Thursday, June 08, 2006

So you want to be a Japanese rock star?

Well, it turns out it's a lot more accessible than it used to be. Still not a walk in the park, but accessible to whoever wants to be one. The funny thing about the Japanese rock scene is that it didn't really kick off until the mid-90's. Not unless you count company-owned talent as "real" rock music. In the past, entertainment companies would scout out talent and then begin the corporate machinations necessary to turn them into a company tool for profit. Recently, Sony Music Entertainment Japan has even held a gaijin recruiting contest to increase its ranks (a while ago).

Nowadays though, things are a little different. No longer are musical artists the corporate tools they once were. Sure, there are plenty of those types still around, but they aren't bringing in the big bucks anymore. In fact...no one is. And who's leading the new generation of Japanese rock music? Well, actually...it's people like the ones in Nana, Beck, and Aquarian Age.

All three series follow a group of young people, in their late teens or early twenties, as they take on the music scene and rise to conquer the Oricon charts. It's all, to a large extent, believable. Take, for instance, the use of soundproof rooms for practice. In the modern Japanese music industry, what we in America would consider garage bands have to shell out a good deal of money to practice together. The main reason for this is the close proximity of everything in Japan - no one wants to tolerate such a taxing level of noise. In order to overcome the obstacle of not being able to practice together, something that is essential for musicians, Japan offers many small soundproofed studios in which bands can practice - for a price. As seen in Beck, the prices can tax a band's financial resources, particularly when they're still not signed by a major company or don't have the fanbase to support themselves.

This is what some might call the primary obstacle to entry in the music market. Most high schoolers have to do exactly what you see in anime: make a decision about whether music or education is more important. In a society like Japan, where social standing is so coveted, and the primary means to that standing is education, that's a lot to swallow. It should shed some light on at why those people who do choose to enter the industry are at once so admired, but at the same time ostracized. In the States there is a similar level of distance between music artists and their fans, but in Japan the difference is even more pronounced.

Even if a group manages to overcome the required difficulty of finding time to practice together, there's always the more pressing issue of getting recognized. Many bands use the streets as a means of distribution. Pressing into the crowded, youth-centric areas of Tokyo such as Shibuya, they play in the hopes of attracting the attention of more and more people, and hopefully a major or indie label (in the past, a major label would have been by far the more desired route, but recently indie sales have begun to dramatically increase, making the options more viable for both routes). You see this happen in Aquarian Age, where the protagonist, Kyouta, get their first approach from a recording artist after a street performance. For some bands that can't get a spot at a LIVE (a performance at one of many small concert rooms - they're pretty much the size of a small club - scattered throughout Japan) this is the only option open to them.
For bands who can get spots for a LIVE, the key to success lies in presentation. At this point, a band faces fierce competition from all the other bands performing at a LIVE, and if they do well and continue to perform, they will find that by being the continual standout at these performances, they gain all that much more recognition - and hence a shot at entering the industry. Before Nana and her band Black Stones got a record deal, they first had to prove their worth by outperforming other bands during LIVEs. Nana deals with this issue quite well, and actually shows the coporate tool side of the coin as the show progresses, and the band goes from being an independent act, to a mega-corporate moneymaker. Beck, on the other hand, sticks with the indie formula and its characters continue on the route that many Japanese artists are choosing today - more freedom.

That freedom is doing great things for the Japanese music industry. We're starting to see an infusion of true, modern music. Acts like Plastic Tree, Dir En Grey, and Monoral, are catching up to the West in terms of quality faster than ever. Japanese musicians like Ryuusuke from Beck, whose idols include Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, are pushing Japanese music into the modern era. Unlike the older Japanese music - which tends to sound like a modern version of pretty much anything from the 80's - the newer music definitely has a much broader appeal. And with Sony Music Entertainment Japan recruiting gaijin, who knows? The next big act in Japan may not even be Japanese.

