Monday, May 25, 2015

So playing music in Japan.....

I thought I'd write a little review of my experience as an American/foreigner being in a band in Japan. I should note, that since I had both good and bad experiences, I managed to met some very nice people who have helped me. Music is very much loved here, but it seems like most things here, change is a slow process. 

The hardest two things about playing music here is getting band members together, and avoiding the pay-to-play, aka "Noruma."  A system that is set in most Japanese cities, where a band must sell a minimum number of tickets, it recoup the cost.  Pay-to-play basically.  You can read more about it here:  I've heard many excuses for this system, but none seems to make total sense.  Rent is high here, but venues should move out of downtown, if that were the case.  There is some indie music support here, but not many people are willing to spend 2500yen($25) ticket prices for underground local bands.  It seems even the cultural mind of many Japanese believe high ticket prices equals quality, yet with a cheap cover, most people here would seem to assume the music most be bad.  Most of these venues rely on ticket sales and very little on the bar, unlike most venues in the States and Europe.  So yeah, the business side of things is pretty wacky. The worst part of this system is that few bands are willing to help each other out, and sometimes it even pits bands against each other.  Everyone is too worried about covering their quota, than to advertise other bands on the bill. 

I fell for playing a Noruma gig once.  My first show, with a short lived band I put together. I had been working for over a year with a singer, and after 5 bassists and 2 drummers we finally had a show. (In our case 15 tickets at 1500 yen, which roughly equals $15) Times this revenue by 3 bands and the empty venue is making at least $675 off the bands not counting the bar sales, which also was only being frequented by the bands. This system failed in most places in the US because bands got together and rented out warehouses and parties to bypassed the blood sucking venue owners. Here’s the run down of my 1st show playing in Japan.

The show opened at 6pm. This is pretty damn early, some people aren't even off work yet. I do understand shows ending before 12 because of the train schedule, but this was pretty damn early.  The bass
player and I were up earlier because, we had no car and I owned all the equipment. He came over to
help take some of it to the venue. We arrive to the venue at about 3pm. Nothing too strange, but there
was and orientation of how things were going to go that night and a bowing season at the end. It was
very formal. All the bands stood in an awkward circle and bowed for awhile. We were then told of “the rules”.  At 4pm we do a sound check. I guess each band gets one, so that is actually really nice. I quickly go home to take a shower because the 99% humidity and high temperatures have turned the band and myself into sloppy messes.

The first band goes on at 6:30 sharp. This is fucking early. All the members of the first band are about 16 years of age and no one is watching them other than my band. I mean not a single ticket payer is
present in the building at this point. Worrisome. The other band is not visibly present, so I check the
“green room.”  I’m use to seeing a fair share of coke, booze, and all out insanity in backrooms. This was insanity of a different sense. I walk in to see young men applying foundation, hairspray, and
dressing up in costumes. Now, I understand some bands need make up. But we’re not talking Kiss here.  This venue doesn't resemble a TV program which requires any of this nonsense. Actually, no one is in the audience to see either band. I can only assume this show is for their own self image and ego boosting. They then took stage like a band that was playing Madison Square, yet no one was watching them. Not even us. We were already pretty turned off from all we had witnessed. We left to drink outside on the street and to wait to sell tickets on our own.  We were also responsible to sell our own tickets. Which meant we had to siphon off people at the door to buy our tickets from us and not from the general admission ticket booth just behind us at the entrance. These were the ONLY tickets sold to real people mind you. We spent about an hour in the heat selling tickets, like sideshow peddlers. The show however was running way early and most of our people hadn’t arrived yet. We were told to play at 8. It was 7. We procrastinated enough to sell enough ticket to brake even and sold enough to not owe anything to the venue.

 We finally started to set up on stage REAL SLOWLY. All of our people made it. We played. Things went well, we had a crowd and some people saw us. That part was fun. People cared, which was nice. I can’t even fathom why, or even how the other band from Tokyo could afford to pay for getting across the country only to end up paying $225. No clue how the 16 year old kids could pay for their their share of the tickets. Rich parents? I just don’t get it. If this is what makes people happy with themselves then I guess that’s ok. If that’s the way it is, then underground music is being strangled to death in Japan and may never recover.  I hope more bands start looking elsewhere to play.  Rent out rehearsal studios?  Might be the only shred of anything "punk" that was ever here.