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Nationally themed gigs make no sense in a post-Web world

by Ian Martin

March is almost here, and on the music calendar that means eyes are on the South by Southwest (SXSW) music showcase in Austin, Texas. For many Japanese bands and for much of the local press, SXSW means the festival’s Japan Nite event.

The advantages of an event like Japan Nite, with its high profile and big audiences, are obvious. However, make a list of Japanese artists with a genuine profile among overseas music fans and chances are that, rather than the upbeat party-punk of bands such as Ketchup Mania and Lolita No. 18, you’ll wind up with bands such as Cornelius or the Boredoms — musicians whose popularity transcends the novelty of their nationality.

In many ways the idea of the nationally themed bundle is a strange one in today’s world. Before we had the Internet, it made sense to group bands together by region, partly because the lack of any easy way for fans to find information about music beyond their home country or state meant it was much more practical for promotional purposes if groups from one particular place could be labeled in a certain way. Much as many bands involved with Krautrock hated that term, it did a lot of good in bringing attention to German psychedelic and early electronic music.

Furthermore, that same lack of easily accessible information meant the influence of a band’s cultural context and immediate musical contemporaries was more pronounced, with bands from the same country more likely to share a common musical sensibility. Amon Duul II, Cluster and Kraftwerk may have been of varying age, social class and location, but they shared an experimental, minimal approach, an interest in synthesizers and, most importantly, the same year-zero philosophy born from Germany’s wartime past.

But looking at the consumers of German rock in the 1970s, it’s doubtful that you’d have found any giddy Germanophiles stocking up on Popol Vuh and Faust albums or crowding into cathedrals to see Tangerine Dream concerts. If they were, then Virgin Records would have been just as eagerly signing up cheesy schlager singers such as Peter Alexander and Gerhard Wendland. Instead, Krautrock was marketed as a companion of progressive rock — the genre came first, and the nationality was merely a bonus.

Now none of this is to denigrate Japan Nite itself, whose co-organizer, Audrey Kimura of the Benten label, has an unimpeachable reputation as a promoter of Japanese music, and who has ensured that Japan Nite retains a recognizable sonic identity (with various Japanese indie hotshots set against a general bias toward a kind of female-fronted bubble-gum punk). The problem is a wider one with how Japanese music is invariably promoted abroad: Nationality comes first, music second.

Of course this makes sense from a business perspective. In contrast to Germany in the ’70s, Japan has a lot of cultural cachet and “Japan Nite” conjures up all manner of cute, enjoyably trashy images, from The 5.6.7.8′s rocking out in “Kill Bill” to gothic lolitas parading in Harajuku and to the kitsch of Akihabara. It’s an image that Japan Nite encourages with its hyper-stylized artwork and design.

It’s also an approach that less musically sensitive people than Kimura have attempted, as with Sony’s dire Tofu Records venture, which attempted to sell neo-new-wave band Polysics, rockers L’Arc-en-Ciel and songstress Nami Tamaki to an audience of anime fans and Japanophiles; or indeed with the musical lineup of any anime convention. It would be like taking LCD Soundsystem, Creed and Miley Cyrus and selling them to Japanese “Star Trek” fans. This Tofu Records image had little to do with the country most Japanese acts and their fans inhabit, and one wonders how valuable the kind of fan that such promotion attracts is likely to be to bands who don’t buy into the “Cool Japan” fantasy.

Speaking to The Japan Times at last year’s festival, Makoto Kawabata of psychedelic rockers Acid Mothers Temple was dismissive of Japan Nite, speculating that “people who go there are not so interested in music — they are just interested in Japan.” Moe Wadaka of Tokyo no-wave band Miila and The Geeks, who will play SXSW this year, is similarly uninterested in the idea of a Japan-themed night, seemingly baffled at the idea that her nationality should have any bearing on her music’s appeal.

For bands who just want to wave their hands and their fans back home, “Look at us, we went to America and played to X number of people,” perhaps the “Japanese” tag is useful. But most musicians want to be accepted and understood for the music they make, so for them, such a nationally focused marketing straitjacket is likely to prove a distracting hindrance on the lonely road toward gathering a set of fans and contacts that will be able to sustain them in the long term.