Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Disappointing 'Neo Underground'

About half a year ago someone told me about a must-check-out mixi community called Neo Underground. Put together by a few Tokyo-based musicians, it posed the questions that a lot of us were thinking but didn't ask out loud, at least not to a wide audience: why is the Tokyo music scene so unsatisfying in many ways, in spite of all the talent and variety? What are its problems? And what can we do to fix them?

In the section for introducing the community, where another mixi group might write, say, 'this is a community for people who love spicy food', was a long manifesto, written by the founder. It looked like something that took the person a whole night to write, in a feverish state. That original declaration has since been taken down, but here's what I remember of the Main Questions it asked: Why are Tokyo shows so expensive (both for the audience, and for bands to play)? Why is there always a one or two drink minimum, and why are those drinks always overpriced? Why do most bands have to pay to play gigs? Why are the shows always at the same few tired live houses? How can we get more shows going by like-minded, good bands? How can we get more people to come to more shows that are more fun, cheaper, and at more interesting venues and events?

Forums were set up to discuss those issues: for example, one forum was devoted to discussing alternatives to playing at live houses. How about playing at college campuses? Or, abandoned buildings? Parks with outdoor stages? Ideas flowed in, and it looked like, if these ideas were realized, in the near future we'd be seeing a lot more live shows that were different, enjoyable to go to aside from the music itself, and that didn't cost an arm and a leg to get in.

Maybe here it would be best to explain what is wrong with the Tokyo music scene, to give you a sense of why the solutions proposed by Neo Underground excited a lot of people. The most basic problem is that there are too many bands that want to play in front of paying audiences, and too many live houses (clubs) to accommodate those groups, but too few people who want to see shows. As a result, live houses have come up with a business model that would prevent them from losing money even if not many people show up for shows: they ask bands to guarantee a number of tickets, say, twenty tickets, and if twenty people don't show up the groups have to pay for the unsold tickets themselves. What this means is that most beginning bands have to pay to play, because they can't sell the minimum number of tickets.

As far as I can tell, live house managers rely mostly on the revenue from these guaranteed tickets sold to make ends meet, so, for example, it doesn't make a huge difference to them whether or not a lot of drinks are sold. Sure, if the fans buy a lot of drinks, so much the better, but if they don't, it's not a big problem because they are raising revenue from elsewhere: the bands themselves. And, indeed, one of the most striking things about Tokyo shows is that even though all live houses have bars, and they don't really check IDs, most fans don't drink that much. At most shows I've been to, I'd say that the majority of the people only imbibe their minimum 1-D.

Because selling drinks isn't a big consideration for the live houses, they don't make much of an effort to, so that, at a typical club there's one overworked employee selling expensive beers and badly-made cocktails; there are also no chairs or tables—you drink standing up, in a basement, facing the front like everyone else.

Neo Underground's goal was to change all this. How about doing a gig at an unused school building? The door charge would be half the usual price. And there wouldn't be a one drink minimum—but the drink charges would be close to their original cost, so people would be able to have more. Bands wouldn't have to pay anything to do gigs. And, organizers would only invite groups they thought were good, so there won't be shows where a batch of bands that had no connections with each other shared the stage.

It was exciting stuff, and the number of community members soared. There was to be a big meeting where the founding members and anyone interested could show up and talk about how to make all these ideas reality.

And the big meeting was held...but then, nothing happened.

For a couple of months, there wasn't even a report on the meeting itself. After a while, with apologies about the delay, a meeting report was published. The ideas mentioned above were apparently brought up, but, as would be expected, one meeting didn't change the world.

However...from about the time of the meeting, the air seemed to have gone out of the tires of the Neo Underground juggernaut. The energy level declined. There were far fewer ideas being thrown out in the forums, and no projects being planned. I got the sense that the key players of the community decided to make compromises. They got bored of trying to bring about changes. Or, they still thoughts changes would be good, but could come about more gradually, little by little.

In short, Neo Underground turned out to be a disappointment. The ideas were all great, but the mixi community wasn't able to realize them.


Moving forward a few months, last week there was an event organized by bands related to Neo Underground in Shinjuku, called closer Vol. 1. I wanted to see it to find out if the musicians were able to create anything new. It didn't live up to my expectations.

The event was held at two Shinjuku live houses at once, the Motion and Marz, and you walked from one club to the other depending on which act you wanted to see. That was a good thing—you could also hang out outside or buy cheap drinks or food at a convenience store, before heading back to see a show. But that wasn't a Neo Underground innovation—it's something others have tried before too.

Other than that, it was the usual, weariness-inducing Tokyo gig: too many people crammed into a tight space where there was nothing to do but stand around with drink in hand, listening to music.

I was there to see Yucca, but I ended up seeing only one other group besides them (out of the ten playing at the two clubs). It's this sense I think I've developed after seeing hundreds of shows these past few years in Tokyo, that after a few minutes I could tell whether I'd be bored with an event, and that was the case this evening. (Though, who knows, maybe if I stayed around I might have discovered some unbelievable band.)

The feeling I got was that these groups would be too much brains, and too little heart. They listen to a lot of prog and post-rock and currently trendy alternative music and create beautiful music, but they don't connect to the audience. Their shows are like a classical recital. And I think that's the style of a lot of the musicians who initially were behind Neo Underground. The funny thing is, if the venue was better, and more in line with some of Neo Underground's proposals, these shows might have been more tolerable, or even satifying. Just imagining here, but say, if the show had been at some abandoned building with lots of space, and you could watch a show or you could ignore it and have drinks with a friend, I think it would have been much more fun.

So, in spite of my disappointment over Neo Underground, I think their ideas and goals are worthy, and I wish people would follow through on them. That would be a good thing for the Tokyo music scene.

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