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.