Noah's Ark

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This afternoon I went to the local Sound Studio Noah to record vocals for two songs on my new album, tentatively titled néomarxisme II — De La Soul is Dead. My music is self-financed, created mostly in my bedroom on an iBook and a Mbox, and this would be a slightly interesting biographical detail if it weren’t for the fact that almost every single other contemporary musician records in his/her own studio — besides, of course, that growing army of hacky UK angular gloom acts inexplicably rewarded with a never-ending supply of major label contracts and NME banner headlines. Also, my debut mini-album Kyoshu Nostalgia pretty much sounded like it was recorded on a laptop with a ¥0 budget, so I don’t really deserve any points for my thrift. But for this new project, I’m making efforts to improve the sound quality without increasing expenditures, and instead of recording vocals in my extremely street-noise drenched, echo-y room on Setagaya-ku’s Ambulance Alley, I’m throwing down the ¥1000 an hour to get some peace and quiet at the rehearsal studio down the street.

Sound Studio Noah is a chain of rehearsal spaces littered across Tokyo (and beyond, perhaps) that caters to amateur and semi-professional bands. The geography and architecture of Japanese life forbid the kind of dank garage practice I experienced in my teenage years, so everyone has to rent these spaces to really rock it. For a relatively modest fee, you get a room with space-age double-lock noise-proof doors, anti-echo padding, guitar amps, bass amps, a mixer, mics, and a PA — all professional quality. The small vocal booth today was eerily quiet, a certain form of freeter musician luxury.

Walking down daily to the train station area, I am always passing Noah’s customers carrying their instruments in gig bags and their effects pedals in specially-sized black cases with silver lining. (Throwing everything into a backpack is a big Japanese Orthopraxy Rock no-no.) My worry about these high-quality, low-price studios and the amazing avalanche of gear at your local amateur Japanese rock club is that it seems to breed a minor moral hazard. With enough money, practicing and gigging are painless — a little too easy, if you ask me. There is zero sacrifice required for the art, and that means the whole field is open to a lot of people who treat music as if it were a sporting event — practice, practice, practice, invite friends to the big event, play your songs only to your friends, go get drunk afterwards. I think 90% of the bands I see are having way more fun that the audience.

Now this is the dilemma of our era: Making music is surely pleasant, and we are blessed that almost everyone has a chance to make music of the quality we hear in the mass media. But do we all have the right to clutter the market (and ultimately the culture at large) with our creations? I know my mom likes eating bread that she has made in her own breadmaking machine, but I’m not sure she is obsessed with finding a distributor for selling her bread to a wider market. Why can’t indie music exist at that level? Why does the ease of making music not push players into seeing their actions as a self-rewarding activity unrelated to “getting a record deal” or “becoming a star”? Who thinks that being on a weekend football team will lead to being the next Joe Namath?

And don’t think that I am not pondering the same questions in regards to my own musical output: If I enjoy the act of making music, why do I get so starved for outside validation? Why can’t I eat my own indie bread? If this album creation is so enjoyable and costs me so little, why in the world do I put a price sticker on it at the end of the day?

W. David MARX (Marxy)
January 27, 2006

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

23 Responses

  1. ilikeblingbling Says:

    4 the chicks, mannnnn

  2. Momus Says:

    If use value is subjective and exchange value objective, things which remain outside the market system have no objective value.

  3. Grishnackh Says:

    …and their effects pedals in specially-sized black cases with silver lining.

    That can be put into a single word: pedalboard. This baby saves you a lot of trouble if you’re a pedal guy…

    It is really that easy, though? Last time I practiced with a band, it was in a tiny rehearsal room with no fancy stuff like PAs and mixers, for which we had to pay something like 2000 yen per hour. And the feedback problem probably due to the tiny space was driving me nuts, but then again my distortion pedal is very high-gain.

    As for gigging, isn’t it a common practice in Japan that you have to pay the livehouse in order to play? So unless you have a large enough following, you’re actually losing both time and money just to have your music heard. And every musician I personally know in Japan is either downright poor or too busy with something else.

