Japanese Music: 2000-2009


1. J-Pop: From Peak to Weak

I recently heard rumors from Japanese music executives that Japan has become the world’s largest market for recorded music. Consumers in the U.S. can no longer be suckered into buying $18 CDs. Meanwhile the loyal Japanese music fan still shells out ¥3,000 — this is not a typo: ¥3,000! — for the third “Best” album of their favorite artist, even though they already own every track. The trick of selling CDs as loyalty-proving “character goods” rather than musical content likely softened the decline for the Japanese music industry.

Despite this very relative success, however, the J-Pop market is a total cultural disaster. The best selling artists of the 21st century are the best selling artists of the 20th century — with a few local “hip-hop” faces and over-manufactured rock bands thrown in the mix for good measure. Any country where the non-idol, non-singer, non-entity Shibasaki Ko is a chart-topper means it’s all over. At least Johnny’s Jimusho acts — NEWS, Arashi, SMAP, etc. — are a weird freak subculture where young women lust over unremarkable, untalented yankii boys sent in from weird corners of the Japanese countryside. Seeing B’z in the top Oricon slot is just sad: Great, they’ve produced another featureless musical cog that their institutional consumers have already slotted into their provisional expense budgets. For the best-selling bands in Japan, fandom is all rote.

Few J-Pop songs are able to bring together ad hoc audiences of non-core fans. They are no “society-wide” hits — just bands playing the commercial game “Who has the most fans?” J-Pop was once about the “mainstream” — now it’s about isolated silos of people with specific mainstream tastes.

And there’s also the old people problem. The elderly make sure that the highest ranking music show every week is “NHK Kayo Concert” (NHK歌謡コンサート) — featuring old people music — rather than shows like “Music Station” or “Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ” that in the past helped bring in new genres and bands.

It wasn’t always this bad. Consider Sony back in 2000. Puffy had peaked at that point, but that epoch-making female duo released a killer remix project that year — on three vinyl records, natch — featuring Captain Funk, Malcolm McLaren, Fantastic Plastic Machine, and Cubismo Grafico. Supercar‘s fanbase somehow grew despite their abandonment of melodic shoegaze rock for abstract techno. Denki Groove‘s VOXXX came out in Feburary 2000 and contained probably the pinnacle track of J-pop’s clash with club culture: “Nothing’s Gonna Change.” Even Judy and Mary had a few labyrinthine melodies left in them.

A few years later, things were still okay at the company. The Yuki/Chara double-drummer side project Mean Machine was all girl power and no songs, but “Suu Haa” was a most brutal piece of candy. Tommy February 6 did the ’80s revival to an obsessive technical degree only possible in Japan — not to mention the perfectly-realized visual component and the inside jokes about alcoholism. J-Pop was alive and well… and this was just Sony!

Now Sony is creating things like throwback boy band East West Boys and gyaru singer Nishino Kana. They also keep milking the Judy and Mary template with derivative bands like Chatmonchy.

I was already feeling the angst about J-Pop’s future in 2003 (villains of the era: pornograffiti, Soul’d Out, Kick the Can Crew, the proliferation of Morning Musume side projects) but it ended up being a relatively good year. When Halcali debuted in 2003, I thought they were a Puffy-rip-off, but the debut album Bacon has managed to stand the test of time — mostly due to the ingenious premise of forcing two 15 year-old girls to “rap” over fun sample-pop beats. The strength, however, was the project’s roots in Shibuya-kei aesthetics: Shindo Mitsuo did a video, Scha Dara Parr did minimalist grooves, FPM flexed his old latin sampling muscles. The follow-up Ongaku no Susume was alright and had the drama of the Noda Nagi-Aida Makoto pakuri cover. Then Sony bought them and promptly ruined the entire fun.

Shiina Ringo’s 2003 Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana (named after three things that all have the same semen smell) is easily the J-Pop album of the decade — if it can be considered J-Pop. Listening recently, it hasn’t aged as well as I would have hoped, and the songs are not her strongest. No one, however, has ever pulled off such conceptual framework and dense production. The opener “Shukyo” and closer “Soretsu” appear at first to be about religion and death but are respectively, meta statements on the constrictions of the Japanese music industry and the challenge of original creation. Many sensible people will find lyrics like「不條理を凝視せよ」to be out of the realm of good taste but this is real innovation and progression above the everyone else’s「抱きしめたい」poison banalities.

