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Keep the band, young graduates, but don’t quit your day jobs

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

As the academic year draws to a close and a new cohort of young Japanese are dumped out the business end of the education system, so a new year’s graduating class of young bands face a tough and forbidding new world.

In the past, the course of action would have been clear: Once you graduated, you became a member of society, and “society” in this case had a very narrow definition. Basically, you worked 16 hours a day for the rest of your life if you were a man, and devoted yourself obsessively to the raising of children if you were a woman.

Nowadays, the end of the school year in March is still the Waterloo of many bands, as members sacrifice their artistic dreams at the altar of social respectability and financial security, but in truth it’s never been easier to continue a band while at the same time holding down a job. Bosses are more likely to be understanding of, or at least look the other way from, such extracurricular activities, and in society in general, playing in a band is seen as an acceptable, if a little eccentric and rather childish, hobby.

But the music scene itself offers its own challenges to newly graduated band members.

Music circles are an officially sanctioned part of a student’s school life. While they are expected to pay deference to their senpai (seniors), young acts get the benefit of campus facilities as well as a locked-in audience of club members at circle events, and a status that naturally grows with their seniority.

Out in the real world, the situation is different. A clear cultural divide exists between professional or major-label musicians and amateur bands, with the economic model inverted between one and the other. While the music industry at the top mercilessly exploits fans’ devotion and exerts Stalinist control over the media through its control of image rights, your average working artist often finds him or herself helplessly snapping at bait from businesses offering services to help them realize their dreams for only a modest fee. After all, who can put a price on a dream?

It might start with a phone call or email from a venue: “We heard your band on Soundcloud and really like what you do. We’d like to invite you to play at our venue. You only need to bring 15 audience at ¥2,000 a head, so that’s ¥30,000 in total.” Still, it’s a gig, and with your new job, you can afford between the four of you to play a couple of shows a month as you build your audience.

But your audience doesn’t build. The dutiful audiences you had in your final year of college start to drift away. Some of them have their own jobs now and can’t get away, while younger members of the circle don’t know you so well. You need to reach out to new people, and that’s when the venue calls again.

“We’re putting together a compilation album. It’s going to be released professionally and distributed in all the best record shops, so it’ll be a great chance to get discovered. Now let’s talk about the fee we’ll need from you for production costs . . .”

And so it goes on, with every aspect of the music production apparatus monetized against the musician, and with such a reliable source of income rendering the audience an irrelevance. But at least now you have freedom, right? Well, not quite, with the glass ceiling that keeps all but the chosen few out of the major label money-go-round, the live-house circuit is clogged with old senpai musicians pulling rank and keeping you locked in the opening act slots.

But maybe if you tour abroad, for only $2,000 per person round trip, including expenses . . . of course, you’ll need to get the time off work.