Japanese bands plan overseas spring offensive

by

Special To The Japan Times

TV Asahi’s weekly “Music Station” program has rarely served as a staging ground for exciting young domestic acts in recent years. It has been more of an opportunity to gawk at Johnny’s boy bands and test how many members of AKB48 can fit on the interview bench.

On the Feb. 26 edition of the show, however, viewers were treated to a puppet show courtesy of an artist sporting novelty sunglasses and a University of Michigan radiology lab coat. Rising pop artist Komuai of the group Suiyoubi No Campanella ripped through two hip-hop-pop-dance hybrids — that even featured gunshot samples — in front of long-time host Tamori.

Prime-time television isn’t the only place Komuai is making an appearance. Suiyoubi is set to appear (as Wednesday Campanella) at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference and festival in Austin, Texas, a yearly gathering of industry types and fans. Also visiting Austin from Japan are rock group [Alexandros] and fantastical electronic artist De De Mouse.

“They try it to get their motivation up and also expand their audience in the world,” Hiroshi Asada, co-founder of the annual Japan Nite showcase and Asia representative to SXSW says via email about acts that make the choice to head to the festival. “I also imagine the artists think it’s a cooler place to perform than Anime Expo in Los Angeles or Japan Expo in Paris.”

SXSW is primed to be a big opportunity for rocker Rei, who will bring her blues-inspired shredding to Japan Nite.

“I’ve always wanted to play my music in America, it’s like a dream come true,” she said after a gig in Tokyo recently. “I’m a little anxious, though, as I’ll be playing songs inspired by American styles to an American crowd.”

The 2016 edition of SXSW, however, is just one place where Japanese artists will be making their presence felt in the next two months. A surprising number of shows and tours are set to take part in the United States in particular, far from the anime conventions and cultural jamborees Japanese musicians usually get stuck in. Rather, domestic artists, both major and minor, are reaching the world on their own.

All this despite billions of yen earmarked by the government for the Cool Japan Fund, a project that has backed no purely music-related enterprises since being established in 2013. Same as it has always been, reminds Asada, who says Japanese artists have been making the trip to Austin without national assistance for two decades now.

This year’s SXSW features one of the most eclectic lineups ever from the Japan side. Alongside the long-running Japan Nite showcase on March 18 — an event that shines a light on relatively obscure indie acts — buzzier names such as Suiyoubi and rapper Kohh are set to play. The former will join De De Mouse at an event featuring popular American outfit Anamanaguchi, a group who have long highlighted Japanese talent when possible. Also appearing — and playing a show in New York on April 14 — will be Wagakki Band, who has gained online attention by incorporating traditional Japanese instruments into its sound.

Yet Asada points out another development at SXSW 2016, and one he calls “a new trend” at the event. A handful of Japanese electronic artists are appearing across the five-day gathering, many of whom made a name for themselves through online “netlabels.”

And for all involved, Austin is just one destination — netlabel Maltine Records will hold shows in New York and Los Angeles the weekend before SXSW (where they’ll put on an event March 15 at club Elysium,the same venue hosting Japan Nite). Meanwhile, high-energy producer Seiho stops in Austin as part of a larger tour featuring gigs in New York and at celebrated Los Angeles electronic party Low End Theory.

Allen Huang, who organizes a club event in Seattle called Customs, hosted Seiho’s first U.S. show in 2014.

“The biggest difference (this time) is that he has got professional sights set on America now, so the shows have more of a focus this time,” Huang says via email. “Last time it was ‘real happy to be here’ type-business, he got his name on some shows with a lot of people playing.”

To that end, Seiho is taking advantage of one way Japanese artists can get attention abroad — sharing a bill with other established acts, which Huang had in mind for his Seattle show, where he’ll play alongside buzzed-about producer Sophie. “His people at Sony have been very great and very motivated in this regard and on a talent-level I think Seiho is ready to succeed.”

Sapporo-based electronic artist Momiji Tsukada, who records as Qrion, is also flying out to Texas for several SXSW gigs. Two months later, she’ll go to Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina, a three-day event featuring names such as Grimes and Gary Numan. Her U.S. manager, Chelsea Moon, says getting her over to the States hasn’t been a simple task, though.

“It’s been a long and expensive process getting her official artist visa,” Moon says over email. It was recently approved, but to cover costs totalling over $3,000 Tsukada turned to fans for help. Her and Moon established a special online store selling Qrion merchandise — from CDs to pins — to make up the charges.

“Being an international artist with a legal visa is a big deal, and it wouldn’t be possible without all the support from the community,” Moon says.

Many are excited for Qrion’s shows, but the biggest Japan-related concert of the spring might be courtesy of Babymetal, the metal-meets-idol trio who blew up online two years ago. The group is set to release a new album April 1, before embarking on a world tour that stretches into July. On top of that, they’ve achieved a media saturation many J-pop acts only dream of — a plan released by Babymetal’s U.S. distribution company Red Distribution revealed forthcoming articles in publications such as Rolling Stone, and they’ll appear on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” while stateside.

And they’ve done that by themselves, proving to be such a surprise hit that Tomomi Inada, the government’s Cool Japan strategy minister, asked the three young members how they pulled it off during a joint TV appearance.

For most acts playing abroad in coming months, though, having some connections make things run smoother. Asada champions all the bands heading to SXSW, while in Qrion’s case, Moon says Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth helped get her on the Moogfest lineup.

“It really takes a conscious decision to change the status quo,” Moon says.

  • Carl

    Go Blue!

  • TV Monitor

    Let me explain why J-Pop is not as popular as K-Pop in the West.

    1. Most Asian Pop music fans, be it East or West, are young women, so performers need to be male. Most of K-Pop acts touring the US and Europe are male. Most of J-Pop acts that the Cool Japan program is trying to push are female, which don’t attract loyal female fan base. And due to Johnny’s monopoly on male J-Pop idol unit business in Japan, there is little prospect of male J-Pop idol units that could compete with K-Pop units, who are product of cut-throat competition between dozens of agencies and 7~10 years of training. Disillusioned with realities with Japanese music industry dominated by Johnny’s and Yakuza, many top Japanese talents are flying over to Korea to sign with Korean agencies, receive Korean style training, and debut as K-Pop unit members instead.

    2. Quality control : Let’s be honest, the quality of Japanese performers lag in abilities compared to Korean or Korean-trained performers.

    3. Too strict copyrights enforcement on Youtube : Youtube is flooded with clips of K-pop performers from Korean music shows or concerts, often minutes after they are shown or shot. There is very little Music Station clip postings on Youtube due to a strict Japanese-style copyrights enforcement. The end result is that Western audiences are exposed to K-Pop acts much more heavily than J-Pop acts.

    4. Nobody in J-Pop speaks English or Mandarin. There was a joke that if PSY was Japanese, then he would not have taken off because Japanese PSY would not be able to speak English to talk to his Western fans. But Korean PSY speaks English, rather fluently enough to appear on US talk shows. Almost all K-Pop acts are multilingual with native/near-native speakers in Japanese, English, and Mandarin. Almost all J-Pop acts are Japanese-language only.