It’s no secret that the Japanese music industry has a hollowing-out problem; you are either a pop act on a major label with high levels of exposure or an obscure underground act for whom not losing money on a show is a major success. Guitarist Nobukata Kawai of hardcore band Envy knows the latter reality well.
“It’s a shame there’s no middle ground, because bands quit,” he tells The Japan Times. “They’re asked when they’re going to be on TV and if they don’t know they’re encouraged to give up. My friends and I aren’t reaching for TV.”
Unlike in other countries, many Japanese cities lack the infrastructure for independent touring musicians to pull in the size of audience that is needed to guarantee a living wage.
“There’s no difference between a geinōjin (celebrity) and a musician in mainstream Japan. Explaining it to people is a real hassle,” adds Takaakira “Taka” Goto, guitarist from the instrumental rock band Mono. “If you’re on TV, you’re successful. If you’re not, you’re a failure.”
Kawai and Goto, along with vocalist and guitarist Robin Aoki of rock band Downy, are the curators behind the new After Hours festival, which is hoping to create that much-needed middle ground for artists in Japan.
“Japan has visual-kei bands and idol groups on TV, and our music is treated like it’s a subculture. But on a global scale, those genres are considered subcultures,” Goto says. “Overseas, we are the ones seen as artists who operate in a mainstream rock format. We know we’re not a group of subculture acts; we’re artists. We want to create a place where art can thrive in Japan.”
After Hours takes place April 9 across five venues in Tokyo’s busy Shibuya Ward. Its organizers are teaming up with the annual Synchronicity festival, which takes place a day earlier. That festival was launched by Jun Aso in 2005 in an attempt to bring together art and Shibuya’s thriving club and live-house scenes. It is also known for its emphasis on using green energy, and was one of the first eco-friendly events of its kind in Tokyo.
While the Synchronicity lineup is handled by Aso and his team, After Hours is curated by Mono, Envy and Downy. It features a mix of formidable acts who are rarely seen on the festival circuit, such as Crypt City, DJ Krush, Art-School, Boris, Endon and World’s End Girlfriend, all of which are either known for their uncompromising vision or strong foothold overseas.
There’s no shortage of music festivals that cater to domestic music fans in Japan, but excessive corporate sponsorship can make them feel like trade shows rather than concerts. Another criticism is that there’s no variety in the band lineups; many festivals recycle the same acts coming from the same scenes, labels and management companies. In contrast, After Hours focuses on the musicians themselves, much like Britain’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, where the headline act will curate the rest of the event’s lineup.
“There are no festivals like All Tomorrow’s Parties in Japan,” Goto says. “In Japan, a company will come in, strip things away and use it as entertainment. And then they’ll toss it aside. We want to protest against those things that ruin art like that. We thought that it wouldn’t happen if we just waited for it, so we decided to do it ourselves.”
A fierce independence unites the three curating bands. Downy, who were originally active from 2000 to 2004, continue to have a strong following among indie rock fans. Frontman Aoki met Goto in 2000, when their respective bands were still playing to small crowds at live houses in Tokyo.
“Things are very different from when we were around the first time,” Aoki says. “They say CDs don’t sell anymore and music is in a depression, but that just means that only those who are really devoted to it will make it out to the shows. Those people are trying to share their time with us and I think a lot of people like that are going to show up at this festival.”
Mono and Envy, who are known for their sweeping, epic sounds and intense live performances, have both had more success internationally than in their home country, touring abroad for months on end each year for the past two decades. With similar backgrounds and even overlapping fan bases, the two bands have had an intense rivalry over the years. However, they gradually developed a sense of camaraderie and now they frequently play with each other at gigs across the country.
With like-minded thoughts on music, the three men naturally gravitated toward each other. One night over drinks, the initial talks for the After Hours festival began when Kawai half-drunkenly suggested to Goto and Aoki that they do a festival together.
“I was embarrassed to say anything, but about two years ago, I started to think that maybe we could all come together, because of all the things we’ve done,” Kawai says. “And everyone said OK. I think way back in the day they’d have all refused.”
Their discussions eventually manifested as Synchronicity ’16 -After Hours-, which took place last April. It was a huge success and organizers had to restrict admission to several of the stages throughout the day. This year, they’ve added a second day specifically to host After Hours, and thus a proper festival has finally taken shape.
“People think there’s no audience for this type of festival, with these kinds of bands. They don’t see it as a viable business. But we actually did it, and it will probably work again this time,” Aoki says. “The fact that people think art can’t thrive and get an audience like this in Japan is insulting. Our own bands don’t even have to play in the future; the fact that a format like this can exist is important, and that people actually care about it.”
In a city that caters to almost every musical taste, After Hours may become the event for fans of guitar rock, drone metal, noise, post-punk and hardcore. More importantly, it wants to be an haven for people turned off by the corporate vibe that dominates much of the rest of the domestic rock scene.
“We’re just creating something that should have been there in the first place,” Kawai says. “Somewhere that people like us, who love music and have listened to it so much, can call home.”
After Hours takes place April 9. For more details, visit www.afterhours.live.
Who’s playing where?
O-East: Mono, Downy, Tricot, DJ Krush and Toe
O-East (2nd Stage): Klan Aileen, Ray Yamada, Moroha and Uhnellys
Duo Music Exchange: People In The Box, World’s End Girlfriend, Tha Blue Herb, Art-School, The Novembers, Envy and Eastern Youth
O-West: Roth Bart Baron, Jizue, Wang Wen, Mouse On The Keys, Lostage, Lite and Boris
O-Nest: Limited Express (Has Gone?), Heaven In Her Arms, Storm Of Void, Killie, Tomy Wealth, Cohol, Endon and Crypt City