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What Japan can tell us about the future of music

What will popular music sound and look like in 10 or 20 years time? Gareth Shute looks to Japan, where the era of the ‘authentic’ rock musician has already come to an end.

Late last year, I was visiting Ebisu, Tokyo and wanted to see what acts were playing nearby. I discovered online what I thought was a young indie punk act, You’ll Melt More.

The song I found kicks off with crashing cymbals, heavy guitars and yelled vocals. Loose, but in a purposeful way; the video has the same haphazard feel to it.

Yet I’d been fooled, because You’ll Melt More are a pure pop band. ‘Majiwaranai Cats’ opens their album, Unforgettable Final Odyssey (2014), but it is soon followed by more classic synth J-Pop tracks, though often with rapped verses. The five group members on the video I saw aren’t even part of a consistent group – following the logic of super-large groups like AKB48, the members of You’ll Melt More are continually changing and most of the original line-up have ‘graduated’ to other projects.

The mixing of genres is hardly a new phenomenon in Western music either, though it’s usually done in a piecemeal fashion – auto-tune in an indie rock song; a ragga chorus on a hip hop track, etc. In Japan this process has simply reached its natural conclusion and now a genre can be adopted wholesale for one track and then discarded for the next. This is most jarringly exemplified by Obachaan, who switch from reggae to hip hop to pop.

These examples show that the sound of a a genre can float free of the image associated with it. In Japan, the opposite can also be true…

Visual Kei

While in Tokyo we caught up with my wife’s cousin, who makes his living as a drummer. For his latest gig, he’d joined a Visual Kei band and had to dress up in gothy pirate attire, like a Japanese Jack Sparrow. What type of music is Visual Kei? Well, he had to explain, Visual Kei used to be a genre of music, but it isn’t anymore.

When Visual Kei first started in the eighties, it was a response to glam and the shock rock of Alice Cooper and Kiss. The first generation of bands included chart-toppers like X-Japan (subjects of a recent documentary), but their popularity declined in the nineties and it looked like Visual Kei, the genre, was over.

Instead, a new range of acts decided that the attention-grabbing look of Visual Kei was worth keeping, even if they ditched the music. Plenty of Visual Kei bands still play heavy rock, but they’re just as likely to be pop acts or electronica artists. The added benefit of each band member dressing outrageously is that they can draw fans to them individually (as if they were members of a boy band) and then monetise their relation to their followers.

While it’s true that CD sales are still high in Japan, these are almost entirely dominated by J-Pop acts, who often release collectible, limited-edition singles or CDs that include tickets to handshake events or voting cards (each member is ranked by a year-end vote). The only singles that can compete are comedy numbers like the viral hits ‘Pen Pineapple Apple Pen’ (the shortest song to ever make the US’s Billboard Top 100) and the J-pop mocking ’Music Video’ by Taiiku Okazaki.

Young bands have had to come up with new forms of revenue, often by leveraging their personal relationship with fans – by selling one-off Polaroid snaps of themselves, for example, or receiving ‘mitsu’ (slang for ‘mitsugu’, to give money). Fan letters are often accompanied by cash and band members may ask fans via social media for clothing or musical instruments that they need. Alternatively, fans can attend ‘uchiage’ (drinking parties) where the band and the sponsors get a cut of drink sales. If things go further, the fan becomes a ‘mitsukano’ (derived from ‘kanojo’, girlfriend) and provides regular payments for dates or sexual encounters.

There’s also been a backlash, with some bands following the rule of ‘tsunagari’ that disallows relationships between band members and fans. Mitsu might seem manipulative, but marketing to obsessive fans is also a part of the Western music scene – most visible in the rise of VIP tickets (that allow you to be nearer the band or possibly even meet them). Having a social connection with an artist that you admire is one thing that can’t be digitally copied.

After all, musicians have to feed themselves somehow. That is, of course, assuming that they aren’t robots…

Technology meets Music meets Product Placement

In Japan, robots are beginning to appear in new, surprising places – whether it’s as the main act at a Robot Restaurant or running the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki. It’s therefore no surprise that a few years back Japan gained its own robot band (like an updated version of New Zealand’s own precursor, The Trons).

Z Machines were first created as a marketing gimmick for alcoholic beverage company, Zima (the band ‘played harder’ when audience members held Zima bottles aloft). Later they did an interesting collaboration with 90s UK electronica star Squarepusher (skip to 4:45 to hear the song):

It’s probably far-fetched to predict more robot bands in the future, though it may be an interesting proposition for kids and tweens. The bigger lesson is how flashy new technology can help companies smuggle their own groups into the music scene.

Another example of audiences being blinded with science is the music video for ‘Kamu to Funyan’ by Atarashii Gakkou No Leaders, which is presented in dizzyingly effective VR 360 (click through to YouTube on a phone to get the 360 experience, or click the viewer icon if you have Google Cardboard or other headset):

The band behind this project were created by the confectionery brand Lotte, and this song first appeared in an ad to promote a new variety of chewing gum.

Taking all the data points above as a whole, what Japan presents us with is a vision of a world in which the idea of a traditional rock band has truly been deconstructed. The idea of having four musicians play a certain genre of music then make money by selling or streaming albums is now dead in the water. I doubt you could find a single successful band in Japan following this model; in another decade, you probably won’t find any Western bands still doing it either. Look to Japan and you get a picture of what it looks like when the era of the ‘authentic’ rock musician truly comes to an end.


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