The coastal city of Izumo, Shimane Prefecture, boasts no shortage of natural beauty and picturesque shrines, but Masayuki Funo, 28, says the region lacks the vibrant youth culture found in larger metropolitan areas. So, like others in his situation, he went online.
“I enjoyed experimental, electronic and dance music from all around the world thanks to the internet,” Funo says, adding that it was the genre of vaporwave that helped him escape country life, a style of electronic music built around slowed-down samples of older songs. “It pulls from music that was once seen as worthless, like 1980s pop tunes and New Age. It tickled my curiosity.”
This led Funo, better known by his online alias, “Sute_aca” (“Throwaway account”), to found Local Visions in 2018, a web label that has grown from aspiring vaporwave cassette imprint to digital launching pad for some of the most exciting new music coming out of Japan. The label has managed this by highlighting young creators with a unique perspective on styles like synthwave, funk and smooth jazz.
“It’s a utopia of pop music,” Kobe artist Tsudio Studio says when asked about what separates Local Visions from other labels in the country. He has released two albums via Local Visions: The city pop-drenched “Port Island” from 2018 and last year’s “Soda Resort Journey,” which comes complete with synth shimmers and sax blurts. Yet it doesn’t sound anything like the domestic or overseas acts simply trying to copy the pop of bubble-era Japan, a strategy that has become more predictable in recent years. Rather than re-create yesteryear, however, Tsudio Studio draws from the sounds of the past to move it forward, wrapping his vocals in digital filters and modern electronic flourishes.
This artistic impulse — to avoid imitation in favor of something truer to the creator’s self — carries over to nearly every artist to release through Local Visions, and also places the label in a greater digital musical lineage. Since the 2000s, Japanese “netlabels” have sprung up online, offering places for burgeoning artists to share their music with like-minded folks on sites that typically offer their work for free. Netlabels such as Maltine Records helped spawn an alternative ecosystem away from traditional industry paths, where the web provided a space to play around.
Funo says he came around to Maltine — “the pioneer of online labels” — later than most, but still credits the model as inspiring Local Visions.
“By the time I found (Maltine), Bandcamp and SoundCloud were already widespread, and the so-called boom years were over,” he says. “I regret not finding them sooner.”
Still, it was vaporwave that nudged him to start Local Visions in the first place.
“I decided to launch a label with Bandcamp as the platform, and make a compilation album,” Funo says of “Megadrive,” which features the highest concentration of vaporwave tracks on any Local Visions’ release and still manages to approach the microgenre from new angles. The compilation can also be ordered on cassette tape, a format Funo is fond of and turns to for many of his label’s releases.
“When I was looking for artists to participate in ‘Megadrive,’ I met an artist called Aotq,” Funo says. Their contribution to the compilation, “Ai wa Tax Free,” invokes a familiar sonic element of vaporwave — commercial jingles. Yet rather than slow down a sample and play with it, Aotq becomes jaunty and wrings an emotional sweetness out of a melody that’s not far removed from a soft drink ad (albeit with more distortion in the latter half). “Their music was so great, it made me start to wonder if Local Vision’s curation could make more people aware of people like Aotq,” Funo says.
“I think most labels want to feature artists who are already popular, to some extent,” Tsudio Studio says. “However, Local Visions has picked up and released almost unknown creators, but who are the ones creating the highest-standard pop music.”
Part of this comes down to Funo’s curatorial approach. “It’s only music I like,” he says. “I use SoundCloud, Bandcamp, YouTube and other sites to find artists. I then send messages to those who I think are good.”
“Funo had been digging through SoundCloud, and he found a song we uploaded. He invited us to release something,” says Every_de who compromises one half of the sibling duo Wai Wai Music Resort. The brother-sister project released “WWMR 1” via Local Vision, an album of breezy acoustic tracks that evoke vacations to far-off locales.
It also fits nicely into Local Vision’s aesthetic. Both Tsudio Studio and Every_de mention how the label has a shared visual and sonic sense. Part of that stems from the cover art accompanying each release, an element Funo stresses is crucial for success. So much so that he works closely with the artist when it comes to album art, recruiting illustrators who can touch on city pop and 1990s tech imagery. Rather than focus on neon-tinted pictures littered with katakana, or VHS-quality photos of old commercials, Local Visions’ work features surreal splashes of color courtesy of artists such as Saitemiss and Guugorou.
What further links much of Local Vision’s output is a sense of alternate timelines presented by the artists in their work. Tsudio Studio’s “Port Island,” for example, imagines a version of Kobe that was never hit by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. While vaporwave and city pop draw heavily from the aesthetic of bubble-era Japan, Funo himself is too young to have experienced it. To him, the notion of economic prosperity is something to work toward rather than look back on. “It seems like a fictional future of Japan where the economy is still booming,” he says.
One obstacle in the way of such good times is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has scuttled Funo’s plans to get his acts into clubs and live houses across Japan, and has stopped him from potentially moving out of Izumo to build the label further.
“However, I am not pessimistic about the current situation,” he stresses. “I think it is an opportunity to stay home and think carefully about the future of the world after the pandemic,” citing the environment and racism as issues that need to be addressed.
Despite a difficult year, plenty is still going right for the label. Mainly, more Local Visions’ albums are getting physical releases. While the internet has been central to his success, Funo says one drawback to digital-only releases is that they are more likely to vanish from the web, which has the effect of erasing the music completely.
“I think the existence of physical music is indispensable,” he admits, adding that he continues to release cassettes (at a time when major pop acts such as Taylor Swift and Perfume are embracing the format) and most recently he pressed Aotq’s 2018 album “e-muzak” on vinyl.
“I want the label’s music to be made into something physical and preserved for future generations,” he says, adding one more modest goal involving BookOff, a chain of second-hand stores that is a hotbed for cheesy mainstream albums seeing a “cool” resurgence. “We hope Local Visions’ physical releases will be unearthed from the used CD shelves at BookOffs in the future,” Funo says.
For more information about Local Visions, visit local-visions.bandcamp.com.