2. Japanese Indie Scene: The Old Guys

What happened with “indies”? Here I mean the old confrontational, progressive, internationally-minded indie artists — not the farm league major label mainstream pop bands who now dominate the genre.

Things were super hot over at Escalator and Trattoria as the new century broke. Cubismo Grafico’s bedroom house music peaked with Mini (2000) and Untitled (but one wish (2002). Citrus’ Wispy, no mercy — arguably the best 10 minutes of music ever produced in Japan — also hit the shelves in 2000.

The rest of the decade was not a good one for this subculture. Shibuya-kei decided it was over being Shibuya-kei, and everyone went in different directions. The album that defined the post-Shibuya, “Nakame-kei” sound was Tomoki Kanda’s landscape of smallers music. The sound was gentle and atmospheric, void of any cultural references, heavy beats, or foreign samples. Cornelius followed the same deconstructed course with the stripped-down and song-free Point (2001) and Sensuous (2006). Kahimi Karie went free jazz, then even drowsier. Yoshinori Sunahara abandoned his Pan-Am obsession and degraded-sample grooves for the relentlessly cold and slow Lovebeat. Then he disappeared. Citrus broke up, and Emori took almost seven years to make his abstract bossa-nova chanson landscape of Yoga’n’ants. Salon Music’s output was also relatively “Nakame-kei” but New World Record in 2002 was a great set of sonic experiments. Escalator completely threw away its unique brand of sample pop to become Japan’s answer to the techno-punk Electroclash — a total disaster other than the incredible Yukari Rotten album of 2004.

But there was ultimately an economic component to the “good indie” collapse. The vinyl market bottomed out very quickly after its peak in 1999. Quintessential Shibuya-kei record stores Zest and Maximum Joy both closed in 2005. The magazine Relax dropped the whole “My most obscure 100 records” column and then promptly folded. Beikoku Ongaku put out its last issue in 2005. In a panic, retro-lounge hound Fantastic Plastic Machine reinvented himself as an Avex-friendly house DJ who could command the floor at ageHa. Pizzicato Five’s Konishi Yasuharu started working with Johnny’s Jimusho. A generation who was rewarded monetarily for sonic experimentation suddenly wasn’t being rewarded at all. This was not encouraging.

3. Japanese Indie Scene: The New Guys

So the Shibuya-kei scene faded away, but those were all old guys anyway, in their 30s, past their prime, looking to create some kind of stable income stream through music. What about the artists born in the Aughts?

Things started relatively well, mostly thanks to two labels: Vroom Sound and Usagi-Chang.

Vroom had the edit-frenzy of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, the immaculately produced bossa pop of Petset, and the bedroom funk of Fab Cushion. The PSB tracks that hit in 2003, “fiddle-dee-dee!!!” and “starship 6” (aka “打ち込みで派手な曲”) are still, hands down, the most revolutionary pop music pieces of the last decade. Both utilize the full potential of hard-disc recording to cut between thousands of samples in a single minute, to do away with traditional song structure, and take the listener close to the edge of the speed of light. The album that finally followed cartooom! in 2004 had its moments but felt like a pop compromise on the PSB premise. Hayashibe of PSB is busy doing commercial background music last I heard.

Petset meanwhile produced its masterpiece mini-album Sound Sphere in 2003, recorded in lush 8-track tape with vintage instruments, textured guitar strum, a Rhythm Ace drum machine, double live drummers, harmony boy-girl vocals and a sentimentality that somehow avoided being too twee. Both PSB and Petset, however, have basically retired from the thankless Japanese indie scene. Petset’s last EP Flow Motion,Feather Light was a slight wrong turn into sterile digital synths.

