Alive wants to give music fans a say in who comes to Japan

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

You watched the video for their comeback single on YouTube, devoured the reviews and retweeted the hype. When the album came out, you bought it immediately and had it on repeat for weeks afterwards. And then you waited, waited … but they never came.

Among the many minor frustrations of music fandom in Japan, one of the more pressing concerns is the fact that some overseas artists simply never make it here. For a variety of reasons — travel costs, lower revenues, logistics, increasing demand in markets ranging from Poland to Peru — the Japan tour, once a landmark in many band biographies, has begun to seem more like a costly indulgence. Promoters, too, are increasingly wary of bringing over any act that hasn’t already clocked significant album sales — something that’s becoming ever harder to do. If you’re lucky, you might catch that widely praised Brooklyn indie band in a mid afternoon slot at next year’s Summer Sonic. A bona fide tour? Forget it.

With the launch of a new website, though, this situation might be about to change. Unveiled in October, Alive (www.alive.mu) lets Japanese music fans play at being promoters themselves. In a model that will be familiar to anyone who has used the popular crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, users can pledge to buy tickets for prospective shows by overseas artists. If a show reaches its target within the allotted time — say, 100 tickets — it goes ahead as planned; if not, the band stays at home, and nobody gets charged. Alive is currently all in Japanese, but an English version is in the works.

The website was devised by Sam Mokhtary, a British neuroscience researcher who’d been dabbling in gig promotion alongside his day job at Riken Brain Science Institute. Working with fellow British expat Mark Birtles under the Tokyo Indie banner, he arranged shows for indie artists including Chairlift and How to Dress Well, as well as parties featuring DJ sets from members of The Stone Roses and My Bloody Valentine.

“I’m a very critical thinker,” he says. “I see people doing things and I always think, ‘How could you make that better? What could you improve about that?’ As soon as I started doing Tokyo Indie events and being involved in the Japanese music industry, I very quickly realized there are big problems: a lot of people are losing money on shows, a lot of artists which probably could come to the market aren’t being brought here. It seemed like a different kind of approach could benefit it.”

Alive isn’t the first example of crowd-funding models being applied to the world of live music. The recently launched Detour, run by the U.K.-based concert database Songkick, lets fans suggest acts they’d like to watch, then pledge to buy tickets even before the artist has confirmed any interest. But the most successful site to date is Brazil’s Queremos!, which since starting in 2010 has brought the likes of LCD Soundsystem, Mogwai and The xx to the country.

“It’s remote markets that need this kind of service,” Mokhtary says. “That’s why Brazil is a great example. It’s hard to tour there, it’s hard to get in there and it’s expensive — it’s very similar to Japan. People are passionate about music there; people are passionate about music here.”

Like Detour and Queremos!, Alive lets users suggest and vote for artists whose shows they’d like to see in the future. Where it diverges is in its use of Mokhtary’s other business venture, a social media analytics firm called Yuno Group LLC. Headed by Yutaka Fujiki, whose previous credits include the social media singalong app Nana, the company conducts market research based on data from services such as Facebook and Twitter. Using the same analysis tools, Alive is able to get a better grasp on the extent of an overseas artist’s audience in Japan: How many people are talking about them? What are they saying?

“When you use the word ‘data’, people think data is numbers, data’s just some abstract concept,” he says. “But data is your audience. That’s your paying customer. That’s what your data is.”

Mokhtary had an opportunity to test his theory out last year, on a short tour for Brooklyn synthpop duo Chairlift. After coming to prominence via a 2008 iPod commercial, the group had earned strong reviews for its 2012 sophomore album, “Something” — but when the record failed to get a Japanese release, local promoters turned down the chance to organize a tour. Despite the group’s eagerness to come here, says Mokhtary, “nobody else wanted to do it — that was the reality.”

“What I would do is I would go online and I’d look at what content was out there — I’d look at how many people tweeted and commented and talked about (an act), and if it had a good profile I’d book it and do it,” he says. “For Chairlift, I did two absolutely great shows. That kind of experience confirmed to me that there is a use in that kind of data — it’s powerful. A lot of bands, for example, don’t have a record deal here; that doesn’t mean there’s not necessarily an audience for them.”

Alive launched in October with five prospective tours: by dreamy Montreal duo Blue Hawaii, San Diego rockers Crocodiles, Melbourne indie-pop quartet San Cisco, Florida beatmaker XXYYXX and Parisian bossa nova cover band Nouvelle Vague. “We don’t just go in, willy-nilly, and say we’ll do any old band,” Mokhtary says. “We’re analyzing the way people have spoken about these artists online, and different fields — things like their record sales — before we book them.” Sure enough, San Cisco and Blue Hawaii both took less than a month to hit their allotted targets, of 100 and 50 tickets, respectively.

Those numbers may not seem so impressive, but they’re an encouraging start for a fledgling website. And while it might seem like he’s trying to upset the apple cart, Mokhtary says that Alive is eager to work alongside — rather than against — existing concert promoters. For starters, that would make it easier for them to handle bigger-name acts. “We want promoters in the future to come to us and say, ‘Can we put our content on your service?,’ ” he says. And, of course, he wants local music fans to want it too.

For more information on Alive and prospective tours, visit www.alive.mu. Blue Hawaii play Shibuya O-Nest in Tokyo on Jan. 23 with support from Dustin Wong and Takako Minekawa (7:30 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in advance; 03-3462-4420).

  • Tokyo Nomaku

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