SXSW and the Paradox of Choice

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If you haven’t read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, you should — because he perfectly explains why SXSW doesn’t really work as an event for discovering new music:

A recent series of studies, titled “When Choice is Demotivating,” provide the evidence [that more choice is not better]. One study was set in a gourmet food store in an upscale community where, on weekends, the owners commonly set up sample tables of new items. When researchers set up a display featuring a line of exotic, high-quality jams, customers who came by could taste samples, and they were given a coupon for a dollar off if they bought a jar. In one condition of the study, 6 varieties of the jam were available for tasting. In another, 24 varieties were available. In either case, the entire set of 24 varieties was available for purchase. The large array of jams attracted more people to the table than the small array, though in both cases people tasted about the same number of jams on average. When it came to buying, however, a huge difference became evident. Thirty percent of the people exposed to the small array of jams actually bought a jar; only 3 percent of those exposed to the large array of jams did so (19-20).

SXSW too has a large number of exotic, high-quality jams — 1300 to be precise. And most of these bands plays multiple times.

In three days, faced with somewhere around 900 options, I saw two bands total.

The Mae Shi, For Example

On Friday night, I went to see The Mae Shi‘s showcase gig. They played for only about 25 minutes, but it verged on life-changing. The boys started the gig spread into the crowd, and since the venue had a poor man’s version of stadium-seating, they started chanting their first song in unison all around us. Finally descending upon the stage, they rocked and socked — with brief costume changes but without annoying inter-song banter — until we were all rocked out.

Besides the fact that the Mae Shi is a totally swell band, once had 6000 MySpace friends before MySpace conspired to destroy their MySpace page, and had their unbelievably great new track “Run to Your Grave” on Pitchfork’s Forkcast recently, there could not have been more than 75 to 100 people at the show.

Austin is the “live music capital of the world,” and I am assuming “live music” to connote “rock bands with guitars” that play four-minute rock songs. I never got the feeling that art-rock is really a good match to the proceedings.

And Kiiiiiii

Which leads us to assessing the value of bringing Kiiiiiii to SXSW — a band who in my completely subjective, horribly biased, and subsequently worthless opinion are one of the shining stars of the Japanese indie music scene. They played first at Todd P.’s backyard party in the drizzle for an energetic gaggle of hipsters local and glocal (Brooklyn, represent), which went generally well and made a nice intro for Juiceboxxx to come on and start knocking over plastic chairs. (Did he get off from school to perform or was he playing hooky? Truant they’ll all say, quoth Milhouse.)

The Beauty Bar gig later that night was a mixed affair. Short on time, no sound checks allowed, maybe 100 people or so, but a strange mix of patrons. Some guy immediately stole a kazoo off the stage, tried to blow on it for 10 mins, failing to make any sort of noise, then pocketed it and started walking away, before I asked him whether “I could get that back.” I got it back. This is what managers are for.

Reviews were mixed.

“I got a chance to see “Kiiiiiii” on said birthday. It was very energetic and fun. I have thier DVD so I can get really drunk with friends and re-live the halcyon.” – “Edward”

“Yes, those two Japanese girls are energetic mad, and they sure do make a spectacle of themselves. But with one singer and one drummer and no support musicians, the performance was, at the very least, thin. The old fart in me appreciates method where madness is concerned, and Kiiiiiii pretty much tells method to fuck off. I left after 15 minutes.” – Musicwhore.org

“KIIIII: I can’t believe there was hype for this band. This was one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen. Japan’s gotta bring more than this.” – Bandwagon

Nothing, however, beats this pithy summary:

“We kicked off the festival by seeing a crazy Japanese band called Kiiiiii who were 2 harajuku girls that performed with guitar and drumas a-la White Stripes, and included strange covers of Boney M’s Brown Girl In The Ring and We Are The World in a style that was only slightly recognisable, but totally hysterical.” – Jude Adam

Kiiiiiii does not have a guitar player.