Usagi-Chang, on the other hand, was a short lived phenomenon but managed to invent an entire new genre of “pico pico” or “pico pop” — a term Trevor from Music Related and I are still convinced we invented. (I am pretty sure we stole it from a Japanese reviewer in hindsight.) Usagi-Chang will be always remembered as the guys who discovered YMCK — led by an ex-metal cover band member who pushed Nintendo 8-bit pop into jazzy chord progressions and squirted every possible sound out of that old chip. For me, the real Usagi-Chang heroes were MacDonald Duck Eclair — easily one of the most under-appreciated bands of the last decade. Both short short and The Genesis Songbook are masterworks of songwriting and production: As if Atari Teenage Riot composed a John Hughes soundtrack with a cast of Japanese café kids. The Genesis Songbook in particular is refreshingly noisy and aggressive — with points that seem to push the kitsch of bad ’90s J-pop into weird avant-garde composition. And even the bossa nova tracks match the mood. Usagi-Changs’ other artists Aprils, PINE*am, Misswonda, and Sonic Coaster Pop were all pretty solid. Hanger-ons Sylvia 55, Hazel Nuts Chocolate (the faux lo-fi years), Strawberry Machine, and Eel were also fun. Uinona were the only melodic punk band who had a foot in the old indie spirit.

Unfortunately, however, the energy got sucked out of the movement around 2006. Being in the 21st century Japanese indies scene is a thankless job — especially when the only people vocally championing you are penniless foreign bloggers who procure all their music from Rapidshare. Your best friends are nice enough to pay ¥3,000 to see you play in hostile clubs, but this doesn’t really get you anywhere. But the problem was, selling out after 2005 was not even an option. The only real artistic solution was to get more weird, but the record labels did not want to go further into debt and no one really had the heart. Most of this generation had seen the Shibuya-kei guys succeed both financially and critically at making interesting indie music and wanted to follow that path.

As of 2010, this particular entire indie scene has basically imploded, with zero new records from almost anyone. Capsule — who became the face of this scene somehow thanks to Yamaha’s advertorial largesse — are still hanging on, thanks to Nakata’s success with Perfume. They started the decade as a Pizzicato Five clone and then moved towards Daft Punk when that didn’t work. They are not so much a band as an industrial concern: 12 albums in seven years!!! — all of which have been brick-wall mastered to destroy your ears and stereo and soul.

4. Shugo Tokumaru: My Vote for the Messiah

The real star of Japanese music in the Aughts was Shugo Tokumaru. Shugo not only produced the three best albums of the entire decade but built up a legion of fans both Japanese and foreign. His Tokyo concerts sell out. He makes music for Mujirushi Ryohin (MUJI) and NHK. He shows up in kids’ shows. He is closer than anyone to following the old Shibuya-kei model of broad indie success.

2004’s Night Piece is deceivingly simple. It’s a quiet album. There are rarely drums — almost like he was secretly recording the songs in his room after his parents had gone to sleep. There are glimmers of what was to come: the sped-up guitar antics of “Paparrazi,” the bassy psychedelics of “Lantern on the Water,” the toy instruments of “Funfair.” By 2006’s L.S.T., all of those ideas were mashed into a super prog-pop freak-out with moments of Shins-like clarity drifting between squeaky toy box rhythms and lysergic black holes. Tokumaru claims that “L.S.T.” wasn’t a pun on LSD and his name, but I don’t believe him.

2007’s Exit, however, is listening to a man fully in control of his art. He reigns in all of the previous “excesses” to create songs that sound like charming pop concoctions to the average person but reveal a multi-layered, fourth-dimensional Rube Goldberg of arrangement on further listen. Tokumaru loves to make dueling pianica lines in 7/8 and has probably figured out how to use steel pan in the least annoying way since the instrument’s inception. “La La Radio” is the kind of full out pop symphony that would send Brian Wilson back to his therapist, containing more ideas in five and a half minutes than the entire J-Pop industry was able to come up with in ten years. Even “Button,” with its easily digested J-indie melody is clanky and bizarre.

This relative smattering of fame has not gone to Tokumaru’s head at all. He still sticks to his guns about being a terrible interview — saying nothing, but too polite to tell you that he doesn’t really want to talk about his music until the very end. He’s also a good barometer for whether anything interesting is happening in the J-indie world. When I ask if there are any good bands, he usually says, “No.” And he means it. When he says he likes Nhhmbase, that meant they were great. And they were great.

