AUSTIN – For the past two decades, the Japan Nite showcase has been one of the most celebrated events at the South By Southwest (SXSW) music conference and festival, a gathering where industry types, everyday music fans and performers from all over the world descend on Texas’ capital. The music component of this year’s festival took place from March 17-22, with Japan Nite taking place on Friday, March 20.
When the Japan-centric showcase first started, SXSW functioned as a place where relatively unknown performers could leave an impression on labels, while fans could take in dozens of sets a day all across Austin. Such was the case at Japan Nite’s 20th anniversary edition this year: Familiar faces watched Japanese bands play a wide range of music, while others chatted with the performers on the opposite side of the venue.
In 2015, however, scenes like this at SXSW felt like a rarity. The festival, in general, puts a premium on already hyped acts and the corporate brands hosting them. All week, attendees queued up for hours outside of the Fader Fort (sponsored by Converse) and the Hype Hotel (presented by Taco Bell) to see artists such as English producer Sophie and American rap trio Migos.
Many were also distracted by a rumored appearance by Kanye West on Saturday night — one that didn’t materialize, but gained more attention than many of the shows that actually did.
Hiroshi Asada, one of Japan Nite’s co-founders and the Asia representative for SXSW, has been contending with such competition for 20 years now.
“Japan Nite isn’t a goal; it’s a start,” he says. “There are so many Japanese bands with lots of potential, but nobody helps them.”
On its 20th birthday, Japan Nite felt like a memory of what SXSW once prided itself on being. Moving forwards, it now finds itself at a crossroads.
It is not the first time Asada has had to adapt. Prior to Japan Nite, he worked as a concert promoter and manager in Japan.
“I was managing Pizzicato Five in the early ’90s, and I loved them, but they weren’t selling very well in Japan,” he says.
Asada sent the band’s music to friends abroad and received positive feedback. “We thought the only way we would survive would be by focusing internationally first,” he says.
This lead Asada to the New Music Seminar in New York City, an event resembling SXSW. He organized a show called Psycho Night — a play on the Japanese word saiko (awesome) — featuring only Japanese acts, including Pizzicato Five. Their successful jaunt to the Big Apple resulted in an international record deal and the band’s sales exploding back home.
“I met the people from SXSW at New Music Seminar, and they asked me to do a similar Japanese showcase in Austin,” Asada says.
Before this, Asada met Audrey Kimura, with whom he would go on to co-found Japan Nite. The two met when Asada was promoting a show in Sapporo, where Kimura was a student.
“Then she moved to Tokyo and became bored with her day job at a bank,” he recalls. “I asked her to be a representative for New Music Seminar.”
Kimura also launched her own imprint, Benten Label, and went to Austin with rock band Lolita No. 18.
“We stayed for a month and played a bunch of local gigs, and got a bit popular,” she says. “Everybody told us to come back for SXSW.” They did just that — Lolita No. 18 performed at the first Japan Nite, held at the intimate Maggie Mae’s venue.
“It was crazy, people were crazy!” Asada says. “There were 200 people in the building, it was packed and you couldn’t move. Lolita No. 18 were the first Japanese band to ever play SXSW.
“At that time, people were getting more interested in Japan, especially anime and manga. People wanted to know what was happening in Japan. That was lucky for us,” he adds.
The first 10 years of Japan Nite’s existence were radically different to their last decade.
“It used to be that most of the artists at Japan Nite were major label bands,” Asada says. A look over previous lineups reveals names such as Bonnie Pink and Number Girl (“The only band to ever get an encore at Japan Nite, because the crowd wouldn’t stop clapping until they did one,” Asada adds) — a far cry from the indie-leaning bills of recent years.
Asada says the major labels used to help Japan Nite out as a way to try to break their artists in America.
“The music business people thought that one show at SXSW would be enough to make a deal out of, but it isn’t so easy,” he says. “Bands have to tour the rest of America. If we could deal with major labels, we could set that up, but they just focus on the Japanese market now.”
Japan Nite’s shift away from the mainstream, however, has resulted in the showcase embracing more leftfield artists in recent years.
“I go for the weird bands,” Asada says, while Kimura jokes that Japan Nite embraces bands that have fallen from the mainstream. Save for the special inclusion of major-label duo Moumoon, the 20th anniversary show edged toward the more offbeat, including the frantic pop of Mahousyoujo-ni-naritai and the accordion-laced quirk of Samurai Dynamites.
This year’s show packed the club full. However, it remained out of step with the splashiness of SXSW in 2015, and another international showcase served to highlight the difference.
The K-Pop Night Out event, now in its third year, featured performances from popular acts Crayon Pop and Epik High — big names on big labels acting as hype bait. Whereas Japan Nite got media coverage for turning 20, K-Pop Night Out had a steady stream of pre-fest buzz thanks to its performers — buzz that it maintained afterward.
“They have a huge amount of support from the government,” Asada says. “We get nothing from the Japanese government.” After the big record companies stopped supporting Japan Nite, he reached out to the government multiple times for assistance, but with no luck. Meanwhile, K-Pop Night Out proudly boasts support from the Korea Creative Content Agency, a government agency working with Korean events abroad.
Despite billions of yen being earmarked for the country’s Cool Japan campaign —a government push at spreading soft power — Asada doesn’t think music is a big priority. He believes that the government would rather support the interests of the anime industry.
At this year’s SXSW, Japan appeared to be waking up to the festival’s new reality. One of the week’s highlights came from J-pop trio Perfume, who played a packed-tight show on the Tuesday night. The timing was important — Tuesday marked the start of SXSW Music and the end of SXSW Interactive; it was a night with fewer competing showcases, and plenty of tech people still in town.
During the day, the first ever “Japan Day” was held: a new event, featuring talks from Japanese startups and higher-ups from companies such as Dentsu. The promise of “free sushi and free sake,” plus an open bar, assured its popularity.
Japan Nite, however, remains a reminder of what SXSW used to be: A place where unknown entities can connect with fans and develop close bonds. Asada, though, has an idea where he wants it to go in the future.
“I want to make it like an agency for Japanese artists. An agency could talk to record labels and festivals. Nobody does that for them now. If we can get a good reaction in SXSW, it can follow them to other places.”
Three Japanese acts that stood out in Austin
At SXSW, queuing for a long time often seems like a waste, given that there are dozens of other shows one can just waltz right into — often in the immediate surroundings. But, sometimes, sacrificing a few hours in order to see a talked-up artist results in a highlight.
That was the case at Perfume‘s Tuesday night show — the best Japanese performance of the festival. The techno-pop trio brought dazzling visuals to Texas, with fan-favorite tunes such as “Polyrhythm” and “Electro World,” successfully getting the audience moving at one in the morning.
Rock trio TsuShiMaMiRe aren’t SXSW rookies — they’ve trekked out to the festival multiple times. Yet at all of their shows in 2015, they played with the energy of a young band trying to break through. Even when playing at the “International Stage,” tucked inside a convention center, they delivered a manic set featuring songs spanning their entire career.
They fittingly closed out this year’s Japan Nite, but it was opener Mahousyoujo-ni-naritai who stole the show. The group performed in front of dizzying anime-inspired visuals, playing hyper-speed pop disrupted by heavy metal screeching. It was a rapid-fire introduction to the group, who at times played up the “Weird Japan” angle a bit much, but mostly offered buzzing pop, unafraid to unnerve.