With 1300 bands, hype is critical as it is the sole guide for navigating the surplus of gig choices. Hype at SXSW, however, is not expanded through performance as much as aggregated and consolidated. In a sea of so many choices, there is nowhere to accidentally see a band and start loving them. You either love or hate whom you have already set out to see.

Before I left for Austin, my friend Nick S. mentioned it was “great” that Kiiiiiii had managed to get on the Crystal Castles bill, but shows at SXSW aren’t “shows” in any traditional sense, where patrons stick around and see the other bands. If a gig ends at x:40, you’ve got 20 mins to make it to the next venue to see the next band on your list or have a slice of pizza. I doubt anybody stayed around at Beauty Bar after Kiiiiiii, and even if the crowd sized stayed the same or increased, the Venn diagram would show a very small overlap between the crowds.

All in all, Kiiiiiii got a blip on the radar by showing up to SXSW — mainly from placement in the massive list of 1300 bands and subsequent discovery by myriad bloggers. Whether the actual performances did anything for macro-promotion, I have no idea.

Japanese Cool

JETRO — the Japan External Trade Organization and government organ — threw a party on Thursday of SXSW week called the “Matsuri-Japan Bash” to nominally support the exportation of Japanese music to the rest of the world. I certainly salute the idea, but they sided with the Japan Nite event, which is a non-curated, pay-to-play showcase. Any Japanese band with $6000 to spend (on top of the $1000 in airfare for each member), can be a part of the famous Japan Nite.

Since nobody behind this operation seems to have any idea to bring Japanese bands with some semblance of appeal to American indie rock audiences and instead let big labels throw them some bands, we got a weird mix of newcomers, old-timers, and garage bands on holiday. HY are light poppers from Okinawa and favorites of 18 year-old Japanese female college students who “like” “music.” Go!Go!7188 are kind of a sub-Shiina Ringo rock band from Toshiba/EMI about whose existence I had completely forgotten. No one Japanese I know will consider Sony’s six-girl teenage ska band Oreskaband an actual band and not an elaborate marketing scheme. In case you didn’t get enough horns, Pistol Valve — an all-girl teenage brass band — came along as well.

I know I am being snobby and selfish here, wanting Japan to present a well-curated hipster cool instead of putting forward “pay-to-play” as a national cultural trait. And hell, some guy who actually took the trouble to see Kiiiiiii — a non-Japan Nite band — thought that “Japan’s gotta bring more than this,” so I doubt I can speak for all American fans of the Japanese music. But with this national-sponsorship of Japanese gross national cool, I am still troubled that the aesthetic mismanagement of selecting the “representatives” has no led to a degeneration of the “Japan” brand — maybe not for the audiences, who I am sure enjoyed the young teenage sound of an all-girl ska band — but for Japanese artists themselves. If anybody had bothered to say, how do we promote Japanese bands in the US, they would have called Shugo Tokumaru, who probably would have gone to SXSW and ignored Japan Nite for a better showcase with no national-affiliation and support from the official trade bureau. Dear Bureaucracy, maybe the best way to promote Japanese music abroad is to not get involved at all.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
March 21, 2007

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

27 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    This guy went to my high school. I could probably hook you up, but I don’t know if it would be a good idea.

  2. Carl Says:

    Grr, the URL got eaten. It was youtube.com/watch?v=vD6bI7ziGPk

  3. dzima Says:

    hmm, I was just looking at these photos of SXSW

    http://www.boudist.com/archive/2007/03/18/sxsw_music.php

    and they give me the same mixed reaction that Marxy had in loco (polka dots…)

    And btw, does anyone know what happened with the Mae-Shi Myspace page? That sudden disappearance puzzled me for a long time.

  4. malachy Says:

    nice post – i find it very interesting that JETRO charged bands such a crazy fee (or at all) – these bands are supposed to be cultural and business exports, no? this is hardly the kind of support a government body should be providing.

    like you said, someone with some already existing buzz would have a much better hope. otherwise sxsw looks like a very expensive holiday for most non US bands.

