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The customer is always right, but that’s what’s wrong in Japan’s live-house scene

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

The roundly despised pay-to-play system in place throughout most of Tokyo’s live-music scene, and to a slightly lesser extent in many other cities, is something I’ve written about in this column before.

A typical complaint from a band might go, “Why should we have to pay just for the privilege of stepping onto the stage?” To this, the venue could perhaps point out that bands are paying for a top-of-the-range sound system, the engineer and venue staff’s salaries, insanely expensive rent, and the fact that small bands often don’t attract an audience. “Privilege” is very low on the list of things a band pays for.

There are certainly valid criticisms of the system though. One that I heard from some readers following my October 2011 column was that by focusing everything on serving the bands, venues neglect the audience, with many locations reduced to uninviting black crypts. Another is that the costs of playing live basically cut out the working classes and confine music to being an activity for middle-class hobbyists.

Another problem of pay-to-play in Tokyo, and one that few bands complain about, is the effect that this inversion of the roles of customer and service provider has on the musicians themselves.

By treating musicians as customers, Tokyo’s live venues bring to bear on themselves Japan’s legendary devotion to customer service, and the end result is that it produces bands who are mollycoddled by the system, which is perhaps the greatest disservice that the system inflicts on the music scene.

Where bands in most of the world are largely responsible for supplying their own equipment, Japanese venues are stocked with everything a band might need, from the drum kit to a selection of amps, stands, even the guitar cables that any musician would obviously already have.

In much of Europe, for example, the engineer at a venue is God and bands are little more than worms, present only on his (and it’s usually a man) sufferance. Japanese PA staff will typically bend over backwards to accommodate every whim of even the most unknown acts. What would be a simple sound check in most places is a full-blown rehearsal in Japan, with bands running through their entire sets prior to the event, relaying instructions to the engineer between songs.

This situation gives bands all manner of creative freedom, and undoubtedly has a positive effect on the diversity of music that Tokyo and Japan as a whole produces, but it does nothing to prepare bands for the grimy experience of touring abroad (for most Japanese bands, tours are little more than holidays, lasting only for short periods over very limited geographical areas).

Another problem is that unused to fighting to get what they want from engineers and venue managers, and insulated from the business side of band life by their position as basically dedicated hobbyists, Tokyo musicians are often poorly equipped to deal with the music industry when they do get a chance at a big break. They are so used to having their every whim catered to that many simply keel over in the face of a professional studio producer and crumble when confronted with a major label’s management style.

It’s unfair to blame venues directly for what are obviously unintended consequences, and many of these problems — particularly those relating to the mainstream music industry — go much deeper than the issue of venues. It’s also true that Japan’s lively DIY scene does a good job of circumventing most of these problems for those able to find a way in.

In time, I hope to gather suggestions as to what venues might do to improve the situation from their end, but for now, two important questions an act must ask itself are, “Am I just a hobbyist? If not, what am I willing to sacrifice in return for being other than simply an honored customer?”