Tokyo’s first netlabel parties were filled with nods to internet culture. You’d see customers ordering their drinks via Twitter, robotic hands clapping in time to DJ sets, and people live-streaming themselves from the dancefloor.
It’s not certain whether any of that paraphernalia will appear at megaclub ageHa when it hosts a netlabel-style event on Aug. 10, but just the fact that it’s happening at a club that hosts world-famous DJs on a regular basis is pretty impressive.
“I never expected a party like this could happen,” says Reo Akabane, better known as Parkgolf. The 27-year-old producer is a staple of the netlabel scene, which is named for the online music labels that comprise its center.
“More shows devoted to this scene have popped up over the past year,” he says. “I think there are now a lot of regular fans of this ‘netlabel’ sound.”
Akabane’s career as Parkgolf nicely mirrors a five-year period in which netlabel music has grown in stature, particularly among creators in Japan’s music industry. Born in Sapporo, he started making music in junior high school.
“My friend bought an MPC drum machine and I got a turntable,” he recalls. “We made hip-hop together.”
Inspired by Japanese rap acts such as Kreva and DJ Mitsu the Beats, Akabane bought his own MPC in high school and taught himself how to use it by watching tutorials on YouTube. By spending a lot of time online and talking to people who shared his musical interests, he eventually connected with the gang behind Maltine Records.
“When I heard Maltine and (Osaka label) Day Tripper, I realized that was more in the direction of where I wanted to go,” he says.
Akabane began making music that gravitated more toward charming up-tempo pop melodies with wonky beats that made him a favorite in the domestic online dance music community.
“Since I was in Sapporo, I didn’t personally know anyone from Maltine Records, but I made a lot of connections through Twitter,” he says. The netlabel released his 2013 debut EP, “Cat Walk.” The six tracks on it are synthesizer-heavy with viciously cut-up vocal samples and beats — even his softer stuff flirts with hyperactive elements.
Two years later, Day Tripper released Akabane’s first album, “Par,” which sounds like a more polished version of “Cat Walk.” Akabane points out that until now his work has felt like a GIF animation in that the hook is just repeated over and over, but he has had to learn how to zoom out and create a larger idea for his albums.
Parkgolf’s second album, “Reo,” is out today via the new 2.5D Production label. It features straight dance cuts but stands apart from his previous work thanks to guest spots from singers and rappers such as Hitomitoi, Goku Green and Emi Okamoto.
“I always wanted to make an album featuring vocalists,” Akabane says, adding that he wanted it to be clear these were real vocals and not samples. “As (my peers’) techniques improve, their songs have started to feel more like remixes than original tracks. My challenge was to create something that felt original.” He says his track “Realize” featuring singer Kiano Jones was a good example of what he wanted to do on “Reo.”
When an electronic producer loads an album up with recognizable names, though, it often hints at lofty ambitions — and Akabane admits he wants a broader range of people to hear his music. Lucky for him, the timing may be just about right.
Parkgolf’s “Reo” comes during a summer when many netlabel-born acts are pushing for more attention. Masked trio Pa’s Lam System released its first album, “Whatever,” via Toy’s Factory. And the EDM-approved act banvox is working with a major label for its next release.
The netlabel scene’s most successful crossover, tofubeats, recently soundtracked a Smirnoff Ice commercial.
“It’s really cool how these artists started their careers on the internet and are now getting recognition from new places,” says Seimei Kawai, co-founder of the netlabel Trekkie Trax. “I could imagine ageHa having a show with big names like tofubeats, but not this kind of general netlabel show.”
Akabane says that the opportunities have increased to the point that it made more sense for him to relocate to Tokyo, which he did in February.
“I do about two or three commercial projects a month now,” he says, adding that being able to physically meet people, not just talk online, has resulted in some good networking. “Those physical connections led to more netlabel acts getting on the rosters of Shibuya’s nightclubs.”
Of course, as the work of these netlabel acts is more in demand, Akabane says other issues have begun to pop up.
“I hope people continue to release what they like, rather than what they think other people will like,” he says, regarding the pressures of pleasing the masses. “That results in much more interesting music.”
It’s a hard tightrope to walk. The qualities that have made the music interesting are those that have kept it outside mainstream J-pop — but only until recently. Popular acts such as Wednesday Campanella and Mondo Grosso have embraced some netlabel-esque elements in their music, while stars such as Daichi Miura sing over songs made by Day Tripper founder Seiho or Trekkie Trax artist Carpainter.
Producers can parlay their talent into a career, but Akabane thinks there’s a ceiling for producers like himself.
“We aren’t able to go beyond being track makers, but take a look at D.A.N. and yahyel,” he says, referring to electronic-heavy groups whose members often DJ at netlabel-related events. “These guys are starting to play festivals.”
Akabane says he just wants to go “at my own pace and on my own terms,” so he isn’t expecting a netlabel stage at Fuji Rock Festival anytime soon. Who knows, though? After all, this time last year nobody thought ageHa would be hosting a netlabel event either.
“Reo” comes out Aug. 9. Parkgolf plays ageHa on Aug. 10 as part of an event that includes okadada, tofubeats, Sugar’s Campaign and many others. For more information, visit www.ageha.com. Check out Parkgolf’s SoundCloud at https://soundcloud.com/parkgolf.
SoundCloud’s role in Japan
The music-sharing website SoundCloud has played a central role in allowing Japanese musicians to get their work heard overseas.
“As a part of the world’s underground music community, SoundCloud is crucial for us to communicate with others,” says Seimei Kawai of online label Trekkie Trax.
Artists like Kawai were no doubt worried about reports last month that speculated SoundCloud only had enough funds to last 80 more days. However, recently it has been reported that a group of investors was looking to save the service.
“It is more functional than YouTube; I hope it doesn’t disappear,” says Reo Akabane, aka Parkgolf. The previously Sapporo-based producer cites SoundCloud as one of the ways he was able to connect to musicians in other parts of Japan.
SoundCloud has played a big role in allowing many artists to get noticed by a broader fan base. It was founded by Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss almost 10 years ago, and is now based in Berlin.