  4. Jim Phelan Says:

    Hi Marxy I’m tidying up my studio and have come across a lot of the original artwork for the early releases on El. I’m getting rid of most of it…do you know of anyone in Japan who collects this stuff? I also worked on a lot of Creation sleeves in the early nineties and have hundreds of original proofs of their releases too…some of which were changed before final release making them pretty unique artifacts…any contacts? I really enjoyed your piece on Shibuya-Kei, Flipper’s Guitar sent me their first two albums proud to acknowledge their sources and name-check their influences by having them contribute to the Fab Gear album…Jim

  5. Momus Says:

    Good lord, it’s Jim Phelan! He laid out tons of my album sleeves on el, Creation and Cherry Red. And now he’s selling the originals!

  6. digiki Says:

    I still dont get this whole studio thing, maybe because I’ve never wanted to be in a rock band and never had any kind of obsession with petals, gear, amps ? I believe it IS very important to sound different from the mass media quality type. Using the pro studio in some unexpected ways or within a set of rules could be fun, going to a studio because you want to sound ‘good’ is boring. Again maybe I don’t get your post, I’ve never had any interest in sounding like the ‘big’ acts.
    Oh, and your first album sounds good, great production work. You did that home or in a big professional studio, in the end, who cares ?

  7. digiki Says:

    ah ah ‘petals’ I meant ‘pedals’ of course :) I love petals :)

  8. rachael Says:

    maybe once you reach a certain level with home production, then you just want to see what you can do with a studio?

    i think in the end, listeners don’t really care where the music was made and whether it cost fifty dollars or fifty thousand dollars – but most sensible people won’t stand for big smooth sanitised production.

    i second that kyoshu nostalgia sounds great regardless.

    i really like the homemade ethos. but i’m just admitting my huge weaknesses in learning how to record things nicely.

  9. marxy Says:

    If use value is subjective and exchange value objective, things which remain outside the market system have no objective value.

    This is a succinct, useful Marxist argument. But can we totally ignore exchange value – as I would like to? In the traditional Japanese value system, exchange value becomes a representation of the seken (世間) – of what is “popular” and therefore proprietary – and thus is more important than an individually decided use value. So I get why Japanese bands need market forces for validation. But can a CD be “released” and subsequently taken seriously without it being priced? Do I have to charge you the consumer for it?

    As for gigging, isn’t it a common practice in Japan that you have to pay the livehouse in order to play?

    Yes, but if you can get enough of your friends to come, you push the financial burden on them. They have to pay the absurd 2500 yen to see nobody bands, not you. Even so, money buys access — talent only buys things in the long-run — so the only barrier to playing out the music business fantasy is a very small amount of investment. All of the sacrifice is monetary.

    Using the pro studio in some unexpected ways or within a set of rules could be fun, going to a studio because you want to sound ‘good’ is boring. Again maybe I don’t get your post, I’ve never had any interest in sounding like the ‘big’ acts.

    Digiki, you do a conceptually different kind of music than I do, which I find very, very interesting. But since my music is still 75% about appeasing my own tastes, I personally want to hear vocals that don’t have that annoying small room echo-verb and car noises in the background.

    i second that kyoshu nostalgia sounds great regardless. takuroku world.

  10. Momus Says:

    can we totally ignore exchange value – as I would like to?

    Would you really like to ignore exchange value? I suspect that, like me, you believe that pop music wouldn’t exist without exchange value. It isn’t folk music, although it might have some folk in it. What’s more, like me, you might believe that exchange value adds a sheen of “commodity fetishism” to our personal production which enhances it. You know, there’s a real thrill seeing “those sounds I made” packaged as a CD, sitting on the shelf at Tower or HMV. Of course there is!

    I believe your entry about going to a professional studio is really a kind of conflicted boasting: “I went to a professional studio, and I’m not too sure what I feel about that. It’s kinda glamorous, but why do I need to do it?”

    Exchange value and use value are also much more ambivalent than my little formula up there admits. Although capitalism would love there to be nothing but exchange value (the abstraction of derivatives and futures markets, buying and selling imaginary goods and services that nobody will ever use, etc), there is finally no exchange value without use value.

    Economics must remain silent about use value because it doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe it, but use value is what makes all those numbers fly. People need, want and buy stuff for a reason, even if that reason is unspeakable and subjective.