5. Honorable Mentions and Dishonorable Discharges

Otherwise, there were a lot of well-meaning guitar bands out there, whom we can pretty much ignore. Everyone still wants to sound like The Blue Hearts. I am sure these bands have lots of fans and stumble into some relatively solid songs, but so what? As much as we all laugh at ’80s soulless over-digital pop music, at least it sounds like ’80s music. Rock music of the 2000s could barely muster anything remotely signature — and I’m not just talking about Japan. I love the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” but I am sure it would have been a hit in 1995 too. So, yes, every song with full-crank Autotune will have to be re-engineered in the future to take out that hideous vocal effect, but at least when we hear it, we will remember the cultural nadir of the Paris Hilton decade. When I hear 175R, I will be like, “Wow, 1997!” and then, “Who was 175R again? Was that a Hi-Standard side project?”

Honorable mentions for the decade go to Afrirampo for managing to do the Osaka freak-out on a Sony marketing budget. I would love to go in detail about the genius of Kiiiiiii — especially the genius of (not my wife) Lakin’ as a song-writer — but I would rightly be accused of nepotism. DJ Codomo has hit upon one of the more unique soundscapes of the decade — toy-synth micro-funk? — but is not someone we can rely on to provide giant epic tunes. Oorutaichi makes music that I literally cannot wrap my head around, which is never a bad thing. Rip Slyme had a few good joints, like “Joint.” m-flo’s EXPO EXPO also had its moments, and they deserve credit for taking J-Pop in directions it clearly did not want to go. OOIOO’s Taiga was a grand culmination of the band’s past experimentation. Yura Yura Teikoku used the Aughts to move into legendary status.

6. The Prospects for Japanese Indie Music Before We Are All “Left Behind” in the Coming Rapture

Here in 2010, the entire infrastructure for good indie music has completely been wiped out, and those who were once our greatest hope to “save” Japanese music have retreated into doing things more rewarding than commercial music — eating, breathing, sleeping, throwing things against other things, counting clouds, quietly reading, personal hygiene. I still do not buy the idea that economic calamity was good or will be good for Japanese pop music. There will surely be some decent musical artists in the next ten years, but they will have a much harder time getting started, being heard, winning fans, and selling records. The pre-Flipper’s Guitar “indie scene” was tiny, inconvenient, and relatively inconsequential. We romanticize it now only because Flipper’s Guitar exploded and led to giant visible scene later in history. As much as we want to believe that music is a “pure” artform that can exist without a market framework, we still unconsciously value market success when it comes to judging albums’ relative importance.

This decade taught us that selling records has never just been a commercial act but a social one as well. More records sold meant more fans, more people to share the music with, more cultural touch-points, more physical spaces to go where those records are sold or the music is played live. To a certain degree, the corporate pursuit of money in a bullish market created a strong environment for good Japanese music. Without this commercial structure, Japanese music will likely retain a creative value, but we will no doubt find it less “valuable” without its communal value. The money is not coming back, so we have to figure out how to cherish music without the ingrained prejudices of the 20th century.

W. David MARX
January 14, 2010

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

80 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    The manga scene is very different from the music scene. 

    Dojinshi are reportedly a $300,000,000 (about 1/10 of the figure for CD sales, but not bad for fanfic) market with a tremendous infrastructure in place for production and distribution.

    Also, in stark contrast with the music industry, commercial manga publishers have a solid system in place for accepting and rewarding submissions from unknown talent (case in point, Arakawa Hiromu) and authors young and old are subject to reader surveys which can result in a series being pulled if the fans don’t like it(case in point, the decline and fall of the mighty Watsuki Nobuhiro).

    I wouldn’t mind pulling Exile, but nobody ever asks!

  2. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I wouldn’t mind pulling Exile, but nobody ever asks!

    … said the nun to the vicar.

  3. Lewis Says:

    It seems the current US indie scene grows from “penniless bloggers” and the ability to be culturally relevant is related to fans/buzz not sales. Few record sales doesn’t mean few fans. A gold record is 500,000 sales, but a broke (and then by your standards culturally marginal) indie band can have that many views on their myspace/youtube/podcasts etc.etc. without ever being close to the mainstream. So does that make them less relevant than the gold selling band?

