One of the first stumbling blocks you’ll probably come across starting up a band in Japan is trying to book gigs. You’ll explain to the booking manager about your music, give them a demo CD or a link to a place they can hear you online, they’ll say, “Sure, I love your sound” — and then they’ll tell you the noruma.

Predominantly a feature of the Tokyo music scene rather than its smaller-city equivalents, noruma is one of the most hated things among local musicians. It’s basically a minimum quota of tickets for your performance that must be sold, any shortfall from which must be paid in cash by the band at the end of the night. It will normally amount to anything from 15 to 30 tickets, totalling between ¥20,000 and ¥60,000.

It’s one of the features of the music scene here that comes as the biggest shock to foreign visitors to Japan, and is for obvious reasons a perennial gripe for local bands. Recently, the Tokyo indie Twittersphere has been abuzz with discussion of the subject, mostly along the lines of “Noruma is evil.” But it seems to me that this misses the warped reality of the relationship between bands, venues and audiences in Tokyo.

I very much doubt that anyone in Tokyo, whether among bands or on the organizing and booking side, genuinely likes the noruma system. However, in a city with a vast pool of creative musical talent and not much in the way of a casual gig-going indie fan culture (coupled with the relatively low alcohol consumption of young Japanese compared with their contemporaries in places such as London), it’s an economic inevitability. Tokyo musicians, rather than audience members, are the customers, and live venues are geared up primarily to provide them (sadly in many cases more so than the audience) with a service.

In return for their money, bands get top-of-the-range sound equipment, staff who will bend over backward to meet their sonic requirements and, most importantly, almost unlimited freedom to experiment musically.

As Esuhiro Kashima, who deals with booking at Akihabara Club Goodman and also plays in the experimental postpunk band Bossston Cruizing Mania, says, “The noruma system gives an opportunity for any kind of music, any kind of musician.” Meanwhile, Tsurio Mochizuki from infamous Koenji venue 20000 Volt (now known as Ni-man Den-Atsu), who is also a musician with guitar-noise quartet Groundcover, states bluntly that without noruma, “Live venues would just close.”

This might seem like a good idea, forcing more competition among bands for spaces at the venues, and encouraging higher turnouts. It would, though, compound the advantages that bands with major backing already have over the experimental fringes, so putting enormous pressure on booking managers to bring in more commercial artists. As Kashima says, “The only bands who would get gigs would be major-label bands and young bands being groomed for major success.”

Of course, the end of noruma in Tokyo wouldn’t be a complete catastrophe for experimental and alternative music. One possible solution would be for those bands to simply move to venues in adjoining prefectures such as Kanagawa and Saitama, where cheaper rents mean venues can get by with just a meagre income from tickets and drink sales. Bands could also wean themselves off the high-end sound equipment that Tokyo venues spoil them with, and accustom themselves to playing ramshackle shows at live bars such as Shibuya Echo. More likely, what would happen is that bands would, as many did in the past and some still do now, rent out rehearsal studios to play gigs.

Noruma is not the result of greedy live venues gouging bands — apart from anything else, if venue staff such as Mochizuki and Kashima were that cynical, their own bands would be more successful. Rather, it’s the result of deep-seated economic factors such as Tokyo’s astronomically high rent (a 100-capacity venue in a suburb such as Koenji can perhaps expect to pay up to ¥1 million in monthly rent plus bills, expenses and salaries for five staff) and destructive music-industry practices that go right to the top.

The truth is that noruma is merely a symptom of a much wider issue in Japanese music. It will never go away until indie audiences increase, and that will never happen until independent musicians get the media exposure they deserve, rather than being locked out by cartels of major labels, talent agencies and TV companies.

Without a critical filter to make sense of the overwhelming amount of music in Tokyo (such as a Japanese equivalent of Pitchfork, the NME before it became a tragic shadow of its former self, or BBC 6music), and without critically sharp, knowledgeable local music media around which fans and musicians can gather — without all these things that could make live audiences themselves into a viable source of income for venues — bands will always be their own customers. And venues will be happy to serve them.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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