While it appears that only the most basic of artistic demands are placed upon the “gaijin tarento” that pop up periodically on Japanese TV screens, it would be a mistake to assume that Japan fetishizes foreigners in the entertainment business.
Mike McKenna, Jake Kozel and DJ Dante (Dan Thorpe) are three foreigners making it in different ways in Japan’s dance music scene, but success has not fallen into their laps.
“Until three months ago my finances were up and down so I had to continue teaching for financial stability, and that was after years of effort,” says McKenna.
He started out DJ-ing jazz in London in the 1980s before moving to Japan in 1995. After arriving here, he immediately started playing with acid jazz outfit United Future Organization, who he knew from parties in the U.K.
“It was very easy for me to get sets. I’d done groundwork before I arrived,” he says. “At that time, there were far fewer people trying to get gigs, which made life a lot easier for me.”
McKenna later decided to start producing house, which led to a desire to DJ the music, but getting live shows in this scene proved more difficult. “It took me around two years of going to clubs every weekend without fail to get my first gig,” he admits.
“I’m confident enough to approach people and had no problem going down the clubs and giving DJs new mixes I’d done. I did at least one a month, but it took me a long time to realize what it was that DJs wanted to hear on the CDs I was making.”
McKenna now gets CDs every week from people wanting to play at his nights and it has become clear to him where he was making mistakes. “If you are trying to get a gig through a mix CD, it’s important to remember is that you are not the star of the show, you need to build for the main DJ with music that’s a little deeper.
“Most new DJs hand out CDs full of peak time music that doesn’t stand out and just leaves them sounding like everyone else. I put tracks on my mixes that I’d produced myself, and kept the music a little deeper, which obviously helped.”
After getting his first gig at the launch of top Japanese DJ Ko Kimura’s “En” party at Air in Tokyo, more gigs started to come Mike’s way, “only because I kept my face known, kept visiting clubs, started to smarten up my image and started using different forms of media to promote myself. If you want to make it in Japan, it takes a lot of perseverance. Being a foreigner is not a passport to success here.”
For DJ Dante, perseverance is certainly an issue. “In the four weeks before the party I run, Push.., I’m usually out of the house most days for more than three hours promoting the event, but in nearly two years, despite it being the most successful house event Shonan (in Kanagawa) has ever seen, I’ve never made a penny.”
When he first moved to Japan in 2004, it took Dante around 6 months to get his first live sets as a DJ. “The first night I played was seriously improvised,” he says.
“A magazine called Shonan Boy had organized a night that started in an okonomiyaki restaurant with techno DJs, moved to a pub without music and then finished in a bar where there was a funk DJ, a drum and bass DJ, and me playing house, but it was great. I could see there was a need for a new event in Shonan.”
At the time, events were generally either trance nights, where being high on drugs was more important than the music and the other people in the place, or violence-riddled hip-hop and reggae events where wearing baggy clothes and attitude were more important than having a good time.
Push.. started nearly 2 years ago and has been held in Fujisawa in Shonan every two months since. Each event gets over 100 people through the door, a mix of both foreigners and Japanese, and has top national DJs playing alongside local residents. “To get to this stage I often had to go to parties in Tokyo to get my face known and sometimes find myself socializing with people I don’t know, rather than my friends, in the name of the party,” says Dante.
“I think that the key to the event’s success, though, is that I’m willing to promote Push.. for the love of it.
“Most people on the scene want to DJ parties but aren’t willing to put in work promoting, or are willing to promote but expect cash at the end of a night.”
For producers though, dance music offers different challenges. “When I make music for artists, if the beat and music are not karaoke-friendly, the record companies are far less interested in releasing it, as they can’t get big commissions from the royalties,” says producer Jake Kozel.
“Also, record companies are less interested in taking risks with new music. They would rather stick with something that’s worked in the past. But this hampers creativity.”
Kozel arrived in Japan at the tail-end of 2002, having already spent many years in the United States producing music, including the first house release for Acute Recordings, the “Nacca EP.” In Japan, however, his career is just beginning to take off, with his latest single, “Showtime” by Lisa, likely to top the charts.
When he first arrived in Japan, Kozel spent his time learning the language, before getting a job teaching English. He befriended another teacher at work who had a contact in the record industry.
“I had been producing hip hop while I was working and a colleague offered to introduce me to someone working for a hip-hop record label in Yokohama. I took down my music, and they decided to take me on as a freelance producer. My friend Togo and I then decided to set up a production team called Star Wax.
“While I was working for this label, I met a manager from Avex Entertainment and things took off from there.”
Getting the freelance contract for Avex, however, did not mean that Kozel could relax. “I’m out of the house at least twice a week in clubs, where just showing my face helps my career, helps me to get contacts, bookings and get my records played.
“The curiosity I attract on the scene being a foreigner can help, but once it wears off it is both a gift and a curse.”
Money is also an issue. “I still teach two days a week to make sure that I have a regular income. The money from the record deals is good, but it comes sporadically,” he says.
“But the Lisa single looks as if its going to be big, it’s played on the radio and MTV and there is a karaoke version, which means my music will be remembered.
“But if I want my reputation to continue to grow, I’m going to have to keep showing my face at clubs and keep making quality music. Hopefully though, I’ll be able to make a living from solely from music in the future.”
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