    As for the “communal value”, why can’t Japan create an indie fan base via the Internet? Music criticism, someone to filter, blogs, podcast radio, whatever…Get with the times? Japanese music fans are willing to shell out money for music, so there seems to be great potential here. Why do you think Japan hasn’t rebuilt the necessary indie infrastructure to make artists culturally relevant?

  4. Mulboyne Says:

    Can you elaborate on your point about Tama? Which shows were they not invited to be on? My, perhaps faulty, memory of them is being made famous by a TV programme and then appearing almost non-stop on the box.

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    Tama appeared on Music Station twice their entire career — only after they scored their big hit. Meanwhile Johnny’s Jimusho acts — which were at their cultural nadir in those years and in danger of actually disappearing forever — would appear on the show two acts PER SHOW.

    Not to say there weren’t other music shows (although it predates Hey Hey Hey and Utaban), but Music Station is a pretty good marker of “J-Pop.”

  6. Kim Jong-il Hater Says:

    Zazen Boys? I saw them play in Hoboken back in 2008 and they were AMAZING. I can’t find a single band that has their sort of funky math rock sound.

  7. Mulboyne Says:

    Thanks for the clarification about Tama.

    I can understand that TV music shows are in thrall to the major production companies but I wonder whether Tama is really the right example to make your general point. They shot to success on one TV programme and while they didn’t appear as regularly on telly as Johnny’s acts, they were on an awful lot. Kumiko Yamada parodied them on her show which was a sign they were part of the zeitgeist. If comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll, they were Hard Gay.

    TV remains important in the music world but there have always been bands overseas who haven’t relied on it for success. Led Zeppelin didn’t have any trouble despite not regularly releasing singles. Punk was a phenomenon in Britain before music programmes had them on. DJs and techno acts also rarely relied on TV. In the US, you can still tour the country and build up a major following without the general public knowing your music. Why should television exposure be the only way for Japanese bands to succeed in Japan?

    Shibuya kei is a movement dear to your heart but there was a much more significant development in the Japanese pop world with the remarkable success of Avex. The company only started out 1n 1988, a couple of years before Tama got their break, but it is a major part of the music landscape. You talk above about the long-gone retail infrastructure which supported Shibuya kei but it might be more interesting to ask what allowed Avex to thrive. Is it just the major changes in the music industry worldwide that mean a company like that doesn’t look like surfacing again in Japan or are there other local factors which have changed?

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    Tama is a great example of something I discovered in my data research on the Japanese music market: Groups, no matter how popular, are much, much less likely to have long-term careers in Japanese entertainment if they don’t belong to one of the big oligopolistic jimushos. They were on TV for a time, but there was clearly a push from the idol jimusho to end the band boom and out they went. Most “ippatsu-ya” one-hit-wonders come from independent management companies rather than from the big boys, and its the control of TV that basically makes this happen.

    TV remains important in the music world but there have always been bands overseas who haven’t relied on it for success.

    I don’t think prime time network TV was ever as important in the US and UK as it is/was in Japan. Most Japanese music consumers, at least during the market’s peak, would find out about music from TV — not from radio or magazines or other media.

    You ask Why should television exposure be the only way for Japanese bands to succeed in Japan? — That’s just how the market formed.

    more significant development in the Japanese pop world with the remarkable success of Avex

    Avex looks “independent” but the reason it succeeded is because it’s basically a proxy for Burning. The label really took off after releasing Burning-subsidiary Rising artists like Namie Amuro and Da Pump.

    And here’s the kicker: Burning owns most of Avex’s stars’ publishing. Most of Ayumi Hamasaki and Every Little Thing’s hits are owned by Burning. And the scariest thing about this is that Oricon reports in its charts who owns the publishing of songs, and yet did not (for some reason) ever report that Burning owned these songs. The info only came out when JASRAC opened their online database. My guess is that Burning did not want anyone to know they had possession of the rights.

    Avex has its own very strong publishing wing, and there is no reason other than “paying tributary” why they would give all this extremely lucrative publishing to a “tiny little private company” like Burning.

    So basically, why did Avex succeed? They had the backing of the biggest bad guys in the industry. Taira, the head of Rising, went to jail in the early 2000s for admitting to financing the promotion for his successful acts all through mob money. Avex was never a challenge to an industry, but a way for the worst elements to get richer.

