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September 10, 2011

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My existential music crisis in Fukuoka

THIS past weekend my love of rock music was shaken. I was left in an existential crisis, pawing for meaning in a sea of guitar noise and bass waves.

Why you ask? Japan.

I had the privilege to DJ a pair of shows last weekend in Fukuoka, the seventh biggest city in Japan with a population of about 1.5 million people. Shanghai bands were represented well by surf rock group The Beat Bandits and hard core punk band The Instigation.

The first show was at a club called Spiral Factory that had the cleanest sound I've ever heard at a place that specializes in popular music, and the second was at a smaller club called Public Space. Both were in the downtown area, surrounded by hip Japanese clothing stores like Supreme and Bathing Ape, along with convenience stores that seemed to follow me from my neighborhood in Shanghai like Family Mart and Lawson's.

The audiences were small - about 50 people came to each show - but enthusiastic, and polite. I've never seen anybody bow to another after accidentally bumping into him on the dance floor, but there you go.

This summer has proven to be the year of Chinese bands in Japan, with these shows in Fukuoka and eight bands earlier playing at Japan's biggest music festival, Summer Sonic, for the first time. Beijing electro rock group Queen Sea Big Shark was perhaps the biggest name, leading the group of bands mostly from Beijing.

Performing in Japan was great, but it also led to the earlier mentioned existential crisis. That's because in Japan, rock and rollers show a dedication that is almost completely unheard of from their counterparts in China, or anywhere else, as far as I've experienced. Their stubbornness in facilitating shows and buying music is outrageous.

To start with, shows in Japan are "pay to play," says Christopher Jack, member of Fukuoka garage band The Routes. Performers in Japan typically have to pay a "noruma" for the privilege of playing at the venue, even if the venue is organizing the event. The amount might vary, but it means that 25 people have to enter the venue before getting out of the red, not including advertising costs. After that, performers only receive a portion of the ticket money, always less than 50 percent. All revenue from the bar also goes to the venue.

These are shows where the band are invited to play. If someone other than the venue wants to book a show, say for a new band looking to get exposure, it costs about US$102 just to book the night.

To put this in context, bands in China, even new ones, frequently turn down dates they stand to only gain money on for fear of overexposure.

Yet, bands in Japan frequently play shows at a great financial loss, especially considering costs for advertising, maintaining equipment and practice space.


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