The street beat goes on — but for how long?

by Rob Gilhooly

Come 8 p.m., the nationalist black vans blaring polemics around Hachiko square outside JR Shibuya Station give way to an equally noisy, but far more friendly soundtrack.

Six djembe players, two of whom sport dreadlocks and Bob Marley goatees, thump out African beats. In another corner, dozens of teenage girls crowd around the singalong folk-pop of four-piece band Mychronical. The girls jump and punch their fists skyward at points in songs that only a faithful groupie could possibly know. Meanwhile, the members of dance quintet Falfyu spin and jump their carefully choreographed moves to the accompaniment of a frantic version of “Ave Maria.”

The space around Hachiko, which is a stone’s throw from a police box, has long been a favored spot for Tokyo’s street performers, some of whom haul in power generators, guitars, drum kits and, on occasion, several dozen groupies in an attempt to generate their own buzz.

Some hope to be spotted by talent scouts, others do it to make ends meet. Still others, already signed up by record companies, use it purely for publicity.

“As long as I can make enough to eat, I don’t care,” says djembe player Oto Shimizu, who counts himself among Tokyo’s 5,000-plus homeless.

“We’re going for the big time,” says Falfyu member Akira Kinoshita, 23. “There are not many places for an outfit like ours to get noticed.”

Hopes of fame and fortune are likely founded on the success of outfits such as guitar and harmonica duo Yuzu and rock band Do As Infinity, both of which started their careers as street performers before going on to sign with major labels.

More recently, however, record companies are finding the streets a less fruitful source of talent.

“The quality of street performers has plummeted over the past six months or so,” states Takahiro Ohno, a talent scout for Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc. “Many are Yuzu ripoffs — unoriginal and unable to break the pattern.”

Keitaro Kamo of Toshiba-EMI agrees, adding that street acts have become less and less ambitious. “Their reasons [for playing out on the street] are often negative — Mom and Dad won’t let them play in the house, or just because it’s cool to busk,” he says.

Another reason for the decline in quality is increasingly stringent law enforcement, industry insiders say.

Under the Road Traffic Control Law, street performers are considered an obstruction to pedestrians and are thus quickly shooed away by police officers, especially if they receive complaints from passersby.

Performers of acoustic music are rarely inconvenienced by this, but for outfits that require amplifying equipment and other gear, moving on to another spot is rarely an option.

Drummer Yohei Noda’s band Ocean used to set up outside Mizonokuchi Station in Kawasaki, but constant harassment by local police has forced the band to start securing gigs at clubs. “I do miss playing on the streets,” he admits. “After a while, you get to know the faces of the people who come to watch gigs at live houses. Outside, there’s a wider, albeit less attentive audience.”

The police’s attitude hasn’t been improved by the trend of established bands using impromptu performances on the streets as a publicity stunt. The shows of pop singer Hiromi Go and rock band Kami Kaze, for example, have drawn hordes of street-blocking fans and onlookers.

There are signs of hope around the corner, though. In an attempt to give buskers a legal alternative, some local governments, including Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture and Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture, have recently allocated certain areas where performers holding a government-issued license can perform. Licenses are issued to performers who pass regularly held auditions.

East Japan Railway Co. also instigated such a system last year, inviting over 3,000 acts to audition at a site inside Tokyo Station. Some 40 bands were selected to perform, in turn, at the site over weekends. That pioneering move may spread in the metropolis. Plans have yet to be finalized, but certain public spaces may be earmarked as busker venues in the coming fiscal year, says Tokyo Metropolitan Government official Wakato Ono.

Part of the proposed system may well mirror a similar one already in place in New York, whereby buskers who successfully pass auditions are issued licenses to perform at allocated sites throughout New York’s subway, he says.

Buskers have mixed views of such plans.

“So, performers would be limited to those who were adjudged, probably by narrow-minded, conservative bureaucrats, to be suitable,” says one busker plying his trade outside Shinjuku Station. “That’s ridiculous.”

“It’s pretty unlikely an abuse-spouting punk band would be granted a license to play outside Tokyo Station, no matter how talented they are,” says Mineyuki Kugishima of Sony Music. “But they will find somewhere to play.”

Indeed, it is hard to imagine most street performers — people who have chosen unconventional paths to reach potential audiences — giving up so easily.

“Who knows?” comments Kugishima. “It may give birth to a new brand of strong-minded individuals who think ‘I don’t need government approval. I’m playing right here!’ Let’s hope so.”