  9. Mulboyne Says:

    It’s true that TV has been important for Japanese artists but music fans must get their information from other sources or else foreign artists would hardly sell any music and wouldn’t be able to play gigs in Japan. The question is why Japanese artists can’t get validation in the same way (and they clearly don’t seem able to). If you think Shibuya kei did, how do you think that might have happened? I don’t have any answers there.

    You are also right that Avex have done some deals with the devil but it was because they were already making waves with dance music that production companies wanted to get in bed with them. You give the underworld too much credit of you begin to assume it creates trends. They can no more do that than mob money can guarantee a hit movie. The question is still how Avex found a gap in the market which the major labels hadn’t seen. Also, were those circumstances unique or can we imagine another upstart breaking through, with or without the help of shady connections?

    Japan already had its Simon Cowell moment with Hello Project.

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    You give the underworld too much credit of you begin to assume it creates trends.

    Burning essentially controls the entire industry’s access to TV, with a few exceptions like Sony and Kenon able to go around them. This is how they control the market.

    apan already had its Simon Cowell moment with Hello Project.

    Hello Project started with Asayan, which again was Burning related. Suzuki Ami’s manager, who was also a producer on Asayan, went to jail for tax evasion with Taira. This also links back to the same cabal.

    music fans must get their information from other sources or else foreign artists would hardly sell any music and wouldn’t be able to play gigs in Japan.

    Foreign music has always been a 20-30% block of the market, and yes, it’s not TV that introduces people to the artists. Shibuya-kei was Shibuya-kei in that they were able to use the same distribution routes and communication channels — namely the import music stores — to win over Japanese fans. Foreign music, however, now makes up even less of the market than before. So that channel is less valuable for independent Japanese too.

  11. Mulboyne Says:

    No one doubts that Hello Project is manufactured pop whoever funded it. Every music market has that aspect and, arguably, it became stronger in the US & UK with the rise of Cowell & Fuller.

    On the larger question of why the indie scene has withered, I’m still a little unclear about your explanation.

    I understand you to be saying that Shibuya kei thrived because it relied on an infrastructure of taste-making retailers – you name Parco, Wave, Zest and Maximum Joy – which created great cultural capital for the artists of that movement. In addition, you say that this infrastructure overlapped with the way people learned about overseas music which helped Shibuya kei bands circumvent the domestic music infrastructure – including TV appearances.

    You say that this scene subsequently imploded – I’m not sure whether you think that’s because the infrastructure disappeared or for various other unrelated reasons.

    What’s certain is that overseas music didn’t stop being distributed. Even as CD sales eventually began to fall, the last ten years saw a big increase in ticket revenues for overseas artists of most genres.

    Avex began life as an importer and distributor of overseas music. Their choice was eurobeat (as an aside, it seems the English wikipedia entry for eurobeat in Japan is considerably longer than the one for Shibuya kei). They were at the forefront of that trend and their target audience was not a million miles from the kind of people who read Koakuma Ageha today.

    It’s not music I care for an awful lot, and I suspect you don’t have much time for it either. It suits manufactured pop idols and you already note above how Avex found a real golden goose with the deals which brought them Amuro Namie. Deals which were struck several years after they started.

    What the Avex example shows is that an independent newcomer could find and sustain a popular market, even if we concede the point that greater success meant joining the oligopoly.

    I don’t know, somehow it doesn’t seem convincing that an indie scene can’t thrive in Japan because bands can’t get on music television shows.

    If Shibuya kei was an example of an influential local indie scene (and I’ve heard it argued otherwise) based on access to cultural capital then the internet is a much richer resource to offer something similar today. Even if I’m wrong about the importance of television exposure to indie music, it’s undeniable that TV plays a lesser role in young people’s lives today than it did 20 years ago so it’s influence ought to be on the wane.

    In the end, conditions seem just as ripe for a local indie scene as they were when Shibuya kei started out. The fact that one apparently hasn’t developed seems to require something with more explanatory power than TV access.

  12. W. David MARX Says:

    On the larger question of why the indie scene has withered, I’m still a little unclear about your explanation.

