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Where Japan’s club culture needs to go in 2017

by

Special To The Japan Times

Last month, I was invited to speak at the inaugural Tokyo Dance Music Event — a conference consisting of workshops and talks, loosely modeled on long-running international equivalents like the Amsterdam Dance Event.

On the first morning of the two-day program, I was asked to detail an overview of the club music landscape in Tokyo — something that I first experienced nearly a decade ago, and have been involved with to varying degrees as a journalist, DJ and punter ever since.

In many ways, 2016 was a positive year for club music in Japan.

Club Air sadly shut its doors at the end of 2015, but found its spiritual successor in Contact, which, after an initial teething process following its opening early last year, has quickly positioned itself as one of the city’s leading venues.

Japanese festival Rainbow Disco Club debuted in Amsterdam to great acclaim, while relatively young festivals such as Star Festival and Rural continued to go from strength to strength (even if Labyrinth was a bit of a wash out).

Some of the scene’s most promising artists — Powder, Keita Sano and Yoshinori Hayashi — all received notable press in the international music media, with the first two translating that into successful tours abroad. Meanwhile, veteran techno champion DJ Nobu had arguably his most productive year to date, culminating in him cracking web publication Resident Advisor’s readers’ list of Top 100 DJs for the first time.

Perhaps most excitingly, 2016 saw music streaming services make big in-roads into Japan, with the much-awaited launch of Spotify seeing it join a roster of platforms that includes Line Music, AWA, Google Play and Apple Music. The strength of physical formats — which still contributed to approximately 75 percent of Japan’s music revenue in 2016 according to an IFPI State of the Industry Report — have long contributed to the stronghold that jimusho (talent agencies) hold over the mainstream music industry. Widespread uptake of streaming services could potentially democratize many of the opportunities available to artists.

Despite these highlights, there remains a host of structural and societal barriers that keeps club culture from truly flourishing here.

Japan has played a hugely influential role in the development of electronic music globally, and many international brands come here — either knowingly or unknowingly — assuming that club culture is similarly in good health.

The reality is that clubbing is still a niche activity among young people, and far from being entrenched in youth culture in the same way that it is in many places abroad. Whereas salarymen in the economic bubble of the late 1980s were exposed to the likes of Tony Humphries and Larry Levan just by virtue of hitting up Shibaura Gold to pop bottles, Japanese millennials toying with the idea of “trying out” clubbing must currently justify spending ¥3,000-plus to enter most clubs, at a period when the labor market offers mostly irregular and part-time jobs.

Without an influx of new-generation clubbers (so much for the EDM “boom” being a gateway drug, so to speak), promoters here are stuck recycling tried-and-tested lineups to guarantee filling clubs to capacity. But for every 40-something who pawns their Drexciya records to Disk Union each year, this becomes increasingly difficult — even when you’ve got the likes of Jeff Mills headlining. Meanwhile, young Japanese artists are liable to bypass the domestic scene entirely. Why fight against low pay and hierarchical, sempai-kōhai (senior-junior) attitudes when you’re able to directly connect with international scenes and prosper overseas?

In 2017 we need to see people taking more responsibility toward a long-term vision of success. Whether it’s promoters nurturing (and properly compensating!) young domestic talent, global brands actually committing to a sustainable presence in the clubbing ecosystem (rather than just a quick win) or the media representing club culture accurately (instead of in sporadic bouts of moral panic), there’s a lot of work to be done.

Those already involved as fans can similarly contribute: to those people above who are doing a responsible job, reward them with your time and money. Speak out against those who aren’t, or who flagrantly ignore the tenets of inclusivity and diversity on which club culture is based. Artists can stop fragmenting into micro-scenes and do something unified; the scene is too small to divide even further.

For all of us here who care about the club scene, let’s set ourselves a New Year’s resolution that we can stick to.