ago and they were playing early kahimi karie. sad indeed. and it strangely made the all the lomography in the shop look somewhat fresh.

  10. Jrim Says:

    I’m with Momus on this one. In what way is the demise of a store associated with a long-dead music scene indicative of some overall decline? If it’s the death of the indie record shop that you’re lamenting, I think you’re a little premature (I mean, why bitch when you’ve got Disk Union?), but it’s going to happen sooner or later – and not just in Japan.

  11. jed Says:

    I also have to agree with Momus/Jrim. Last time I was in Japan in 04 there semed to be quite a healthy intrest in experimental music/art. What comes to mind is Cafe Independence(sic) in Kyoto,where I met alot of 2o something hopefull artists. Also, the experimental sections in the DiscUnion’s did not seem lacking, not to mention ModernMusic/P.S.F in Setagaya.

    As far as navel-gazing right-wing trends goes, I think its hapening in more places then Japan.-Jed

  12. marxy Says:

    None of your new experimental artists are selling 200,000 of their records and changing the face of Japanese pop culture. This again isn’t about product options, but macro patterns.

    You can poo poo Shibuya-kei all you want, but they ain’t never letting a Momus write songs for pop stars again.

  13. marxy Says:

    Also, it’s not just this music subculture, but all related parties, like Relax, Cutie, design stores, furniture shops. Anything that is slightly “alternative” and on the map is in the same danger of extinction. There may be a tiny record store with weird music or the corporate project masking as a boutique (Bonjour), but that’s no different than anywhere else in the world. The exciting thing about Japan is how widespread underground culture could become. Otherwise, Momus’ royalty checks would have been paltry.

  14. alin Says:

    poo poo Shibuya-kei

    isn’t everyone sort of doing their own Shibuya-kei now? I mean everytime I indulge in the old P2P and browse the downlowdee’s stuff there’s some odd mix there ranging from Bossanova to Bach to Black Sabbath. I mean stuff closer to Shibuya kei than DJ culture.

  15. marxy (apple store shibuya) Says:

    Re: Neo-Nationalist Navel-Gazing

    See, what was great about Japan in the 90s is that you could expect people to be interested in international culture, where at least in America, this is a ridiculous expectation. Shibuya-kei was the stellar example of that, and I could care less about the movement dying now. I just don’t like that there’s not an apparent heir to the spirit.

  16. Momus Says:

    You’re always quick to dismiss leftfield electronica and credit only the mainstream, but I notice you didn’t respond at all to the point I made about the mainstream embracing hip hop and reggae. You also didn’t give me directions to any neo-nationalist record stores.

    The thing is, you can’t dismiss Bonjour Records as “corporate” and say it’s marginal and unworthy of consideration. It could be grouped with the record stores in places like Spiral and Parco, which are eclectic, focused on experimental records, reggae, bossa, and so on. Japan’s record market is something like 70% domestic artists, and I’m fine with that, I think that’s an amazing figure that France or Germany would have every reason to envy. But I don’t think you’d find the 30% of foreign artists is declining, because of “neo-nationalism”. What’s more, Shibuya-kei may have employed Western producers and writers occasionally, but its main artists—Kahimi, Pizzicato 5, Cornelius, the Escalator bands—were totally Japanese. It would be perfectly possible to paint a picture of Shibuya-kei as the ultimate neo-nationalist musical imperialism, with Japanese artists doing a kind of black and white minstrel act on every musical style on the planet!

  17. nickink Says:

    I’m kind of piecing it together here, but as an interested observer of this blog who has spent a sum total of 27 hours in Japan, can I just ask, very very quietly and discreetly, what exactly is shibuya-kei ?

  18. Momus Says:

    Shibuya-kei is dead.

  19. Momus Says:

    Reading that essay again, I’m struck by this Cornelius quote, which sort of backs up my playful argument about Shibuya-kei being a lot more neo-nationalist than anything since:

    “If there was one thing I wanted Americans to take home it’s the Japanese concept of ton-chi, which is derived from Zen Buddhism. It’s looking at something and garnering a different answer. It’s looking at something from an entirely different perspective.”

