From the suburbs of Tokyo to downtown Toronto is hardly the most direct route to pop stardom — or one assured of success. But it was the path that blues-rock outfit Stone Deaf chose earlier this month in what was a bold move for a group whose sole claim to fame is having been Marky Ramone’s backing band during the former Ramone’s tour of Japan in January.
Options for unsigned bands like Stone Deaf are limited without a record label or management to fund a foreign tour or secure a slot at summer rock festivals overseas. So the three-piece, all in their 30s, were counting on an 11 p.m. gig at a small Toronto blues bar on the final night of the 12th annual North By Northeast Music and Film Festival and Conference (NXNE) to convince some A&R man to part with enough cash to fast-track them to rock ‘n’ roll infamy.
“We’re an unsigned band looking for an indie [independent] label,” said Stone Deaf singer/guitarist Yukio Yamamura matter-of-factly, his chiseled good looks and flowing hair suggesting he also should have scheduled a performance on TV show “Canadian Idol.”
Yamamura was still catching his breath after a frantic rehearsal in a Tokyo studio, shortly before the band would embark on their first visit to Canada to perform at NXNE, a music industry showcase in which almost 400 bands performed for 20,000 people at more than 30 venues over three nights around Toronto. Stone Deaf, who secured their place at the festival because organizers liked one of their songs sent by e-mail, were among three Japanese bands taking part.
Asked what strategy the band would take at NXNE to win their deal, drummer Ai Niikura replied, “We might have a booth where we can exchange name cards.” And apart from deciding not to pay a $500 Canadian fee to distribute their debut CD or flyers to publicize the Toronto show, this was about as far as Stone Deaf’s do-it-yourself battle plan extended.
Japanese pop music has not been anything like as pervasive outside of Asia as other pop culture exports like manga and anime. Alternative bands that have made some kind of dent overseas over the years by touring regularly include Shonen Knife (who have recorded both English- and Japanese-language versions of the same albums), Melt-Banana and Guitar Wolf (who were signed to the New York label Matador for a few years). But the most successful pop stars in Japan have failed to translate runaway success at home into overseas sales.
When Hikaru Utada, one of the most recognizable faces in Japan and the best-selling artist in J-pop history, tried last year to export her R&B-influenced pop to the home of R&B and the largest music market in the world — the United States — by singing in English and bringing on board one of the hippest producers in music, Timbaland, the resulting album, “Exodus,” was an unmitigated flop. Ayumi Hamasaki, who has been compared to Madonna so often that she’s probably converted to kabala, is not far behind Utada in domestic popularity, but in terms of breaking America, Hamasaki hasn’t even bothered to try.
With major labels cutting back on investment in new talent, you would think it was harder than ever for the thousands of unsigned bands in Japan to get their head above the crowd. But that is what drives bands the likes of Stone Deaf. Filled with self-belief and ambition, such bands are becoming increasingly entrepreneurial, taking advantage of technological innovations on the Internet in order to blaze their own trail.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Arctic Monkeys and Gnarls Barkley are just first installments in the story of how the Net is propelling new music acts to fame. The Rupert Murdoch-owned MySpace.com is the most established online social network, one heavily slanted toward music and enabling its 32 million active users to listen to songs for free and meet like-minded people by leaving messages in chat rooms. Asian Kung-Fu Generation, a big-selling rock act from Yokohama, has been much talked about by U.S. music fans on MySpace and other message boards since writing theme songs for two anime series screened in America, “Naruto” and “Full Metal Alchemist.” Stone Deaf created their own MySpace profile six months ago.
Specifically tailored to Japanese music is JapanFiles.com, a Web site run by a staff of three that lists more than 160 artists (most of whom are not yet available on iTunes or peer-to-peer downloading networks) downloadable for a fee. More than 50 percent of the earnings flow back to the artist in the case of unsigned acts, and it costs nothing for these bands, most of whom play each weekend in tiny venues in Tokyo, to join JapanFiles.
It isn’t only kids in America that are discovering the bands on JapanFiles.
“We sold one of our artist’s CDs — a pretty hardcore punk band from Chiba Prefecture — to a guy in Iraq. He was studying Japanese on YesJapan [JapanFiles’ parent site, based in Las Vegas, which offers interactive online Japanese lessons] and heard the band’s music on one of the shows,” says JapanFiles co-owner and band scout Steve Laity.
JapanFiles recently took six acts to San Jose, Calif., to perform at anime convention FanimeCon 2006. While these bands are unknown to all but the keenest underground indie scene followers in Japan, some found U.S. fans in the audience who had heard their songs through MySpace.
Laity wants to take JapanFiles bands to the big international music industry showcases. Taking place 3,000 km south of Toronto every May is one such event, South By Southwest, which this year marked its 20th anniversary with 1,400 bands performing on more than 60 stages over five days — including hugely anticipated performances by Arctic Monkeys and Australia’s Wolfmother. It is also one of the most established showcases for Japanese artists and included an official “Japan Nite,” bringing together six of the 20 Japanese bands at SXSW under one roof.
In light of such competition, it is no coincidence that industry workshops at SXSW and NXNE (sample workshop title: “Navigating the Internet High Seas”) focused on how bands can get results through savvy online marketing. Between manning their band stall at the open-air “Indie Music Market,” hawking CDs and T-shirts, Stone Deaf’s Yamamura and Niikura made it to two NXNE workshops, including one on artist self-management. But since the seminars were mostly geared toward North American acts, the band got little out of it.
Although the number of Japanese acts going to international festivals and music industry showcases is rising, practical barriers remain that will prevent many bands from even applying.
“SXSW does not pay any fee to the artists, so if a band wants to take part the record company has to pay for flights, accommodation and instrument hire,” explains SXSW’s Asia Representative Hiroshi Asada.
Given the costs, it is no surprise that Japanese acts at this year’s SXSW were either: big sellers at home, like punk-pop group Ellegarden, visual-kei act Dir en grey and self-styled “samurai jazz warriors” PE’Z; established bands like Guitar Wolf and DMBQ, with a sizable U.S. following after touring there extensively; or hyped-up newer acts like Afrirampo.
No amount of hometown success, however, will eliminate the need for tried and trusted networking in order to get a foothold overseas.
“Shows become buzz shows at SXSW often through bands doing a lot of legwork in advance — getting key media people like Nic Harcourt at [West Coast college radio station] KCRW and/or the A&R community buzzing about it,” says David Mogendorff, who has filmed live performances at the last three SXSW festivals as senior talent and artist relations coordinator at MTV Networks UK. This year the music channel filmed live footage of buzz bands from Scandinavia and Australia for broadcast back home, as well as more established acts already familiar to the MTV audience, like The Zutons from the U.K, but did not cover any Japanese artists. They received little encouragement to do so from the labels.
“[In the run up to SXSW] we hadn’t had any specific contact from any of the Japanese labels, nor their European affiliates. The thing about SXSW is that there are hundreds of bands playing every night and, to a large extent, we’re reliant on tipoffs and old-fashioned PR,” Mogendorff continues. “There’s definitely an interest in Japanese music, but it’s not threatening the mainstream at the moment by any stretch.”
While every startup band would do well to equip themselves with the tools of modern technology, new gadgets alone are not going to be enough to break them overseas. The bigger the record label a band is signed to, the bigger the buzz, and that is vital in generating TV coverage, column inches and ultimately sales for a band. One trip alone is unlikely to make much of a dent, which is why Stone Deaf will be back to have another go in North America — this time in New York City — in September. Another day, another festival.