One’s a Japan Times feature called “The D.I.Y. route to rock stardom” by David Hickey, one of the guys behind Japanese underground music site badbee.net.
The other is a blog post called “Missionary Position” by Ian, the creator of the music review site Clear and Refreshing.
The first thing to note about the Japan Times story is that it has a sidebar article talking about Fanime Con in San Jose that leads with:
‘A grand collision of two Japanese subcultures—anime and Japanese indie music,’ was one blogger’s take on Fanime Con 2006…
Three guesses on who that ‘blogger’ is…
The lead article looks in depth at the fact that while other Japanese pop culture exports like anime and manga are selling well in the U.S., Japanese pop music, with very few exceptions, is getting hardly any play at all. Some musicians are trying to break into the U.S. music market on their own, the article says, by networking through MySpace and other message boards and by crashing U.S. industry festivals like South By Southwest. But big-time success has eluded the Japanese musicians because they just don’t yet have the connections and PR know-how that U.S. bands do, the story concludes. It's an interesting read.
Ian’s blog post, meanwhile, is a penetrating look at the current state of Japan’s indie music scene, warts and all. Here’s his description of his disillusionment at finding out that the band Afrirampo wasn’t quite as out-of-this-world different as they first seemed:
When I first saw them, they were like a riot of colour through the sometimes rather staid and technically-obsessed Tokyo noise circuit, but as the other pieces of the Osaka scene jigzaw puzzle fell into piece around them, what had seemed like a radical inversion of muso orthodoxy became more of a generic repetition of a locally prevalant wackiness-at-all-costs, performance-over-content motif. The wildness and discarding if inhibition wasn't something magical, beamed in from Mars to save us all; it was in fact a strictly enforced code of conduct, without which it would be nigh impossible for any Osaka band to get noticed.
In his view the major problem with Japanese indie musicians is that they are splintered into strict musical cliques. That means bands don’t communicate enough with musicians with different styles, preventing them from cross-pollinating and making music with crossover appeal, which is essential if they are to make it outside of Japan. “A lot of responsibility lies with the Japanese bands to make a mental leap outside their self-defined boundaries,” he writes.
(By the way, the geeky Japanophile that Ian describes in his post shares uncomfortably many traits with me: they “pass their days [in Japan] in a kind of happy stupor”, he says. Check. They go to anime conventions, he says. Check. ((Though I went to this year's Famine for the music rather than anime.)) They are dedicated fans who are friendly with band members. Check. They write for keikaku.net. Sort of ((I contribute interviews)). They hang around blogs. Check. Hmmm.)
For Japanese bands wanting to make it big overseas, I’d add that the language barrier is a big obstacle. There are, of course, fans that don’t understand a word of Japanese but still love J-Pop. I myself like songs in Korean and Cantonese, two languages I don’t speak. But the sad truth is that for many, lyrics in Japanese or any other language they don’t understand are a turn-off. Japanese bands could do songs in English, and many do. But then there’s the problem of pronunciation—it’s often hard to understand what is being sung. Plus, because English isn’t these singers’ native language, it's harder for them to sing with emotion. In Japan you don’t find a lot of bands like The Cardigans that aren't native speakers but have flawless English.
With anime, what leaves the biggest impression is the art, so that it doesn’t matter that much if the voice-overs sound strange or there are subtitles. And on top of that, Japanese anime has its own distinct style, whereas, for the most part, Japanese pop music imitates music from Europe and North America.
Maybe eventually more Japanese musicians will appear that sing like native English speakers and have their own style that appeals to foreigners. Or, maybe, there will be a revolution in global pop sensibility that will make Japanese music so cool that kids will want to buy it even if their knowledge of the Japanese language is limited to ‘sushi’ and ‘karaoke’. I won’t be holding my breath.
The thing is, I just don’t get that excited about how many CDs Japanese bands are selling, because I’m not in a band and don’t run a record label, and I like the music for the music and not for its popularity. If a band is good, it doesn’t matter to me whether they sell out multiple nights at the Budokan or they only get a few people to come to some tiny café on the Inokashira Line. Having said that, it is a good thing if more Japanese bands are traveling abroad, creating MySpace pages, offering MP3 samples on their web pages, and doing other things to make themselves more accessible to audiences outside of Japan, because, as I hope it is clear to regular readers, I do want people to know about good Japanese bands.