Note: I just joined AnimeNano, the anime blogroll. It's the newest one to hit the internet, and it's good. Much better, in fact, than either blogsuki or animeblogger, in terms of presentation and features. Check it out, sign up, and throw your own blog up there! And don't forget - three weeks starting on Sunday - and when I get back, I'm going to be posting my thoughts on HYDE's concert in LA (yes, I'm going), Anime-Expo 2006 (also going), and any anime I hopefully get to watch in between now and then. Take care everyone, I look forward to continuing when I get back. And as a complete and total aside, if you haven't seen the Nana live action movie - do. It's well worth it to see the characters on screen, and the movie for the most part does a pretty good job of staying true to the story and characters (although, except for Takumi, all the male characters are not nearly handsome enough).

9 Comments:

At 10:03 AM, Blogger Anga said...

Nice post, it's always interesting to know more about Nana's world.

 
At 11:26 AM, Anonymous tj han said...

I love Beck.

I'm surprised that sound-proofed studios aren't universal. I thought everyone had to practise in them. Where else can you make loud rock music without being arrested?

 
At 12:35 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Well to an extent they are, but in the US, at least for teenagers, you can get away with playing in your garage, or something like that. Of course, as you move up you have to use the more expensive sound rooms, but in Japan it's necessary to use those from the beginning. I guess I should have framed it in more of a "US as opposed to Japan" context instead of "Japan as opposed to everyone else." I have no idea how it works in other countries.

A lot of my good friends from high school played in their own bands, and they would practice at their homes, so a lot of my knowledge of the American music scene comes from that and the concerts I've gone to (along with, of course, the glorious internet).

 
At 5:10 PM, Blogger bateszi said...

I certainly think that JROCK has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years. Like you say in the article; it always used to be cheesy electro pop (the original Macross series being horific example of "idol music").

A lot of my knowledge of Japanese bands stems from my interest in anime and sometimes when you listen to a tune, it brings back a nostaglic memory from a series and blinds you to the real quality of a song. But I just know that even I heard some of these bands without the anime connection, I'd still love 'em. Asian Kung Fu Generation, The Pillows and the multiple bands from the BECK soundtrack are all great. And indeed, I too am addicted to Monoral since hearing Kiri on Ergo Proxy; such a rousing song.

 
At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Os said...

When I saw Beck I was blown away. Because I have such an emotional attatchment to music, story lines that have some musical roots pull me in right away. I guess you can say it's why I decided to try Nana, rather than because of it's enormous popularity. I haven't heard of Aquarian Age, actually, and I'm ashamed, so I'll give that a try. Thanks for that. Loved this article, too.

and side note: I started listening to J-music thanks to Puffy Amiyumi, but I've moved to Pillows, Ajikan, Art-School, Sambomaster, Husking Bee, Back Horn, etc.

 
At 7:04 PM, Blogger Michael said...

It's funny - I actually haven't listened to The Pillows yet, aside from their work in FLCL. Since all of you keep mentioning them, that's one band I'll have to look for.

@bateszi: Yeah, Monoral is awesome! I don't know how much of their stuff you've listened to, but I highly recommend getting their full album, Petrol - I love Tente and Frozen Peak off of that album. One of my friends described them as being "like Coldplay," and I'd say that captures their music in that album really well.

@os: It's funny how much good J-pop and J-rock there is now - I don't even know any of the bands you just named (the ones I'm familiar with are: Plastic Tree, Dir En Grey, L'Arc En Ciel, Monoral, La'Chryma Cristi, Porno Graffiti, J, Yamaashiro, and Hiroyuki Hanada). That's awesome, it means there's that much more good music out there for me to listen to.

 
At 9:02 AM, Anonymous tj han said...

The Pillows are a one-trick pony. They sound the same in every song.

That doesn't mean they are bad, just not that good.

I like Ride on Shooting Star the most out of their songs.

There's a special place in my heart for Siam Shade though. Good band, great skills, amazing variety of music. They do sound a bit 80ish sometimes but not all the time.

 
At 12:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 2:28 PM, Anonymous News said...

Pillows a one-trick pony? Sure that's true to a degree, but their music has a lot to offer, and if you listen to all their songs their continuely adding and subtracting trying to reinvent themselves, just slower than some. They're a band within a band, you're only seeing the surface.

 

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