  5. marxy Says:

    For the record, JETRO doesn’t run the Japan Nite – they just endorse it.

  6. Gen Kanai Says:

    “…maybe the best way to promote Japanese music abroad is to not get involved at all.”

    That’s unfair, imo.

    That the Japanese govt. spends any time/money at all promoting Japanese pop music at a venue like SXSW is quite amazing. How many other national government promotion agencies did you see at SXSW?

    You can criticize their execution, but I think it’s sour grapes to criticize the entire effort.

  7. marxy Says:

    But let’s say the US decides to hold “US Nite” at Cannes and shows “The Pursuit of Happiness” because it’s the least edgy and the studio paid the promoter for it. Better off just letting David Lynch throw in “Inland Empire.” Pay his airfare, at best.

  8. Adamu Says:

    That show sounds a lot like the “Japanese products on display” sort of events JETRO holds all the time throughout the world. In that context I can understand why they’d charge fees — consider it more like buying a table at a comic book convention than a concert.

    I guess it’s a sign of progress that the government has stopped trying to sell only traditional Japanese music (or the even more boring trad-rock hybrids) as part of Japan’s international image, but at the same time it seems like the same-old toxic attempt at government propaganda, and as you saw there was confusion about what sort of groups should play a venue like that or what benefit the bands receive.

  9. Adamu Says:

    They don’t manage it and just endorse it? That’s key information. If they’re just giving their stamp of approval to some other schmuck’s project then they’re just hanging on to achieve some kind of relevance that they can play up in their annual report. I get the feeling that recent government efforts to try and have an “atooshi” effect on the Japanese contents industry are less about actually promoting a fledgling inudstry than it is about JETRO/METI trying to stay relevant and take credit for an industry that’s already successful on its own.

    From JETRO’s 2004 annnual report:

    ① IT・コンテンツ分野
    映画、音楽、アニメなどの分野で、世界の主要展示会にオールジャパンでナショナル・パビリオンを設営し、官民あげて海外市場に ”Japan Cool” (「日本的なカッコ良さ」の意味)をPR することで、コンテンツ企業の海外進出を後押しするとともに、我が国の「ソフトパワー」向上に貢献しました。
    <具体的な成果>
    1) 展示会出展
    映画ではカンヌ映画祭、AFM(米国)、ベルリン国際映画祭など、アニメを中心とするTV番組では、MIPCOM(カンヌ)、BCWW(ソウル),音楽ではMIDEM(カンヌ)、SXSW(オースチン)など海外11 件の展示商談会にジャパンパビリオンを設営し、海外市場に ”Japan Cool” をPR しました。

  10. Malachy Says:

    “…How many other national government promotion agencies did you see at SXSW?”

    Not many other governments have their agency names at the show, but some european government agencies provide funding for bands to head over there. Well, in Ireland in the UK at least.

    I don’t know if they shouldn’t get involved at all (someone needs to pay for those plane tickets), but this Japan Nite perhaps wasn’t the best way of exporting “Japan Cool”.

  11. Adamu Says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but maybe other people didn’t realize that “Matsuri-Japan Bash” and “Japan Nite” are two totally separate things? Was the JETRO party a pay-to-play event too? Did the guy on the mike at the Matsuri simply encourage people to attend Japan Nite or are the two events supposedly in bed together?