  20. Momus Says:

    (I have to apologize to anyone following that link for my rather breathless prose style back in the day, and some factual errors like stating that Cornelius started A Bathing Ape or that the Japanese for “cool” is kokoi.)

  21. guest Says:

    Momus (September 1998): Shibuya-kei is Dead

    Momus (September 2004) Shibuya-kei lives!
    Now, my first reference to Shibuya-kei on my website came in September 1998, when I declared Shibuya-kei dead.
    Well, I may have been a bit premature. I come today to tell you that Shibuya-kei is no longer dead. Perhaps it never was, or perhaps it’s walking undead. It’s back, like a Pucci Lolita, like a snapshot in a cherished copy of FRUiTS magazine. … perhaps I shouldn’t declare things dead quite so early. Often, they’re only sleeping.

    Momus (September 2005):
    Shibuya-kei has been dead since 1998.

  22. Momus Says:

    Now, now Guest, you’re monkeying around with the facts here. The piece you link to is not titled “Shibuya-kei lives!” but “Shibuya-kei is b-b-back?” It’s about a mini Shibuya-kei revival going on this year, with bands like Console and Plus-Tech Squeeze Box and McDonald Duck Eclair reviving some of the frenetic 90s style. In fact, it’s rather surprising that Marxy didn’t mention this mini-revival in his piece about Zest. Perhaps that’s what he meant by “neo-nationalistic navel-gazing”, though.

  23. guest Says:

    True, the piece is not titled “Shibuya-kei lives!”
    (I was paraphrasing this: I come today to tell you that Shibuya-kei is no longer dead. Perhaps it never was …, hence the lack of capitalisation in the title.)

    If you didn’t mean Shibuya-kei is alive (and I apologise for the misunderstanding), perhaps you meant it is undead, returning as a zombified version of its earlier self?
    The undead child you helped father, lurching through the streets of Shibuya and the aisles of Parco, causing papa Momus to stutter “”Shibuya-kei is b-b-back?”

    But then you seemed so exuberant just a year ago — … welcome back, Shibuya-kei! We missed you. — that “Shibuya-kei lives!” didn’t seem to be that much of a stretch.

  24. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    It would be perfectly possible to paint a picture of Shibuya-kei as the ultimate neo-nationalist musical imperialism,

    I recall hearing an interview of Konishi on KCRW in ’95 or ’96 in which he stated his goal was to make better quality music than the Americans, just as Toyota and Honda had surpassed GM. At the time I thought he was being ironic, but I hadn’t yet lived in Japan. I now think he was trying to sound American, openly stating his desire to be competitive.

  25. matt Says:

    Nickink, Shibuya-Kei is dead (unless of course you read in Vice that it’s alive), 27 hours is a watershed I can assure you, it’ll start to make sense now, 30 hours in and you wont bother replying to yourself either

  26. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Some 90’s nostalgia is available at the blog of Record Shop Django:

    http://blog.livedoor.jp/recordshopdjango/#top

  27. Chris_B Says:

    marxy sed n the 90s … at least in America, this is a ridiculous expectation.

    What rock were you living under? In Austin and in NYC there was a heck of a lot of music from everywhere. Maybe it wasnt registering on the cash register, but man was it there.

    sparkligbeatnic sed I recall hearing an interview of Konishi on KCRW in ’95 or ’96 in which he stated his goal was to make better quality music than the Americans,

    Aint that a kicker? Sounds like a mini-ishihara quote somehow. I’m gonna step way out and say that this sorta 3rd world thing is charming in some way. Its totally OK for Toyota & Honda to aspire to sell more or make better cars cuz cars are clearly product, but the quote belies the completely honest product mentality which is OK here for music but must be hidden in the USA as far as musicians go. Of course I’m going on out of context because I didnt hear the quote, but I do see alot of that conquered nation/3rd world nation mentality from alot of the jhophop and jreggae people I meet. Oh well.

  28. Momus Says:

    The heart behind this one-time energetic comments thread has withered away, and we can now only expect the comments to fall one by one.

  29. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    I do see alot of that conquered nation/3rd world nation mentality from alot of the jhophop and jreggae people I meet.

    Chris: surprised you took my interpretation of the Konishi that way. I think Kononishi was being polite by trying to sound a bit like an American while giving an interview in the US. At the same time he was doing something very Japanese: trying to anticipate what his hosts might like to hear.

