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Music curators deserve credit for keeping local scenes alive

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

The term “cultural curator” is one that tends to provoke reactions ranging from sneers to rage. It really is a horrible term in some ways, with problematic embedded associations.

A curator is a person we associate with the world of art galleries and museums, and perhaps images of snooty elitists. Music, of course, is something that should be for the people. We shouldn’t be told what to like and people who try to dictate taste should be shot down: Tear down the gates and hang the gatekeepers!

However, consider the art gallery’s curator for a moment and think about what he or she does: A curator selects, categorizes and interprets work that they consider valuable — based on their research, experience in the field and personal assessment — and makes it available and accessible to the public. We may disagree with their judgment at times, but to deny the value of a curator’s job in filtering out the noise you encounter with all of the music released these days, well, we’d end up having to put an enormous amount of faith in the efficiency and effectiveness of the market.

Last month, I spent a couple of weeks traveling with a musician across Japan and one thing that became abundantly clear was that the market alone is not up to the curator’s task. The music industry is based almost entirely in Tokyo, and the national media exists almost exclusively to serve major record labels and management companies.

Many factors are at play when it comes to how lively a city or town’s music scene is — population size, transport links and proximity to other major urban centers among them. However, I found on my tour that the places with the most vibrant local scenes were the ones that had dedicated, hardworking local figures who make a point of knowing what’s happening in the music world, assessing and filtering it and working to make it available to the public: curators.

Local record shops, cafes and bars used to play the main role in curation. These locations provided a space for fans to hang out and listen to new music, which was carefully collected by the owners. The role Tower Records and HMV Shibuya played in the development of the Shibuya-kei scene of the 1990s was a successful example of this.

These days, record shops are disappearing and their influence is waning. However, commercial chains such as Tower Records still try to support local scenes by giving buyers at each of their branches nationwide a surprisingly free hand when it comes to choosing what to promote: A sympathetic, locally knowledgeable buyer can wield a lot of influence.

Independent record shops are where building a local scene really matters though. The value of these stores is apparent in places like Nagoya, where the owners of Stiff Slack and File Under do more than just select and sell records: They release bands, help bring outside artists to their cities for shows, DJ and play an active role in the musical fabric of their hometowns. People don’t just go to File Under to buy an album, they stop and talk to owner Takehiko Yamada, who gives recommendations and will exchange opinions and news, turning the shop into a focal point for sharing information.

Local music media is also of immeasurable value. While Fukuoka may no longer have any record stores of note, one thing that keeps its music scene’s head above water is the local free listings paper Time Market. Run by a tiny staff, the pocket-size paper provides interviews, disc reviews, previews and events listings for all of Kyushu. It serves a useful function as a virtual hub for the local scene, providing everyone with a shared pool of information.

While record stores outside of Tokyo provide a lifeline of information to music fans that may not know where to look online, another wealth of curatorial knowledge are the owners at performance venues. Even in Tokyo, such venues are often run by musicians themselves, who know their local scene from years of experience as a part of it. In more remote towns, though, venues and (often unpaid) organizers must combine local expertise with knowledge of the wider music scene, cultivating local audiences and bringing in acts from across Japan and beyond.

One of the most impressive things about this recent tour was meeting those organizers. Far from the image of elitist curators, these are hardworking, passionate and extremely knowledgeable people struggling against economic hardship to keep the music scene alive in a sea of major-label static.