    Matsuri-Japan Bash:

    Japan bands blastoff in Austin, South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Style, at Brush Square Park in downtown Austin for a “Japan Bash Party” open to the public beginning at 5:00 p.m. With food, drinks, and live music, this is an event you would enjoy for the best line-up of Japanese artists. Bordering the block at 5th and Neches, the event of “New Sounds From Way Out East” will feature the following groups:
    Asakusa Jinta Go! Go! 7188
    Nekomushi Oreskaband
    The Emeralds MC: Peelander Z

    (snip)

    Those registered for SXSW may attend an exclusive engagement on Friday, March 16 for “Japan Nite” at the Elysium, 705 Red River. (http://sxsw-asia.com/JapanNite2007/) Several of the bands are conducting a U.S. Tour including gigs in Cambridge, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.
    Site: http://www.jetro.org/com/events_jetro/content/detail/event_id/230

  12. Adamu Says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but maybe other people didn’t realize that “Matsuri-Japan Bash” and “Japan Nite” are two totally separate things? Was the JETRO party a pay-to-play event too? Did the guy on the mike at the Matsuri simply encourage people to attend Japan Nite or are the two events supposedly in bed together?

    Matsuri-Japan Bash:

    Japan bands blastoff in Austin, South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Style, at Brush Square Park in downtown Austin for a “Japan Bash Party” open to the public beginning at 5:00 p.m. With food, drinks, and live music, this is an event you would enjoy for the best line-up of Japanese artists. Bordering the block at 5th and Neches, the event of “New Sounds From Way Out East” will feature the following groups:
    Asakusa Jinta Go! Go! 7188
    Nekomushi Oreskaband
    The Emeralds MC: Peelander Z

    (snip)

    Those registered for SXSW may attend an exclusive engagement on Friday, March 16 for “Japan Nite” at the Elysium, 705 Red River. (http://sxsw-asia.com/JapanNite2007/) Several of the bands are conducting a U.S. Tour including gigs in Cambridge, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

  13. Mulboyne Says:

    I agree with Gen: they are trying. A number of Government forums have cropped up over the last eighteen months to address the issue of promoting music overseas (sometimes alongside manga, books, TV and film, sometimes on its own). I’ve spoken at a couple and it’s fascinating to see the opinions on display.

    There’s still a large number who are completely unconvinced that the government should play any role in promoting music. The recent examples of the Canadian government sponsoring a showcase of indie bands in Tokyo and Osaka and the British government working with HMV to promote new talent in Japan has helped change some minds.

    The label representatives and CPRA guys can sometimes be very arrogant which led one METI guy to ask “Since you seem to know it all already, how come you haven’t succeeded so far?” Japanese music is selling fairly well in Asia, though, so they have some record of success. The gaping hole is the US and views on that market couldn’t get more disparate. For every person who is amazed that Utada Hikaru didn’t succeed at her first go, there’s another who thinks she was doomed from the start.

    So what do you promote? I can see why Go!Go!7188 were in the mix because they can come across as a harder edged Puffy and, having played the Budokan, they could scale-up quickly in America should they catch on.

    There is still a strong feeling that rock bands won’t make an impact in the US if they are not prepared to tour extensively. This is anathema to a lot of labels and promotion companies who want to maintain control of a band’s schedule for the domestic market. Some feel that the anime boom has opened up other routes: for instance, no-one thought visual-kei bands had much export value five years ago.

    Ironically, YouTube and torrents appear to have played a big part in giving overseas fans access to Japanese music. This has been acknowledged so not everyone agrees with JASRAC’s heavy-handed approach. Another influential speaker, however, advised losing the chip on the shoulder about the US market. He believed that since everyone is stealing music in North America, promotional effort should only be put in where people will buy the recorded product.

    One band member I spoke with after one meeting said that it was unlikely that the Government could really help overseas promotion directly but he believed that their involvement means that the industry players who can make a difference will have a greater incentive to increase their efforts.

  14. marxy Says:

    The State in this case is trying to promote “exports” by which it means “support the exports of the oligopolistic players in the industry.” The State doesn’t know how to actually promote pop culture, so they are going to go to support the most obvious people that do. The problem is, the current system is set up for the major labels to have the first say, and for outsider bands to be included at their own personal expense. Sending Oreskaband to Austin costs Sony nothing in the big picture.