    But is it subjective? Maybe use value is also objective, because, from the point of view of a human being, what’s tangible, real and necessary (ie goods and my relationship with them) is objective, whereas exchange remains a mere abstraction, as fictive as the numbers used to describe it.

  11. Jrim Says:

    Just a random question, but who the hell are these hacky UK angular gloom acts you talk about? The last time I checked, NME was fawning over the Arctic Monkeys, who sound far too chirpy to get slapped with such nomenclature.

  12. marxy Says:

    who the hell are these hacky UK angular gloom acts you talk about?

    It’s more of a five-year trend, not a recent phenomenon. And some are angular AND gloomy, while some are angular OR gloomy.

    I went to a professional studio, and I’m not too sure what I feel about that. It’s kinda glamorous, but why do I need to do it?

    Well, no. Sound Studio Noah is advanced DIY – not “professional.” I brought my own mic, preamp, computer, etc. in a suitcase, set it up, and just borrowed their silence for $10 an hour. I don’t know if I would boast about this, seeing that the price was less than a Friday night bartab in Ginza.

    People need, want and buy stuff for a reason, even if that reason is unspeakable and subjective.

    True, but a lot of buying behavior – bandwagon effects, in particular – comes straight from consumers re-orienting themselves toward market principles and treasuring an item’s exchange value over its use value. I think Japan more easily slips into this because the market becomes a useful indicator of community opinion in a certain orthorpraxical propriety.

    As for subjective vs. objective, exchange value can at least be measured objectively. We know exactly how many units Glay sold. And maybe the problem with music reviews in Japan is that they are personal reflections upon use value – not “objective” measurements of value like the Oricon statistics are.

    What’s more, like me, you might believe that exchange value adds a sheen of “commodity fetishism” to our personal production which enhances it.

    I believe that one of the inherent goals with pop music is to have lots of people listen to your own creations/messages/songs/words. And the market used to be the most efficient means to that goal. Now the Internet theoretically creates a scenario where non-commercial products could get equal attention, but there is still a consumer snobbery that demands the existence of an exchange value before even considering that a use value exists.

    Interesting that a lot of people take the time to read blogs as part of their daily routines, but I’m not sure amateur mp3s have attained such status yet.

  13. DB Says:

    Ever since I learned about furo rock last night, I find myself unable to care about any other form of music: http://ip.tosp.co.jp/i.asp?i=furorock

  14. Momus Says:

    And maybe the problem with music reviews in Japan is that they are personal reflections upon use value – not “objective” measurements of value like the Oricon statistics are.

    Hey, this is a bit of a theoretical volte face, isn’t it? Weren’t you recently telling us that the problem with Japanese reviews was precisely that they reflect “objective” things like how much advertising the record label has bought in the magazine?

  15. marxy Says:

    Let me rephrase: the reason that subjective American-style music reviews have never caught on in Japan is that they are based on use-value.

  16. nate Says:

    about blogs versus myspace mp3s:

    I think the music industry is out there recruiting. The publishing industry doesn’t really work that way. So if the music is still free, there’s a good chance it’s not up to snuff. MIA was the glaring exception to that rule.

  17. Ian Says:

    In Tokyo you’ve got a situation where the roles of supplier and consumer have been reversed. The bands have become a marketplace for live houses, rehearsal studios and CD presses to make money off of rather than the bands themselves being suppliers (successful or otherwise) who are involved in some kind of relationship with an audience. I still haven’t figured out whether I think this is okay or not, but I’m inclined to agree with what you say about it being a minor moral hazard at least. From my often painful experience of going to gigs in Tokyo most bands have the attitudes of consumers, with their own gratification as their only goal. It doesn’t always stop bands from being good but it definitely alters (or removes entirely) their relationship with the audience.

    A lot of punk bands flip the system around by organising their gigs in the rehearsal studios and charging everyone 500 yen to get in. They can make a bit of money back from these shows – usually enough to get drunk afterwards or in the case of some of my friends, partially compensate the flight tickets for old mates of theirs from Fukuoka who they bring over to play. I’m not sure how that affects the relationship between the band and the audience, although I think it’s probably important that it’s only punk bands that seem able to get away with this.