    Some of the most humourous cross-cultural situations arise when newbies try to “do as the Romans do.”

  30. marxy Says:

    Secondly, as a participant in the scene it was promoting

    Do you understand that we all were not participants in the scene or are you just trying to show who’s boss?

    The point is that the funeral for Shibuya-kei was held in 1998.

    Historically, this is absolutely incorrect. You called the funeral at the peak. After ’98, the scene started to decline, but the level of output continued unabated until around ’02 or so. Escalator and Readymade’s indie stuff never really got hot until around 2000. So, yes, you did the “In: Nakame-kei, Out: Shibuya-kei” early to hedge your bets, but we are now experiencing the uncontestable death of S-K, where all the monuments are being wiped off the map. That’s why I said, “dead and buried.” (To politely, give you credit for your original essay.)

    what exactly is shibuya-kei ?

    For a less “hey, everybody look at me!” history, search my site for the six-part “The Legacy of Shibuya-kei” series.

    like Console and Plus-Tech Squeeze Box and McDonald Duck Eclair

    You mean Capsule. These guys are “Neo Shibuya-kei,” who, as I stated in the essay, are way more interested in big mainstream success than creating/preserving a unique subculture of music. Also, these artists were mostly rejected by Zest (outside of major label Capsule) for being too “Jpop.”

    Fine, fine. I understand all the criticism, but the point is, Zest and Maximum Joy are closed, and have been replaced by nothing else. You can go over to Bonjour (which by the way is me and my friends’ least favorite record store in Tokyo by a long shot) and buy some trendy, fashionable music from horribly snobby fashion-conglomerate employees, but the whole middle-brow alternative Japanese scene is vanishing into air. If like Momus you don’t care (possibly because you’ve lived it), that’s fine. If you do care, now you know that Zest is gone.

    For me, Zest was a big, big deal in 2000 when I was buying records. I don’t care anymore, but its closing has great symbolic meaning.

  31. nate Says:

    I still couldnt tell you much about shibuya kei, maybe after I read the 6 part series…

    I know we don’t talk about individual artists beyond halicali around here too much, but what are the thoughts of the ex-devotees of shibuya-kei on fantastic plastic machine? I saw him a couple months ago, and have been listening to some of his sound concierge series for a few weeks. pitchfork *ahem* mentioned listening to the series as being like a trip back to the nineties. Is he some pale rip-off, or late holder-on, or just nobody?

  32. marxy Says:

    FPM “sold out” his loungecore roots and went full-out house around 2001. I’ve been pretty bored with him since then. A lot of the eclectic DJs associated with Shibuya-kei ended up down the road to house music because the market for kids dancing to weird beats evaporated and house was the only sure financial bet.

  33. I.n0jaQ Says:

    Im just surprised that all you guys think what ever goes down in Tokyo is mirrored in other parts of the country, or that it somehow represents the whole country… Maybe you should come down to Osaka and get some “ton-chi” of your own.
    This city produces music that tears strips off Tokyo’s equivalent, in all areas and selling out venues and attended by local youth who are opinion leaders to thier peers.
    Japanese music in all its wonderful forms is alive and well down here.

  34. poule Says:

    “None of your new experimental artists are selling 200,000 of their records and changing the face of Japanese pop culture.”

    May I remind you that you objected me once that Cornelius and Takako weren’t “mainstream” and though didn’t have their seat in the japanese musical cultural landscape?

    Then about burrying japanese culture, according to the “pop” mouvement view point, Yuki is far more cultural than the ultra-sharp music we listen too, for one would learn much more about today in Japan, than by listening to what Burgalat could compose for a japanese singer.

    Nevertheless… I liked this shop (and B. Burgalat). Well, even it would diffuse the idea that France Gall is cool…

    Don’t be so pessimistic and try and sell your records in a soup can.

  35. marxy Says:

    I am a generally optimistic person. But when I see more and more evidence for a downward trend over four years, I tend to be “realistic” about what is going on. I honestly never imagined things would get so bad that Zest would close down. The guy from Maximum Joy said that he wanted to get out before things got too bad, so I’m not sure that the Japanese themselves are “optimistic” etiher.