    My biggest issue is that no one brings their A-game to these festivals. Sony brings a band it wants to sell back to the Japanese as “a hit in the US.” Before that, they sold Puffy as a way to do something with a band whose career was totally over. Go! Go! 1788 are where Puffy were – their moment is over here, so what do you do with them besides sending them to the States? If you are going to really “sell” Japanese music, you bring your A-game. No one ever does this, because the real stars are too busy and can’t be bothered.

    But the problem is, “Japanese music” is a captive market, run by thuggish production companies. And since the major labels sell Western music side-by-side, Japanese companies can even profit off the consumers they have chased away by constantly producing the same idol crud. They can sell to the Asian market – not on the quality of the music though, but exploiting the cultural arbitrage of the “coolness” hierarchy. This is why terrible American music sells (sold?) well in Japan for so long. Japan just uses the same strategy to their lower tier neighbors.

    But if this uncompetitive market tries to go overseas and has no idea about actual Western tastes, I don’t think it’s so easy.

    There are two strategies:

    1) You cash out. Sell to whomever you can sell to. Anime fans, Kill Bill fanatics etc. Sell 25,000 Dir En Gray copies. But to be honest, this is piddles compared to real domestic sales for these bands.

    2) You lose money but gain PR/cred. Bring over your A-game of interesting and well-respected artists. (Just read Pitchfork for examples. Has anyone at JETRO ever seen Pitchfork?) How cool would Japan look if the artist list was OOIOO, Ghost, Yura Yura Teikoku, Piana, World’s End Girlfriend, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, and Halcali? You would win press, which would win you an aura of acclaim, and that’s what winning soft power is about.

    But if you were OOIOO, why in the world would you want to reduce your own artistic mission to worldwide diplomacy? Why do musicians anywhere have to be vassals of the State?

  15. Andrew Says:

    Whoah, wait? Juiceboxx, I think I know that guy from mequon,wisconsin. Was he a nerdy white kid with glasses that did cheesy raps? My friend Nick is good buddies with him. He’s really over the top if you’re talking about who I’m thinking of. Really intense and obnoxious

  16. Mulboyne Says:

    Marxy wrote: The State in this case is trying to promote “exports” by which it means “support the exports of the oligopolistic players in the industry.”

    That is certainly the default position but there are people who argue otherwise so there is room for more than just one kind of promotional effort. I’m sure it won’t surprise you that there are industry people who make exactly the points you’ve raised. Your “cool” line-up, though, represents your own musical tastes and views and there are obviously many others.

  17. marxy Says:

    The cool line-up isn’t even my musical tastes, but a sample of bands who have found critical reception in the West. If we are going to go to the level of actually believing that “cool” exists without deconstruction it or anything, we should then ascribe to the tastes of our “cool” superiors in the “cool” hierarchy.

    To say that “there is no difference between the tastes of your average anime fan and a Pitchfork critic” (which no one has said) isn’t true. Because one has more cultural influence than the other – and that is at the base of “cool” whether we like it or not.

    Japan’s “Gross National Cool” is not a subjective concept. When Popeye does an article about the foreign reception of Japanese fashion brands in the West, they talk to “cool” people – not nobodies on the street.

  18. Aceface Says:

    “…How many other national government promotion agencies did you see at SXSW?”

    In FUJIROCK’02 I’ve encountered STUDY UK campaign booth sponsored by the British Counsil.
    Raving in The Chemical Brothers gig and you switch your mind to study in LSE instead of MIT,maybe.