    I would say that Shibuya-kei was part of a larger market structure where “leading-edge” and internationally-influenced culture (or imported culture) directed the market. Now that is no longer true. And as a part of that big cultural shift, indie music that is internationally-minded or internationally-influenced has a lot less potency with Japanese audiences.

    the last ten years saw a big increase in ticket revenues for overseas artists of most genres.

    There is a shift from material to experience. And foreign bands have benefited here. So have bands in genres that play well into live gigs, like punk and reggae.

    Avex began life as an importer and distributor of overseas music.

    My guess is that htey would have been left in the same place as Shibuya-kei had they not made their deal with the devil.

    The fact that one apparently hasn’t developed seems to require something with more explanatory power than TV access.

    Japanese music consumers care about authority and legitimacy. TV has authority and bestows legitimacy. The net does not. This is true for not just music but things like fashion or other forms of popular culture. The net is great at distributing information but terrible at vouching for the social legitimacy of that information.

    There are a lot of complicated factors, and yes, it’s not just about TV. But if anything, the Japanese market is not getting MORE niche-driven but more mass market driven. Big hits are back. And TV plays a big part in this.

  13. ビンビン Says:

    You forgot Mukai Shutoku.

  14. Ian Says:

    and G-Unit!

  15. Oi-lin Says:

    Waah. 2000-2009 has been quite sweet to me, as 2000 was when GO!GO!7188 released Dasoku Hokou. Good times. ;)

  16. Mulboyne Says:

    2009 wasn’t good for CD sales. I was swapping tweets with David about an announcement from Sony Music’s head at a music industry conference in Cannes that they were down 27% last year compared with 2008. He also mentioned Amazon Japan has probably taken the no.1 spot as the country’s leading seller of CDs. This comes at a time when consumers are still mainly downloading music to their mobiles and not to PCs.

  17. W. David MARX Says:

    Avex is also apparently having a terrible time. No new artists.

  18. Shii Says:

    A post on the 2000s, with nothing on the doujinshi scene? Wow…

  19. W. David MARX Says:

    Japanese music of the 2000s.

  20. Jack Says:

    A lot of good points, Marxy. I’m optimistic about the independent music scene, but you’re right to say that it’s going through a rough patch.

    I definitely agree about Shugo Tokumaru – he’s one of the best musicians of the decade worldwide, in my opinion.

    I would say that Zazen Boys have been a strong band this decade, with a one-of-a-kind sound. And I would put UA and Asakasa Jinta on the same level. All three of those artists have uniquely Japanese styles that don’t merely ape western trends.

  21. Ben Says:

    Wow, this is so great. Nothing amateur here. I can’t figure out why nobody I’ve asked in Tokyo knows of Donald Duck Eclair, Nobukazu Takemura (‘Icefall’), Shugo Tokumaru or Lullatone. Cd shops large and small, friends and acquaintances, do not know them.

    Listened to a great satellite radio station ( USEN 440, B-2 channel ) in a Y100 store, and kind of revived some hope that something popular and interesting is happening somewhere in Japan.

  22. Shii Says:

    Marxy: Ouch. Nevertheless, I’ll link a sample video here in case any of your readers haven’t heard of this non-music.


  23. W. David MARX Says:

    I was confused because you said doujinSHI as in the magazines/publications rather than doujin ongaku. That being said, I still don’t think that much of that really crosses over into the kind of (perhaps narrow) musical world I inhabit. Interesting though.

  24. Tobias Says:

    > YMCK is still much more complex than anyone else I’ve ever heard in the chiptune scene.

    Remember that YCMK replicate key qualities but do not work on actual 8-bit hardware. They use the style but do not suffer the limitations of chiptunes.

  25. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Is that true, Tobias? I assumed from the name that they were using MCK, which compiles to a series of 1s and 0s interpretable by NES emulators. Which would mean that they suffer all the limitations as far as the form goes. Or do they cheat? (I admit I haven’t listened that closely.)

  26. W. David Marx Says:

    I am pretty sure they use emulator software that YMCK’s Yonemura developed himself.

  27. YoungJames Says:

    alright, so in line with the earlier discussion what about the things that caused this: (this will be long)

    1) the “major” system.

