The wonderful and invaluable music website Tokyo Gig Guide lists just under 700 performance venues in Tokyo, but the scene wasn’t always so flush with space.
If you wanted to play rock music in Tokyo back in 1982, you basically had two places you could do it: Loft in Shinjuku or La Mama in Shibuya. However, within a few short years, there were dozens — and soon hundreds — of venues, mostly clustered around the western fringes of the city.
What drove this explosion in live music was the “band boom” of the mid-1980s. It was famous for producing classic major label rock acts such as Boøwy, Jun Sky Walker(s) and The Blue Hearts, but it was supported by a wide-ranging enthusiasm for music from thousands of energetic, ambitious young kids.
Punk in Japan largely grew out of a ’70s underground rock scene that found itself reinvigorated under the influence of CBGBs in New York — put simply, you marked yourself as an utter social reject and irredeemable freak if you entered that world. However, the band boom, while undoubtedly influenced by punk, was more open, more acceptable and, frankly, more bourgeois.
This huge burst of energy in rock helped lock the presence of indie and DIY labels (something punk had started) into the music scene. However, the increase in bands and venues also went hand-in-hand with the almost complete disappearance of financial guarantees for musicians and the growing dominance of pay-to-play as the standard format for live performance.
To zoom out a bit and look at the broader picture, almost the whole structure of the contemporary Japanese indie music scene — both good and bad — can be traced back to the seismic changes wrought by the band boom of the ’80s.
On the one hand, there has been a massive liberalizing of the music infrastructure, from the extraordinary proliferation of well-equipped live-music venues and rehearsal studios across Tokyo (which only gradually spread to other cities) to a growth in record labels and cheap, short-run CD presses. Everything a band needs to “do it themselves” is available to anyone — as long as they are prepared to pay for it.
The flipside of this liberalization, though, is that the band boom also represented a vast and comprehensive gentrification of the underground rock landscape, transforming it almost overnight from a dissolute occupation into a semi-respectable hobby. It may be a coincidence that this ballooning in the numbers of bands and venues coincided with the inflation of the country’s economic bubble — and the unprecedented shower of cash that came with it — but it is at the very least a serendipitous piece of symbolism.
For musicians encountering the present-day Tokyo music scene for the first time, the atmosphere often seems like what one British music fan described to me as a grasping and unwelcoming “wall of no.” However, the Tokyo indie world’s intertwined threads of social opening-up and financial shutting-out are often opposed to each other, even as they share common roots in the ’80s band boom. Unravelling them is not as easy a task as many doubtless wish.
At the same time, that combination of high-quality infrastructure and cold financial bottom lines provides the tools and the impetus for musicians to get together into communities that work together to circumvent the financial restraints, pooling audiences and setting up their own shows and scenes — often with outrageously creative results, like the indie artisanry of the Twee Grrrls Club collective or the raucous punk-rock parties held at Koenji Studio Dom.
Tokyo’s live-music scene can be an unwelcoming place at first, but in a way its many frustrations come entangled with the weapons needed to fight them.