  19. youngjames Says:

    “2) You lose money but gain PR/cred. Bring over your A-game of interesting and well-respected artists.- . . . . ”

    i didnt realize any of the bands you mentioned were internationally succesful? the only japanese bands who i can think of who do succesful US tours are noise bands along the lines of Melt Banana, correct me if im wrong.

    why not actually book people who are already succesful internationally and have some name recognition? if i were going to try and make this a succesful showcase, i would book Junko Bashment and a handful of other top japanese dancers, Hemo and Moofire, Mighty Crown, or maybe Gifted Childs,and Minmi, then i’d book a top jamaican or trinidadian artist to headlin and MC the show – rock is horribly overreppresented(there’s only even been a hiphop showcase for the past year or two since they hired Matt Sonzala to promote it) and foreign lanaguage pop artists have no market in america if their not spanish (hi utada!), whereas japanese reggae is relatively well respected and known worldwide, so you’d be working a relatively solid niche and unexploited niche. and id try to tie it into either publishing or TV companies who have a vested interest in both markets (The Fader magazine, MTV etc) at the very least you are going to get good exposure in the home market- that ska band was all over the morning news this morning.

  20. Rory P. Wakekrest Says:

    What’s the deal with SXSW Asia. They only exist to promote Japan nights in Austin? At one point dude said they were trying to start something up over here.

  21. marxy Says:

    “that ska band was all over the morning news this morning.”

    Which is why Sony sent them. Not to sell in the U.S.

  22. Rory P. Wakekrest Says:

    Bobghd, do you work for JETRO?

  23. Laotree Says:

    Marxy it’s a Venn diagram, but van diagrams aren’t a bad idea for bands playing 荷物テトリス…

  24. Chris_B Says:

    dangit youngjames totally stole my thunder! but fact is he’s right. j-reggae/j-dancehall, my personal opinions much of it notwithstanding, is in fact internationally respected. Several japanese women have taken the Dancehall Queen trophy and Mighty Crown can clash with the best sounds from anywhere. J

    Japanese roots has had international respect since the 80s or so but theres no big money behind it so it only gets promoted by accident. I’m thinking about how to try and get some of the good roots music I know into stores in the US & UK without it becoming a full time side project.

    Anyways overall I tend to agree with marxy that gross national cool is probably about how to move product from major manufacturers more than anything else. Betcha dimes to donuts there was no “come study in Japan” type table at any SXSW events and we all know why.

  25. marxy Says:

    “Marxy it’s a Venn diagram, but van diagrams aren’t a bad idea for bands playing 荷物テトリス…”

    I actually meant to say Van Morrison.

    “disney sex cartoons incest stories rape porn adult toons naked cartoons incest porn ass rape sex toons”

    You made me all psyched to click on a link, but none provided! What gives? It’s like you made me a cookie but you eated it.

  26. YoungJames Says:

    Chris B, its good to know im not the only foreigner who realizes this… Pushim (whose latest album got 8 on the oricon singles chart) was in Jamaica back in 97 recording dubplates for Stone Love with a young Elephant man, Minmi and her production partner have produced three riddims that were released in Jamaica and shes recorded with Richie Spice and Morgan Heritage, and most recently recorded a song with Soca legend Machel Mantano and was a finalist in Trinidad’s Soca Monarch competition, Hemo and Moofire have worked with top producer Lenky Marsden (diwali riddim) and produced at least three riddims featuring some of the top artists from Jamaica and Trinidad Tobago… the list goes on and on…

    whats interesting is that despite the massive major label successes of japanese reggae there is so little done to promote it internationally, cmon chris B get at me, lets get our promotion game on!

    liljamie at google mail.com holler at a boy.

  27. dutchoven Says:

    Reggae lovers,
    I agree that the Mighty Crown is world class, and Minmi is a decent singer, but I’m not sure what the benefit of bringing them overseas would be, particularly under the guise of ‘new music’… There are hip-hop acts in Japan like Shingo2 and more interesting guys like L?K?O. Why not them? Following that, there is so much new and original (not genre-specific) music in Japan like the Incapacitants, Orewakonnamonjanai, SIM, Ossuary, Kuruucrew, yoursinthesky, Afrirampo, etc. etc. that deserve kudos for breaking the ‘genre’ formula (well I guess Incapacitants are labeled ‘noise’, though perhaps a slight misnomer). Let’s write some letters to JETRO to start paying some airfares – Watanabe-san?