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Social clubbing takes off with iFlyer service

by Roland Kelts

Clubbing in Japan is a kick. The country’s zeal for global pop trends and its prominent club scene draws big-name DJs and performers from the international circuit. Japan’s hodgepodge approach to urban planning means that clubs seem to blossom nearly anywhere — in the back alleys of unsung neighborhoods such as Tokyo’s Yoyogi, with its funky music haven, Zher the Zoo, or behind nondescript docks in the Hyogo Prefecture capital of Kobe. Despite recent crackdowns on after-hours dancing, Japan’s club scene continues to thrive past the midnight hour, buoyed by itinerant hipsters with wads of cash.

But knowing which clubs to go to, and how to get there, can be mystifying. If you’re like me, you stumble home in the wee hours clutching handfuls of flyers — brightly colored glossy paper rectangles luring you to the next night’s gig, sans context or reason. By breakfast, you won’t remember what they were supposed to mean or why you kept them.

The Internet has trimmed the paper chase a bit, but online adverts for nightlife still confuse. One person’s classifieds are another’s headache. Nice to know there’s lots to do — not so nice to not know what to do.

Malek Nasser, a British techie then based in Osaka, was one expat who wondered why the Japanese club scene was in such disarray, and thought he could do something about it. “In 2005-06, I was looking for something to do, and I moved to Tokyo. The scene in Osaka was more bar-based. But in Tokyo, I lived in Shibuya and I wandered around these streets, seeing big venues like Club Asia.”

Nasser noticed that each club ran its own website, but none of them were connected. Like their piles of glossy flyers, the clubs were promoting themselves in a chaotic shower of invites with great offerings, but little impact.

Nasser set out to make the greatest event website ever — and he used Tokyo and Osaka as his testing grounds. The result is iFlyer.tv, a user-generated Web portal with everything you need to know about nightlife in Tokyo and Osaka. And it’s now going global.

“When you actually have an event, it’s quite a complex machine,” Malek tells me in iFlyer’s Shibuya headquarters, a sleek and tidy third-floor media laboratory called the Music Technology Center.

“We have this kind of artists’ wiki, where artists and club owners input their details and profiles. We were worried at first that artists would try to deface others’ pages, but what happened was that the artists would input information and the clubs would correct them. It’s actually quite self-monitoring. They have their self-contained content-management systems.”

“The really important thing is getting the right people to the right venue,” adds Sach Jobb, Malek’s American partner in the iFlyer project. “We used some guerrilla tactics to get folks involved. We told people to mention iFlyer when they were going to clubs to get discounts. Even if they didn’t get discounts, the word got out.”

iFlyer is now a partner with Ticket Pia, Japan’s dominant ticketing agency, enabling them to work with the biggest names in the entertainment business. “We started explaining to them about iFlyer,” says Jobb, “and suddenly they said, ‘We already know about iFlyer, just tell us how we can work together.’ I was like, woah!”

“It was great,” adds Nasser, “a validation of what we’re doing. It was the transition from turning a hobby into a full-fledged company.”

iFlyer is a revelation for clubbers — Japan’s pop scene made accessible via its artists and promoters. Visit the site and use it in English or Japanese to find your personalized night of pleasure. And, like Facebook, Google and Twitter, it’s becoming more personalized. Nasser and Jobb have just launched myflyer — a personal page based on “likes” whose algorithms can shape a user’s nightlife plans according to their tastes and those of their friends.

“We were looking at the system and wondering how we list events and how we can do it better,” says Nasser. “We needed to try to make it relevant to everyone. How do we tailor it to specific users? We saw the writing on the wall — we needed to find a way to cut right to events you want to see. That’s where myflyer came from. And that’s where Star*d (a personalized recommendation system) emerged.

“Now we’re capitalizing on the recommendation side. It’s an algorithm that we program. It’s going to be learning more and more as time goes by. It’s similar to Amazon, but for events. And we’re going to include your social graph — which is what your friends like — as well.”

Nasser and Jobb are just getting started. iFlyer launched an English-only site for clubs and artists in London last month, and they have plans to do the same in Hong Kong, Singapore, Los Angeles and New York in the coming year. It’s an extraordinary example of how expat ventures that start in Japan can go global.

“We started iFlyer on Japanese mobile phones,” adds Jobb, “but now we’re shifting to all platforms.

“The fact is, this is a model that can be applied to all sorts of content — literature, anime, cosplay, whatever. We’re starting to incorporate theater events like ‘Lion King’ with Richie Hawtin at Club Womb. The possibilities are endless.”

Headed to Broadway, Roppongi or the West End? Ditch the paper. Click on iFlyer.tv and go.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Tokyo.