Tokyo’s independent live music scene has always been somewhat dysfunctional.

Complaints from performers about the prevalence of the ubiquitous pay-to-play ticket quota system — in which bands need to guarantee a minimum number of customers — have gone way past outrage and into the realm of grumbling cliche.

Complaints from audiences about the steep prices they need to pay in order to watch a drab parade of ill-motivated musicians in what is little more than a jumped-up rehearsal have generally given way to the silence of empty halls as audiences vote with their feet and stay home.

The venues themselves struggle with a web of bylaws that invariably prioritize fussy neighbors over their business, and popular music culture shuts out most independent music and makes promoting it extremely difficult (for both venues and bands themselves). And the cycle continues.

One venue looking to break this cycle is Three, located in Tokyo’s indie music hub of Shimokitazawa.

“The quota system at live houses has created a disconnect between what artists need and the results they get,” explains Three’s booking manager Yu Suganami. “It has led to a situation where both venues and artists lose passion and motivation.”

As a result, starting from January this year, Three has abolished the quotas for its own bookings and introduced a raft of new policies designed to foster a more supportive environment, not just for local musicians but also for touring acts from abroad, organizers and audiences.

One of these changes has been reducing the cost for outside organizers to use Three on weekdays.

“I strongly believe in Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat’s idea that new ideas, new approaches aren’t something that happen in front of audiences of 2,000 people: they’re something that only maybe 20 or 25 people will witness,” Suganami says. “I’ve seen so much music and so many parties die out, because doing music on weekdays in Tokyo is risky. We’re trying to minimize that risk because we want people who can do challenging events on weekday nights.”

Suganami sees the responsibility of places like Three as providing a clear alternative to the bands that get booked on TV variety shows and make it to the charts. To this end, he and his team are pushing both live-performance and DJ events across a range of genres, from house, hip-hop and techno to industrial, hardcore and noise.

Part of maintaining a constant flow of new ideas into the local music scene means being open to visiting artists from farther afield, but for overseas acts and those who book them, the challenges and risks are particularly high.

“Touring is so expensive, and organizers have to book venues, do PR support, arrange hotels and travel, make merchandise and cover tour expenses,” Suganami says. “Organizers are always under a lot of pressure. They can only do it because of their love for the artists — without that, it just wouldn’t happen.”

With that in mind, Three is trying to take more risks and cooperate more with overseas acts, ensuring that (within certain limitations) touring acts can expect to at least get paid some amount.

Expanding on MacKaye’s thoughts, however, it’s clear that the economics of running a bar or club fundamentally discourages the innovation Suganami wants to foster. His need to encourage challenging music must be balanced against the simple fact that, unlike the squats, house parties and DIY collectives that fostered elements of the punk scene overseas, Three is still a business and needs a steady stream of revenue to keep going.

Even an audience like MacKaye’s hypothetical 20 to 25 people is far from guaranteed on the Tokyo live circuit, but in the end, growing the audience is going to be crucial to Three’s success.

By fostering a community of artists and organizers and by luring people in with free parties every Friday night, Suganami hopes to build a regular crowd that will help support the venue, allowing it to continue supporting them in return.

“We want to get a unique Three audience,” Suganami says. “Three has to become a place people can just drop by and know they’ll be able to hear good music at any time.”

Other venues in Tokyo are watching carefully to see what happens with Three. If its gamble pays off, it could be the start of a huge shift in the city’s music culture.

For more information, visit Three at www.toos.co.jp/3.

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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