The crowd bristles with excitement as the first DJ of the night winds down his set. An air of anticipation sets in around the room. As the next DJ enters the booth with his CD booklet in hand, the throng begins to swarm the tiny floor, no larger than your grandmother’s basement. Four Tet is about to hit the decks — and tens of thousands of people are watching.
Physically, however, there are only 50 people present. The rest are joining in via video-streaming website Ustream, watching and listening in their homes, on the train and even from behind their desks in offices around the world. “It’s a virtual festival,” declares Dommune founder Naohiro Ukawa, as he shares his thoughts with The Japan Times.
The Internet Age has brought us new cultural forces such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and the year 2010 saw a phenomenal rise in live-streaming video websites. As the technology further fine tunes itself in 2011, music venues that make use of live broadcasting — such as Dommune — are also likely to increase.
The venue’s small basement studio in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, streams live video and audio almost every evening of the week. It boasts a top-notch Funktion One sound system, which is re-tweaked every fortnight. It’s also furnished with a bar and a dance floor that accommodates a maximum of 50 people.
Dommune’s schedule is divided into two segments: 7 p.m. till 9 p.m. is designated as a talk show with guest DJs, while the 9 p.m. till 12 midnight slot is allocated to DJ sets. Since the club’s inception in March 2010, it has played host to some of the biggest names on the global electronic-music circuit as well as featuring some of the foremost talents on the Japanese music scene. Artists who have manned Dommune’s decks include dance-music icons Jeff Mills and Shinichi Osawa, the multitalented Beardyman and rising stars Gold Panda and Tokimonsta. Local hip-hop heroes Muro, Illreme and Chinza Dopeness have all appeared as well. The list goes on — and it’s getting longer.
Founder Ukawa is a man who has dipped his fingers into practically every form of modern media. As well as being an established graphic designer, his list of credentials includes music video and television commercial director, VJ, artist, writer, club owner, record label founder — and he even DJs himself. As if that wasn’t enough to fill up even the least forgiving of schedules, he is also a professor of graphic and visual design at the Kyoto University of Art and Design. His latest venture, however, has been taking up all of his time. “I’ve been refusing all other projects recently,” he says. “I’m putting all my energy into Dommune.” Fortunately for him, Dommune combines a handful of his passions and puts them all in one basket.
Ukawa’s newest project may lie in the seemingly solitary arena of the Internet, though the reality is anything but. With Dommune, he says the key word is “community.” Dommune’s moniker is derived from the word “commune”; one of Ukawa’s many mottos is “commune and the next step,” and as the letter D is “the next step” after C in the English alphabet, so the name Dommune was conceived.
“It’s very personal,” Ukawa says. “Everyone is in different places, but sharing the same music at the same time.” The venue’s tiny capacity, he says, also generates a personal vibe. “Unlike big clubs, the audience can get close to the artists and speak to them after the sets.”
Initially, Ukawa had his mind set on creating his own online platform from which to send out the transmission, but soon realized the costs involved. Aside from Ustream being a cheaper alternative, the service incorporates a link to microblogging site Twitter, thereby allowing viewers — and potential viewers — to tweet their thoughts as the broadcast is being streamed.
“When we were starting out, we noticed the boom in Twitter users,” Ukawa recalls. “Through combining Ustream and Twitter we thought viewers would pick up on the idea more naturally.” Pick up they did. When Detroit techno legend Derrick May played his set on April 21, 2010, just over a month after opening night, Dommune’s simultaneous-viewer count clocked in at 12,000 people at its highest point and 84,872 over the course of the night.
The club’s website incorporates a viewing window and a side panel linked to Twitter that displays tweets in real-time. The broadcast timetable is located at the bottom of the screen and to gain access to the venue, just click on the artist you wish to see and fill out the attached application form. Twitter users have an early-bird advantage, as the schedules are tweeted before being posted on the official site.
When it comes to booking artists, Ukawa has an eye — and an ear — for talent. He describes the musical concept of Dommune and his selection process as being about “skills, archiving and nenrin (tree rings).”
“It’s not about genres. It’s about skills sharpened through hard work and the archives a musician compiles over their career,” he says as he explains his nenrin metaphor. “I like the image of a tree’s cross-section because it (visually) reminds me of a vinyl record. I believe each ring represents a layer of experience. It’s not about nenrei (age), what matters is nenrin.”
Despite making his living through technology, Ukawa himself doesn’t own a cell phone. “They scare me,” he says. “The way that someone can directly enter your life without your consent or control.” He also refuses to publicly show his full appearance, making sure to cover a part of his face in most photographs taken of him. “I like holding on to a part of me when interacting,” he grins. “Just as in any relationship, I believe it’s better to let people in slowly. It’s not good to dish out all of your attributes at once.”
After Four Tet, whose real name is Kieran Hebden, finishes off his set for the night we catch up with him to ask about playing to a crowd of only 50 people, while most of his audience is watching from the other side of a computer screen.
“It appeals to me,” Hebden says. “It feels like I’m playing in someone’s house.”
But what about playing at clubs? The Dommune experience allows anyone with a Web connection to partake of a communal musical experience from the comfort of their own lap. Surely such a concept gives the less adventurous yet another reason to stay at home and just virtually join in on the fun?
“We want people to go out,” asserts Ukawa. “That’s why we don’t broadcast on Fridays and Saturdays. If we started streaming on big club nights, it would disrupt Tokyo’s music ecosystem.” Indeed, many of the artists — including Hebden — who perform in the studio go on to play at larger venues over the following weekend. “I like to think Dommune is somewhat of a moving flyer for events at other venues,” Ukawa says.
“It’s all positive,” Hebden says. “I don’t know of anything like this back home (in London).”
Despite its easy online access, Dommune’s live shows regularly sell out. We asked some of the audience members whether they were happy just to stay home and watch the live broadcasts during the week and if they had the energy to then go out over the weekends.
“Yes!” asserts belly-dance enthusiast Mika Akamine, 23. “I’m going to see Four Tet tomorrow (a Friday night show at club Eleven) as well!”
Yoshifumi Ikeda, a 29-year-old music writer, says it’s brilliant that Dommune is open only on weekdays.
“I still definitely go out on the weekends. It’s a very different experience than watching DJs on a screen, or even actually coming here, where there is pretty limited space.”
The cramped conditions mean there is also a higher chance that club patrons might be on camera and potentially seen by tens of thousands of viewers. Ikeda admits that at first he felt slightly camera shy. “I was a bit reserved when I came in,” he says. “But as the evening went on, it just became really fun.”
Dommune has shown support for the local music scene in other ways. “Sadly, since the birth of the iPod, most people think that CDs have merely become plates, carrying music files from place to place,” Ukawa says. With CD sales spiraling downward, many artists are starting to choose not to release on the format at all. “We want to represent and encourage new talent. Now, there are record shops around Tokyo that have a Dommune corner promoting artists who have appeared in the broadcasts.” Sure enough, eminent record store chain Diskunion has a Dommune display featuring the products of those who have performed at the venue.
With an abundance of good intentions surrounding Dommune, the only question left is: “Who’s paying?” Of course, turning a profit might not even be a concern for the artistically inclined Ukawa.
“We started not even a year ago,” Ukawa says. “So at the moment we’re still working on paying back the initial startup costs.” However, the digital Renaissance man is bursting with confidence that Dommune will make a move into the black in 2011.
“Think of the market for streaming media as an Othello board,” he says. “We are occupying three of the corners — meaning almost total dominance — and with a little more time I’m sure that we can take the final corner.”
Formidable words for future contenders.