Japanese acts play music ambassadors at Canadian Music Week

by Shaun Mckenna

Staff Writer

After rock group Jake Stone Garage hit the final chord of one of their powerful guitar-heavy songs, the crowd let out a few hoots and applauded politely.

For a Western band this may have seemed a bit unreceptive, but luckily Jake Stone Garage are from Hokkaido and to them Canadian fans are as polite as Japanese ones.

The trio was one of several acts to play the first ever Japan Nite in Canada. This year’s tour for the event also took in the usual stops in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin (for South By Southwest) and more.

When asked how the crowd compared to those in America, Japan Nite founder Audrey Benten agreed, “they’re quiet.”

The crowd at Clinton’s (around 100) was also small compared to the one that reportedly came out to the two shows in Austin. Japan Nite is more of a regular institution there, though, now able to draw repeat customers. But Toronto shouldn’t be dismissed. The city recently overtook Chicago to become the fourth-largest city in North America and it’s the center of the music industry in Canada. While that industry is smaller than in the United States, it could be a more manageable path for Japanese bands to enter the American market.

Japan Nite was a part of Canadian Music Week (CMW), held March 19-24, a convention that included a six-day music festival, film festival, discussion panels and more. While South By Southwest has grown into a behemoth, CMW is smaller, easier to navigate and provides access to many of the people that were in Austin. The bands at Japan Nite couldn’t stay long in Toronto, though, as they were off to Las Vegas the following day.

On March 21, the day after Japan Nite, Japanese jazz acts took part in the Winter Jazz Series at a club called The Courthouse. Kobe’s Takashi Kamide, Nara’s Yoshiko, and Tokyo-based Yuichiro Tokuda’s Ralyzzdigg charmed an audience alongside bands from Canada and the United States.

EastWest Entertainment Group’s Caroline Chia, who organized the event, said she wanted to give the artists a chance to work with people from other countries to hopefully “make connections.” Both Kamide and Yoshiko performed with North American musicians that Chia connected them to.

Yuichiro Tokuda was at CMW for the second time and told The Japan Times that the event helps with exposure overseas.

“I think Japan should have an event like this, too,” Tokuda said. “The festival isn’t just for performing, I made new connections, went to many of the panels and learned about the music business also.

“Japan doesn’t have this kind of music conference except for Tokyo Boot Up. Especially, there’s nothing really for jazz. The Japanese jazz scene is a top-class market and we have a lot of talent, but it isn’t global. We could get some ideas for our market from an event like this.”

Not only did Tokuda play two shows at The Courthouse, he organized a gig at a local izakaya (Japanese pub) during his spare time. This kind of self-driven motivation is essential at any music showcase for success, according to Jennifer Mitchell, president of Red Brick Songs and Casablanca Media Publishing. Mitchell said her team attends many music conferences but that it’s necessary for artists to do a lot of preparation after spending money to go overseas. Bands need to figure out who they need to see their performances and follow up with emails just before the shows. At SXSW or CMW, she joked, you have to basically kidnap people and take them to the show yourself.

Mitchell may have been kidding but sure enough on Friday the Japanese delegation of label executives, venue managers and promoters was loaded onto a bus to see Misteur Valaire, an electro five-piece from Quebec. Earlier in the day, manager Guillaume Deziel had been showing off a Japanese-language promotion video, handing out CDs to everyone he met and even promising preconcert servings of poutine, one of Quebec’s signature dishes.

Japanese acts looking to woo execs overseas may want to follow the example of Misteur Valaire by learning the language and preparing some sushi. The best way to a person’s wallet could be through his or her stomach.

Charting a course into the Japanese music market

In addition to Japanese music showcases, Canadian Music Week also hosted an eight-person panel on how North American acts should approach the Japanese market.

There was a general consensus that the Japanese audience is domestic-focused right now and that there isn’t too much hope that an overseas act will break big in Japan anytime soon. However, Jonny Thompson, the general manager of international sales at music publisher Nichion, noted that acts such as Exile and Arashi use songs written by non-Japanese songwriters, which could provide musicians with a different path to get into the country.

Radio presenter and director Ken Nishikawa said that while Adele conquered the music world last year, in Japan it was Lady Gaga who got the bigger share of fan support. He pointed out that Gaga outsold Adele due to the emphasis she put on her visual style, something Japanese music lovers gravitate toward. It also didn’t hurt that Gaga came to Japan in an effort to promote tourism in the country following the Great East Japan Earthquake. Her actions got her on many of the country’s most popular television programs, where she even dressed in clothes by Japanese designers, further heightening her exposure.

Thompson closed the session by pointing out that Japan is “still a traditional promotional market,” going against the current do-it-yourself-on-YouTube mantra that the Western market embraces and emphasizing the fact that television, radio and print still need to be courted in order to make progress. “You’ll be asked to do things that don’t make sense — but it makes a difference,” he said, adding that when you go with the flow in Japan you build relationships and trust, and over time that develops into an audience. “Adapt to what’s done here,” he said. “Less and less of the majors and publishers are willing to do that. If you do, you can succeed.” (S.McK.)