The little indie labels that could

by Suzannah Tartan

In the old days, a band might self-release a record or two. Their hope, however, was to catch the ear of some major-label A&R director and land a coveted contract with Sony, Toshiba EMI or one of Japan’s other music behemoths.

Shotoku Mukai has done it in exactly the opposite way. His first group, Number Girl, released their debut on Toshiba’s Parlophone label and, given that group’s critical buzz, Mukai could have easily found another major label to sign his new group, Zazen Boys. Instead, he has chosen to release his records independently on his own label Matsuri.

“Being on a major [with Number Girl] I learned a lot about manufacturing a CD and booking tours, for instance,” says Mukai. “I like that I can do things at my own pace now. Any success is due to my own legwork.”

Mukai is not alone. In the last six or seven years, a number of successful artists, mostly in the punk or ska-punk vein, have resisted the allure of the majors and chosen to form indie labels to release their music. Hi Standard on their Pizza of Death label, Snail Ramp on School Bus Records and Potshot on TV Freak all have garnered a mass following as well as respectable sales.

Granted, indie labels have long been a feature of the Japanese music scene, and some, such as Shibuya-kei label Cruel L, have even become nationally prominent. Only recently, however, have indie labels really had the mass distribution to allow artists to reach a bigger audience.

“Years ago it was difficult to find independently released records outside of a few shops in Shinjuku or Osaka’s Americamura,” explains Keith Cahoon, former president of Tower Records Asia and now president of music publisher Hotwire. Tower Japan was one of the first chain stores to stock independent labels, following the example of its American parent that had traditionally supported the indie scene.

Although Hi Standard and their ilk had been reasonably successful, it was the million-plus sales of the debut album “Go On As You Are” from Okinawan group Mongol 800, on their own label Highwave, that really made people really take notice.

“Everyone said it was a fluke,” says Cahoon. “Then their next record did the same thing. That made everyone start selling indie records.”

But million-plus sales, the ultimate goal of a major label, aren’t crucial at the indie level.

“An indie label can break even selling 4,000 or 5,000 records, which for a major label is unacceptable,” says Cahoon.

More than record sales however, being on an indie label allows an artist control of their art. Major labels are big businesses where art and commerce often uneasily coexist.

“Indie labels tend to be more focused [on one particular type of music] and much more music-minded,” says Cahoon. “They speak the same language as the fans.”

Indeed one hallmark of successful indie-label bands is their geographically broad fan base. They are willing to tour significantly more and to more remote places. Nicotine’s Sky Label has embraced a strategy of signing bands from all over Japan so that when any band tours, they have support all over the country. The Zazen Boys’ current tour has more than 30 dates.

Touring the country in a van and staying on people’s floor is more of a grind than dispensing interviews from a PR suite, but it has proven to be just as effective in its own way. In major cities, Zazen Boys play venues of 2,000-plus capacity.

So when Zazen Boys’ Mukai confidently says, “We don’t need a major label,” he’s speaking from experience.