Japan Music Week sets lofty goals for the live scene

by Ian Martin

With plans for a weeklong series of shows featuring 500 artists from 40 countries performing in 50 venues — and a target of 20,000 attendees — it’s clear from the get-go that Jon Lynch has ambitious plans for Japan Music Week. But there are still moments when he catches you out.

“We’ve had a lot of requests from around the world to do Japan Music Week events in those cities at the same time,” he casually drops in, “so it looks like we’ll have 10 or 20 cities join. That’s just the beginning though. I believe next year we could have 100 or 200 cities in Japan Music Week.”

Looking across his bookshelves, stuffed with hard-headed looking tomes on business and marketing, it doesn’t seem like the office of a delusional Baron Munchausen type, but in the small-scale world of Japanese independent music, the sense of scale under which Lynch operates can’t help but draw one up short.

Getting his first involvement in the music scene by playing with pop-rock band Schaft (not to be confused with the Japanese industrial unit of the same name), Lynch later founded the popular free music-listings magazine Juice and its sister magazine Club Juice. However, it was after being sent to American music-industry showcase South by Southwest (SXSW) to make a documentary for Space Shower TV that he got the idea to start his own festival.

“SXSW is a weeklong festival and I think at that time they had about 3,000 artists playing,” says Lynch. “Austin is a much smaller city than Tokyo, even though it’s kind of set up for conventions, so it just struck me that Tokyo, and Shibuya in particular, would be very suitable for hosting that kind of event.”

The result was the first Japan Music Week, comprising live music events and seminars that took place in November 2009. The idea is simple — a wristband provides free or discounted access to a number of themed events occurring in live venues around the city — but the scale of the event meant that there was a steep learning curve to navigate, and Lynch is frank about the problems he faced.

“Our expectation last year was that mainstream media would pick up on this, but they didn’t,” he explains. “It’s going to take a while for people to understand what it is. One of the things we’ve learned is that we’re going to start working on sponsorship and media-connecting right from when this one finishes.”

The logistics of producing such an ambitious project (Full disclosure: One of my own events is affiliated with Japan Music Week this year) also came with its share of problems, with hectic behind- the-scenes efforts to resolve communication errors and make sure the events all went off as planned.

“We tried to organize too much ourselves,” Lynch concedes. “It’s much better to have each person have each event as their baby, and then support those people centrally.”

As a result, this year’s festival involves a greater number of different events (from jazz to club nights to classical to avant-garde rock), generally at smaller venues and with the responsibility for individual events largely handled by local organizers. It means that each event is likely to have a bit more of an intimate feel, with organizers able to provide their own personal touch. It does, though, also throw up the question: If the organization is being outsourced in this way, what is the point of the festival itself?

The main thing, according to Lynch, is the interconnection of Japanese and overseas artists.

“JMW is Tokyo’s biggest international music showcase festival,” he says. “There aren’t really any others that aspire to be truly international, like Osaka’s Minami Wheel, which has about 20 live houses join, lots of really strong, big (Japanese) artists, but they’re not very open to other countries.”

Japan Music Week attempts to set up the overseas artists with several gigs while they are over, giving them an opportunity to play a genre-focused event, a region-focused one, and a regular show to give the bands a feel for the authentic Japanese live-house experience.

Alastair Rogers of the Japanese/New Zealander indie-rock band Sunset Drive is one musician who will be returning to play the festival for its second year, and he believes that the sense of community is a key component of the event’s appeal.

“There are so many cool bands in Tokyo,” Rogers says. “But for the most part everyone’s movement is fragmented, so it’s great to pull everyone together under one banner every once in a while.”

Rogers’ sentiments reinforce Lynch’s main goal.

“Local artists are bringing their connections and their audience,” says Lynch. “But they also get to enjoy mixing with overseas artists. And the overseas artists basically have an instant way to connect with the music scene here.”

As Lynch mentioned above, part of the problem with putting together an event like this has been that the music industry and media in Japan have had trouble grasping the concept. Another organizer who, like Lynch, was inspired by SXSW is veteran promoter Ken Watanabe. While involved in the original planning of Japan Music Week’s first event, Watanabe struck out on his own to set up the Tokyo Boot Up! festival that took place in the capital’s Shinjuku district over a weekend this past September.

“There has never been a music event like SXSW in Japan before,” says Watanabe. “It was very difficult and challenging for us to realize those kinds of concepts. For both bands and the music industry, it was a strange and unknown world.”

This sentiment is echoed by Lynch, who points out that in the Japanese music industry, “People can be quite conservative, and they want official backing and sponsorship at the beginning.” However, organizers find themselves in a Catch-22 because, he says, “sponsors and official organizations find it hard to support things until they’ve already taken their form.”

Media also are reluctant to spend time on anything not involving big-name artists, which presents obvious problems to events such as Japan Music Week, whose stated aim is to introduce new music.

For Lynch, the solution to this conundrum is to simply grow so big that the event achieves a kind of critical mass, enabling it to gain attention from more sponsors and raise more money to bring in big-name acts. For Watanabe and Tokyo Boot Up!, the approach seems to be to start on a more manageable, local scale, with more centralized organization and a focus on putting bands in contact with local labels and providing online distribution for their music.

“I feel that Japanese artists don’t know much about the music industry,” says Watanabe. “The best chance for a paradigm shift in the Japanese music industry is to focus on young acts. As a result, it makes sense to focus on Japanese music to start with.”

In the end, though, for most people it will be the music itself that speaks loudest, and in many ways the most powerful effect of Japan Music Week might be simply to shine a spotlight on Tokyo’s live-music scene as it already exists, and to provide visitors and new fans with access to a world that so often remains hidden in the hustle of daily life.

Japan Music Week takes place at various venues in Tokyo from Nov. 8-14. For more information, visit www.japanmusicweek.com.