    At rockpapershotgun, noted indie game developer Kyle Gabler (world of goo) noted that if his company was a major game studio, they would probably be making 3d platformers because that would be the only thing that would pay the bills. When you have large budgets and large staffs, you’re expected to produce results that pay for your large budget and large staff, and that means aiming for games/artists that sell large numbers. At some point during the whole piracy discussion, the label heads basically said that only the largest sellers made real money for the record company – the problem: the largest sellers only account for something like .2% of the total number of releases.

    As markets shrink, the majors focus more and more on ensuring hits, further limiting the amount of “new” “interesting” acts.

    2) Industry Capture:

    Major labels in Japan have too much control of the market, and have been too successful in capturing independent talent. In america and elsewhere, artists who have either spurned or been spurned by major labels have been able to establish themselves independently of the major label system, allowing artists to survive without the major labels help, and indeed, even dictate terms to the major labels should they sign on. In Japan, artists which develop a following are quickly scooped up by major labels and are thus unable to establish indepedent infrastructure. The indie market is always being captured by the major players.

    3) related to the above, lack of distribution of channels for indie players.

    One of the dirty secrets behind ford’s pitiful market share in Japan is the fact that Japanese car makers basically control the japanese car distribution (dealer) network, if you try and deal ford cars, toyota quickly shuts you down. I would guess that the same thing happens in major record/cd stores, and the way that burning/avex was able to suceed solely by a) utilizing import market channels, and b) mob money and power would corroborate that.

    4) the Jimusho system: In america, succesful artists have been able to establish their own record labels/distribution networks. While this is all the rage currently (everyone has their own label nowadays) its easy to forget that the real reason Atlanta became a hip hop power house was LaFace(L.A. Reid and Babyface’s label) and SoSoDef (Jermain Dupri), and the reason many southern rap artists were able to survive was because Atlantic would distribute their independent releases. I would be willing to bet that most jimusho artists not only cant acquire the resources necessary to establish their own labels, but are contractually prevented from doing so, and even if they could, how would they distribute their music?

    5) The livehouse system: Perhaps it has do with high rents, but livehouses in Japan are primarily a scam that feeds off working bands. Rather than working for a portion of door/bar bands are expected to guarantee a certain number of tickets (200 or so) before they see any money. This means higher barriers for entry into the market, and more bands who must work to support their band “hobby” rather than being supported by their music.

  28. Samurai Beat Radio Says:

    Most Japanese mainstream music these days don’t sound that great. Korean music is slowly becoming popular than Japanese, although not all Korean artists are great.
    It’s nice to see the old groups taking the top spot, but there has to be some great, new blood and so far, no one really stands out.
    Our company is trying to shift towards the Japanese-influenced indie bands/performers in New York City and the rest of the U.S. We hope that these groups get noticed in Japan, although this is a concern in regards to YoungJames’ comment about “industry capture”.

  29. Sho Says:

    In reply to YoungJames, I think there’s another major cause which is being overlooked – socioeconomic factors.

    The artists of the 90s who proved so innovative largely grew up in the bubble and shortly-post-bubble economies. That was when Japanese, especially in the big cities, had a certain cultural confidence/pride that enabled the kinds of experimentation/anything-is-possible/japan-is-cool output we saw in that period. The high profits we saw in the 90s were also a side-effect of the general cashed-up population. When you’ve got money in your pocket, your thoughts turn to fashion and self-expression.

    As the real hangover started to set in, though, this evaporated. When money is tight, people turn to the familiar, socially-proofed and risk-free, and this holds true for culture as much as anything.

    I view the rise and fall of j-pop innovation in the 90s as mostly a socioeconomic phenomenon. Call it “cultural confidence”. They had it, now they don’t. And japanese culture doesn’t permit the nihilism and dog-eat-dog OG blustering of the US hip-hop scene, so that avenue is cut off, too.

    I expect the next big wave of interesting pop music to come from Shanghai.

  30. W. David Marx Says:

    I basically agree with Sho that a bigger market means more freedom. I think the word “confidence” can be misleading though because Japanese youth now are extremely confident about their own culture, which is why they aren’t experimenting or looking abroad for influences. They are fine with what they have.