  18. Chris_B Says:

    minor observations:

    Even at someplace like Noah, you aint gonna get a pro studio sound. I really doubt they give you access to the hardware that a big studio has or a knowledgeable engineer for that price. Nonetheless, I value your tip and if I ever need to record vocals I’ll consider that method.

    A little thing I overheard while giving away CDs of my music to people in clubs, several folks observed (before they had even heard the music) something to the effect of “he should be charging for this”. I’ve come to interpret that and the general lack of interest I see in non majof JPOP free mp3 files as that this market has an idea of “free is worthless”. Lesson learned, I’ve stopped giving away CDs to the masses and come to think of all the youth as potential customers.

    FWIW my CD & 7″ release should come out late spring or so and every record shop and my label guy are trying to tell me that I should charge MORE per unit than I had planned.

    So go ahead and charge as much as you can for your next album Marxy! The masses will thank you for it and the money in pocket can go towards financing the third.

  19. alex Says:

    But since my music is still 75% about appeasing my own tastes,

    to follow this, what would the other 25% be? presumably “other people’s” tastes, but i wonder how much the two can be distinguished in terms of outsider validation and aesthetics-as-market-demographics feedback.

    to desire to be enjoyed usually contains this anxiety play of “what do they want” (all people, my subcultural community, my ‘self’, and so on). isn’t consumer snobbery just a side of this insidious need to symbolically verify our subject-positions?

    what i fear is that if free “noncommercial music” on the internet takes off, far from being some liberation, it’ll be under the logic of commerce anyway, some kind of ipod injunction to consume (go enjoy, find yourself, etc). exchange-value foreclosing use-value in disguise of it.

  20. marxy Says:

    Even at someplace like Noah, you aint gonna get a pro studio sound.

    No, you’re right. But if I’m just going to do vocals in my room with my own gear anyway, Noah at least lets me steal the big studio silence.

    To follow this, what would the other 25% be? presumably “other people’s” tastes

    I think I subconsciously edit myself somewhat to fit with norms and trends. There’s probably a lot of songs I’d like to make that would be embarrassing on some level.

    exchange-value foreclosing use-value in disguise of it.

    Maybe so. I do feel that a public sphere of debate/criticism/review for music at least tries to emphasize personal use value over whatever’s happening to the music in terms of sales. You could say that having a review culture breeds authoritative statements on “good taste” and “bad taste” but I think it overall emphasizes “personal taste” more than anything.

  21. ndkent Says:

    >As for gigging, isn’t it a common practice in Japan that you have to pay the livehouse in order to play?

    >Yes, but if you can get enough of your friends to come, you push the financial burden on them. They have to pay the absurd 2500 yen to see nobody bands, not you.

    Well it’s pretty pragmatic, you aren’t paying them instead of them paying you. You are renting the place for set or night and keeping the take at the door rather than whomever books the place thinking you’ll make them enough money and you playing for some small sliver of the door or a fixed fee.

  22. Carl Says:

    At $10/hour, the price is comparable to a capsule hotel, but with the promise of silence miraculously included!

  23. Slim Says:

    I spent most of the 90s living in Tokyo and playing in bands that practiced at places like Noah (in fact I’m sure we used Noah itslef, in Jiyugaoka perhaps?). For me it was a dream come true. I’d done the garage thing in California where no one can hear what anyone else is doing and so progress takes forever. In Japan, the sound was acceptable from the first practice and so energy could be spent on actually playing something interesting instead of trying to hear what is going on.

    My main “indie pop” band of which I was the token-gaijin always played in the live houses in shimokitazawa and shinjuku and the like where we would be responsible for all promotion, and for selling a certain number of tickets or have to pay up. I found this bizarre, and yes, it does lead to ridiculous shows with 5 bands of 30min each just so there will be enough band member friends to buy up all the tickets! The one thing the live houses do provide is, once again, damn good sound for a dingy club. I guess when buying a larger club is out of the question, you might as well spend all your money on a good sound system…

    There is a way to make money in a band in Japan though. Play in bars! I moonlighted as bass player in a Japanese blues band and we always got paid because the bar was making tons of money on drinks. The live houses hardly serve drinks so this isn’t a possiblity.

    -Slim (who in ’97 published a Japanese magazine which included an article by DW connecting Momus with Tricky…)