AUSTIN, TEXAS - The purpose of the South By Southwest (SXSW) Music Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas, is for musicians to woo new fans and industry insiders. The five-day festival, though, hasn’t been about bands for a while — it’s about brands.
Companies jockey for consumer attention via concerts featuring hyped-up acts with plenty of advertising opportunities. Sapporo Beer sponsored a party, Converse Sneakers hosted a Vitamin-Water-soaked fort and Doritos brought back the stage shaped like a snack-chip vending machine it debuted last year.
Branding isn’t just for chips and sneakers anymore, though, it’s about countries as well. This year’s SXSW came just one week after the Japanese government announced plans to allocate ¥50 billion toward a “Cool Japan” fund, meant to promote Japanese soft power abroad. It also came at a time when South Korea is equally focused on spreading its culture overseas. Performers from both countries played SXSW, but were marketed in drastically different ways. Japanese artists, for the most part, followed the same path they always have when playing overseas. Korean acts, though, were more in-tune with the festival’s hype-centric model. The results showed that Japanese acts still sound great and can draw a crowd, but in terms of spreading culture, the Koreans are doing a better job.
A few Japanese groups tried to exist outside of this soft-power race. The highest-profile Japanese artist in Austin was Shugo Tokumaru, who visited SXSW for the first time and played five shows of whimsical bedroom pop. Tokumaru, along with two of the performers from his regularly six-person band, appeared at gigs across the city in venues ranging from a convention center meeting room to more conventional clubs. His appearance at American label Polyvinyl’s showcase at the cozy Red Eyed Fly was a highlight. He wowed the crowd with humor (his band’s use of a playroom’s worth of toys helped here) and technical prowess, the two coming together on his playful, ukulele-driven cover of The Buggles “Video Killed The Radio Star.”
Instrumental outfit Lite similarly wowed listeners with tight playing, particularly at a packed gig at comedy-club-turned-livehouse-for-the-week Esther’s Follies on Thursday night. Tokyo’s indie-rock scene was also represented by two acts. The Mornings brought their brand of cacophony to Headhunter’s Patio, a small bar overlooked by several gaudy tikis. Despite the cramped space, the noisy quartet found room to thrash about and encouraged the small crowd to mosh along. Teen Runnings played a handful of shows throughout the week, their feedback-washed surf rock sounding especially appropriate during the warm weather.
Lite, The Mornings and Teen Runnings also appeared at the Japan Preview Show, a daytime party held at outdoor venue The Grackle on Thursday afternoon. Joining them were all of the groups who played the Japan Nite showcase the following night, but they played shortened sets to a full house. Even though some of the bands seemed a bit tired, the crowd was into it — at the conclusion of Teen Running’s set, someone threw what appeared to be underwear at lead singer Shota Kaneko.
Japan Nite was held Friday at downtown club Elysium. Since 1996, Japan Nite has been the highest-profile East Asian show at SXSW. It serves as a hub where Japanese acts of all sorts can play and stand out. “Not much has changed,” said Japan Nite crew chief Yoshiko Goto. Japan Nite, true to its unflinching nature, captures the old-school spirit of musical discovery at SXSW. It also promotes diversity among Japanese acts — conventional rock bands like Sapporo’s Jake Stone Garage (who did a faster-tempo cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) were joined by the horn-centric jazz of Chihiro Yamazaki + Route 14 Band and the straight-up bluegrass of Kansai’s Pirates Canoe.
“At first I was thinking ‘What was that!’ ” said audience member Rei Ryokazaki, regarding Pirate’s Canoe. “But it was good.” He, like many others who have been to Japan Nite multiple times (The Japan Times spoke to Rei at last year’s event as well), are more interested in Japan in general and don’t know the acts. They are there to learn, and the organizers in turn offer a diverse lineup that, while not reflecting what’s actually popular in Japanese culture, are interesting.
The colorfully dressed, all-woman rock outfit Josy charmed with an energetic set, while openers Kao=S were the most “Japanese” band of the night, playing shamisen and several other traditional Japanese instruments. Far less Japanese — but equally beloved by the audience — were Tokyo’s Charan-po-rantan, a theatrical quartet featuring an accordion player and a Parisian vibe. Their lead singer, clutching a stuffed pig toy the whole set, bounced around the stage and eventually coaxed the crowd into a strong response.
As a chance for people to learn about new bands, Japan Nite remains one of the best showcases at SXSW, and double as a great place to partake in Japanese culture (the Texas Sake Company provided the titular drink, while Kao=S sold a manga starring themselves). Yet it’s out of step with the festival as a whole — the crowd skews older and the whole event lacks the buzz that is the lifeblood of SXSW. People come to see (or be seen seeing) hot young bands or established acts. Some of the longest lines at SXSW 2013 were for Prince, Snoop Dogg and Justin Timberlake — artists everyone already knows.
Japan Nite wasn’t the only East Asian showcase this year. For the first time, an all-Korean event was officially held on March 12, also at Elysium. For the most part, it followed the same formula as its Japanese counterpart — punters watched a diverse mix of Korean bands not known outside of their home country. But the event, supported by government-funded outfit the Korea Creative Content Agency, snagged popular K-pop unit f(x) to headline, a move that generated buzz in the media and online world, as it was the first time a K-pop band would play SXSW — or Texas. Although K-Pop Night Out and Japan Nite both reached capacity, the latter lacked an ever-present line and younger clientele. The next day, f(x) even appeared on the cover of a special SXSW magazine.
K-Pop Night Out wasn’t selling a handful of bands either, but rather Korean music as a whole. Between sets, video screens played Korean music videos while the speakers played Korean music. It was these details missing from Japan Nite — between bands, the PA blared American songs like Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger.” One Japanese company at SXSW, though, did well for themselves. Crypton Future Media, makers of Vocaloid and the character Hatsune Miku, promoted an English version of the singing-synthesizer software due out this summer via advertising cards spread around Austin’s downtown. Still, Crypton wasn’t playing up the Japaneseness of its product and seemed somewhat distant from it. K-Pop Night Out — an event featuring only one act one could describe as “pop” — reveled in being Korean.
As actual concerts, Japan Nite and K-Pop Night Out were about even. f(x) brought name-recognition and dedicated fans — some of the loudest at SXSW — but their presence also required stronger security, which cut into an opportunity for fans to interact with the performers. That community feel is one of Japan Nite’s strongest aspects. Japan Nite also had a stronger lineup overall, boasting more variety and flair. Yet in terms of selling a country — and SXSW is all about selling something — Korea is steps ahead. Perhaps the organizers at Japan Nite could do with some of that ¥50 billion the government is offering — someone get Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the phone.