Music

Remaking the EDM experience for Japan

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Glitter showered the crowd at August’s all-night Sonicmania event as electronic artist Zedd cued up his hit song, “Stay the Night.” The crowd bobbed along at first, but as the track built and let loose in a whirlwind of bass and synthesizer the audience followed suit with fists pumping in the air and frantic jumping. Young, neon-clad and a bit boozy, this is Japan’s EDM generation.

Thousands crammed together to see Zedd, one of the most well-known names representing a genre that has been buzzed about globally for the past several years. EDM stands for “electronic dance music,” an umbrella term covering recent styles of dance music that lean toward the aggressive.

And it’s profitable — prominent DJs such as Canada’s Deadmau5 and Sweden’s Avicii earn more than $20 million a year according to Forbes magazine, while a report compiled by the Association for Electronic Music this May claimed the EDM industry is worth $6.2 billion.

Despite long being pushed by music labels here, this year saw the first real effort to establish EDM’s communal-center (and cash cow) in Japan — the music festival. Creativeman Productions held an EDM-centric event, Electrox, in January, and this weekend one of the biggest names in the dance-festival circuit today, Ultra Music, will hold Ultra Japan in Tokyo’s Odaiba district — and festival organizers say all 42,000 tickets have sold out. More events like it are in the works . . . even if the local scene is still in its infancy.

The sonic elements of EDM have been seeping into Japanese pop music for a while, though. Defining qualities such as passages of gut-punching bass coming after the build up (often called the “drop”) have appeared in songs by acts ranging from dance duo m-flo to idol act Morning Musume. Singer Kumi Koda used the style to climb to the top of the Oricon singles chart for the first time this decade with 2012’s “Go To the Top,” Skrillex-style freakouts have popped up in Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s tunes, and Namie Amuro worked with Zedd last year.

Japanese labels started pushing the EDM brand in 2013 — Universal Music Japan launched a website devoted to the style and a compilation titled “EDM Anthem” (with two more volumes released afterward). Compilations also came out via Warner Brothers Japan (“What’s EDM?”) and Avex (“Global Mix EDM Best Hits”), among others. Soon, established artists were getting in on the act, too, particularly this year — m-flo released the remix collection “EDM-flo,” long-running house producer Daishi Dance put together the “EDM Land” mix and celebrated 1990s producer Tetsuya Komuro made a new album called “EDM Tokyo.” Corners devoted entirely to the music also started popping up in music stores such as Tower Records.

None of these compilations, though, have made much of a dent in terms of sales. EDM-leaning albums from bigger names fared slightly better — Daishi Dance’s mix snuck onto the periphery of the Oricon album chart — but the numbers themselves resembled those of most Japanese CD sales figures in 2014 — unimpressive. Only new releases from the biggest names in EDM today — Skrillex, Avicii — have managed to move a decent amount of physical and digital copies.

Naoki Shimizu, founder and CEO of Creativeman, saw an opening. He had visited some of the biggest EDM festivals in the world, and wanted to start highlighting DJs from this scene in Japan.

“There were no EDM festivals in Japan, so I started booking EDM acts at our events in 2013,” he says.

Around the same time, Shimizu says he was in discussions with Mark Gillespie, the manager for Deadmau5 and producer Calvin Harris, to start an EDM festival in Japan. Due to scheduling issues, though, Shimizu decided to just book his own festival, which ended up being called Electrox and was held on Jan. 4 at Makuhari Messe, attracting a little over 10,000 punters.

“Right now, EDM has a big problem,” Shimizu says. “There are a lot of drugs and people die at these American and European festivals. We want to move the EDM festival into a better direction — a Japanese-style EDM festival, not like in Miami or that sort of style.”

Akinori Yoshida runs EDM Banana, one of the few Japanese blogs devoted to the music style, and he thinks this is the direction the scene needs to move in.

“The key in Japan is going from club-music culture to festival culture,” he says.

And that’s how 2014 has played out — first with Electrox, then the EDM-centric stage at Sonicmania and this weekend at Ultra, which brings a global name-brand to Japan. Creativeman’s next move was supposed to be a show by Avicii on Oct. 11 at Fuji-Q Highland amusement park in Yamanashi Prefecture, but the DJ canceled the rest of his shows for this year due to health reasons (this isn’t the first time that’s happened to Creativeman, Avicii also backed out of the 2013 Springroove festival due to illness).

“We had already sold 20,000 tickets before he canceled,” Shimizu says. “We want to try to schedule something with him in the spring, or at Summer Sonic.”

The one connecting factor between Creativeman’s efforts and Ultra’s moves into Japan are that they still center around non-Japanese acts — the local scene is still small.

“We want to develop more Japanese DJs,” Shimizu says, noting that Creativeman is managing an artist named Yamato. “DJs are easier to develop worldwide, there’s no language barrier . . . take Daft Punk for example, they are French but they don’t speak, they wear helmets. Nobody cares what’s inside there.”

Yoshida agrees that “there are still very few creators in Japan.” A few have popped up, ranging from major-label artists such as the Daft Punk-aping CTS to more indie-level acts such as HyperJuice — or the Yoshida-approved Erdetune. For the most part, though, the domestic talent appearing at the EDM festivals so far are known more for different styles of dance music — examples include kz (vocaloid), Daishi Dance (house) and Yasutaka Nakata (pop). Club events exist, but it’s difficult to tell how well those actually do when they aren’t hosting a bigger name — a recent trip to the frequent EDM Sunday event at Shibuya’s Womb featured less than 50 people milling about while a remix of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” played.

The sonic elements of EDM, however, remain trendy in J-pop, in particular with idol groups such as Fairies and Up Up Girls.

“The future of EDM isn’t just DJs, but more idols and other sorts of artists,” Shimizu says. “It’s a big category.”

Like many pop trends, the frantic bass workouts will probably vanish from Japanese pop eventually, but Shimizu and other people in the scene want to develop a less fickle community. Beyond Ultra and Electrox, he says Creativeman is currently working on organizing another festival in conjunction with one of the big-name events outside Japan (“We are in negotiations now,” is all Shimizu will say). The goal is to develop a strong fanbase and then move forward.

“Look at K-pop. It was huge five years ago, but now everybody says this movement is going downhill,” Shimizu says. “It is, but lots of those artists can still fill arenas and stadiums. Same with EDM — it is going to top off, but big names will still have status and be able to play big shows.”

Ultra Japan takes place Sept. 27 and 28 at Tokyo Odaiba Ultra Park in Koto-ku, Tokyo (11 a.m. start; 0570-550-799). For more information, visit www.ultrajapan.jp.