Music | MUSIC NOMAD

Making music in no-man's land

by Paul Fisher

Through my work in the music industry, I have secured record deals with local labels for foreign musicians and have organized releases and tours overseas. As a columnist and DJ, I’ve been sent CDs from countless bands seeking promotion. I know there is no easy route to success in the business. And for foreign musicians based in Japan, it’s that much harder.

The bulk of the market is made up of domestic acts, while the criteria that foreign acts are usually judged upon is their standing in their own countries. Based on the accounts of the musicians I spoke with, foreigners are placed in a precarious no-man’s land.

Some of the latest releases by foreign bands in Japan: “Miniatures 2” by Morgan Fisher (top), “Bang!” by Jeff Nicholson (middle) and Ryukyu Underground’s self-titled album

Being in a foreign band is a double-edged sword, says Michael Rayner of Minx.

“In a sense, it’s helped us get more attention in the first place than we would have otherwise. But practically, it often gets in the way. Live houses sometimes aren’t keen on booking us, and Japanese magazines don’t recognize us as being ‘domestic.’ “

But the bigger problem, he says, is that the band’s style of mainly British-influenced pop and rock makes it a misfit among its contemporaries.

“The music industry here is based on categories, and we don’t fit into any of them.”

Rayner says it was a matter of chance that the band found a label to put out its latest CD, “Marvelous Minx,” after four years together.

Chance is a recurring theme for all, whether they’re full-time musicians who ended up living here or relative newcomers whose musical aspirations developed after arriving in the country.

Canadian Jeff Nicholson believes simply being a foreign musician was key to him getting a distribution deal for “Bang!,” his new self-financed CD of Neil Young/Bob Dylan-inspired guitar-driven rock.

“When I got the distribution deal for the CD it was done over the phone. [The distribution company representative] said, ‘We’ve never had a foreign artist before but we’ll give it a shot.’ So, I think I’ve met with some people ‘higher up’ because I’m a foreigner.”

Others are even more up-beat about their chances as a foreign musician.

“You can be loved by Japanese audiences regardless of whether you’re good or not if you’re a foreigner,” says Irish guitarist Kevin Breen. His former band Wild Beat experienced a degree of local success in Osaka in the early ’90s, and Breen says a CD of its recent incarnation has been very well received on the local circuit in Kobe, home to one of its musicians.

The band’s new name, Virtually Anywhere, alludes to the band’s formation despite the geographical distance among its members. “Thanks to new technology,” explains Breen, “we’re reunited and back with a vengeance.” Breen’s plan is to record another CD and “market it through the proper channels,” but as yet they have no record deal.

But securing a label isn’t everything: Aside from the difficulties of marketing a Japan-based foreign artist, Japanese record companies have little experience at marketing their artists overseas.

Part of the reason longtime Tokyo resident Morgan Fisher was able to put together his latest project, “Miniatures 2,” a remarkable collection of one-minute tunes performed by artists from around the world, is that he has maintained ties with his musician friends worldwide and the album has been released by one of his former record companies in the U.K. as well as Japan. (Fisher played keyboards with a number of groups in his native U.K., including the Love Affair and Mott the Hoople, before moving to Japan 16 years ago.)

For some musicians, a totally independent route is the most viable. This is what Australian vocalist Donna Burke and British guitarist Bill Benfield did on their first duo recording “Lost & Found,” which is mostly renditions of Celtic traditional tunes and other well-known songs.

“We didn’t want a record company,” says Burke, a Tokyo resident, “so we made our own last year and have someone working for us two days a week on promotion and publicity. It’s been very rewarding doing it ourselves.”

As an independent, Burke is free to explore opportunities overseas, but might experience the same difficulties in finding a niche beyond the borders of Japan as those artists who did decide to sign with a major Japanese record company.

Former Salif Keita guitarist Malian Mamadou Doumbia provides one example. I was instrumental in signing him to JVC in Japan, and his two albums were also released by JVC in Europe and America. Doumbia, with his band of Japanese musicians, Mandinka, toured in Europe to support those albums. But, for an international career, the distance proved ultimately fatal, as Doumbia, despite his obvious talent, found himself in direct competition with many other talented Paris-based African musicians.

Back in Japan, the novelty factor of having a “name” African musician living in Tokyo gradually waned. In an attempt to raise Doumbia’s profile, I introduced him to an agent who unfortunately got him a spot on TBS’s “Koko ga Hen Da yo, Nihonjin.” He was coaxed into recording the show’s ending theme, as banal musically and lyrically as the worst excesses of J-Pop. It was a plan that backfired, at least musically.

Things might work out differently for Karen Nunis Blackstone, whose release “Give Me Sanity” hints at her Malaysian roots. The Akita resident has recently signed with a major distributor for her CD in Southeast Asia and with an independent in America.

“In some ways Japan is far away from everywhere else and a bit insulated,” she says. “At the same time, I’ve played with some really great musicians from all over the world here, including Brazilians, Americans and Australians.”

Most of the foreign artists I talked with have collaborated with Japanese musicians, and many tell of being influenced in some way by Japan. This is particularly true for Ryukyu Underground, which comprises Okinawan residents Keith Gordon (from the U.K.) and Jon Taylor (from the U.S.).

To create their cutting-edge club music, they sample local traditional songs and mix in modern rhythms, such as drum ‘n’ bass, hip-hop and dub, and elements from ambient music and electronica. They have sold their home-made CDs directly to some stores in Okinawa, and I am currently negotiating a deal for a release of this CD in Japan and overseas, where perhaps most of their potential lies, as Okinawan music is somewhat in vogue.

For now, in Japan, they remain among the many who still need a day job.

Morgan Fisher, Christopher Hardy, who plays a variety of world percussion instruments in the trio Tatopani, and innovative percussionist and vocalist Samm Bennett — a professional before arriving in Japan — are among the relatively few making a living exclusively from music and so may have a better understanding of what it takes.

According to Bennett — who currently plays in an electronica unit, SKIST, with his wife, Haruna Ito — that should simply be talent, as much here as anywhere.

“There was a time, I’d say, that simply being a foreigner here held some sort of cachet, and might have helped in getting more people to come to one’s gigs or whatever,” says Bennett, “but those days are over as far as I can see. I think people are more sophisticated now .”