At Liquidroom last Friday night, clubbers attending the Red Bull Music Academy Tokyo closing party formed an orderly mob outside the venue as they waited for upward of half an hour to get inside. Only on reaching the head of the queue did it become clear that the bottleneck wasn’t being caused by a surfeit of paying customers but by people on the guest list, a sprawling document that looked only slightly shorter than the “Bhagavad Gita.”
It was a familiar scene during RBMA Tokyo’s month of creative hothousing, hobnobbing and corporate profligacy. Much of the academy’s most important work took place behind closed doors, where this year’s 59 participants collaborated with each other in recording studios, shared meals in a lounge festooned with contemporary Japanese art, and soaked up lectures by artists ranging from Richie Hawtin to Haruomi Hosono. But for the public, it was judged on the merits of the gigs, parties and other events that took place during its run.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: There was an obscene amount of money sloshing around here. RBMA Tokyo scrawled its signature over some of the capital’s most prominent ad space, blanketing Roppongi Station and bumping the latest Johnny’s idols off the billboards at Shibuya Crossing. Academy participants and overseas journalists were put up in the luxe Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel, while visiting musicians were lavishly compensated; one admitted that he was being paid more for his RBMA show (audience: about 50) than he’d earned on the whole of his last tour. And just in case all this wasn’t enough to leave every other concert and club promoter in Tokyo permanently disheartened, Red Bull subsidized the ticket prices, too.
The largesse certainly helped open a few doors. DJ Krush got to perform with traditional Japanese musicians at the hallowed Gallery of Horyuji Treasures in Ueno. A bunch of RBMA participants were able to play their own, wickedly enjoyable, “secret warehouse” rave in a basement next door to Kanda Police Station and not have it immediately shut down by the cops. Parties where one headline DJ would normally have sufficed were treated to two, or three.
At one of the most successful events, a cast of musicians including electronica producers Oneohtrix Point Never and Fatima Al Qadiri and former Nintendo staffer Hip Tanaka assembled at Shibuya’s Womb to remix and reinterpret Japanese video-game soundtracks. A spin-off of the Red Bull-commissioned “Diggin’ in the Carts” documentary series, it was well conceived and lovingly realized; they even had a “loading screen” between each set, in the style of an 8-bit NES game. All this cost a trifling ¥1,000 per head: fantasy prices.
Had everything been that good, it would have been hard to tolerate the dark mutterings that greet any perceived corporate hijacking of underground music culture. Given that they were working with a vast budget and scant regard for commercial constraints, RBMA Tokyo’s organizers could theoretically have thrown the most audacious bashes of the year (which is pretty much what happened when the event hit New York in 2013). Yet there were few programming choices that felt genuinely ballsy.
Ryoji Ikeda’s engrossing “test pattern [ne_SDgr6]” installation at Omotesando’s Spiral Hall hit the jackpot (and commanded appropriately jaw-dropping wait times over the weekend). So too did RBMA’s multi-room takeover at the Karaoke Kan complex in Shinjuku, which showcased a host of niche homegrown music scenes — too bad that you could only watch it live-streamed online. Other gigs were rather less essential. Collaborations with the EMAF Tokyo festival and the monthly Back to Chill party fell flat; at the aforementioned DJ Krush show, the setting was far more memorable than the music.
It was striking, too, that all the publicity hadn’t done more to lure the masses. At times, it felt like Red Bull had blown an enormous sum on preaching to the converted. Even with cheap tickets and blanket advertising, only a handful of events sold out well in advance, and — to a regular gig-goer — the audiences at each looked awfully familiar. While there were definitely new faces in the crowd, they tended to be non-Japanese. For whatever reason, a lot of locals just didn’t seem all that interested — although perhaps that says more about them than the energy-drink maker that spent the past month trying to keep Tokyo titillated.