It never feels good to message someone asking "So...do you really live in Japan, or what?" Yet this sort of inquiry...made awkwardly over SoundCloud or Twitter...has been something I've had to do with increasing frequency over the last few years. That's because my feeds on these social networks have become increasingly dominated by Japanese song titles, anime artwork and "location" fields set to "Japan." Yet rarely does any of that music actually come from an artist living on this side of the world, making communication aimed at clarification essential. Well, at least until you just give up on half the stuff you see, assuming it's just branding.
About two weeks ago, Rolling Stone included electronic duo 2814 in their monthly "10 New Artists You Need To Know" feature. This project earned lots of attention earlier in the year for an album called 新しい日の誕生, a dreamy collection of ambient music that's pretty good, even if you'd probably get more out of revisiting Windy And Carl. Still, it has its charms and this release -- featuring artwork and song titles loaded up with kanji and katakana -- has proven extremely popular, moving hundreds of digital (and physical) copies. Knowing only these fact, maybe you'd think this attention from Rolling Stone would be similar to them zooming in on Tricot, or taking some time to give Japan's footwork scene some shine.
Except 2814, despite having an image built around Japanese, are from London.
Non-Asian artists incorporating Asian languages and visuals into their imagery..their "aesthetic" if your mind is Tumblr-wrecked...has become a hot-button topic, at least within online electronic music communities based primarily around SoundCloud. Popularized by vaporwave and eventually spreading well beyond the confines of that micro-genre, the use of non-English alphabets -- primarily Japanese, though Hangul and Arabic have popped up with some frequency too -- has now become common. With it, an argument that this choice amounts to appropriate, trivializing the cultures from which these languages come from. The counter argument tends to be about how this decision stems from a place of appreciation, how important anime and J-pop and Ghibli have been to these individuals.
I've personally always felt that when language gets strung up like fairy lights without consideration for, while, anything, it's lame. Somebody who actually takes time to spread music from non-English countries (I'm thinking like JACK댄스...though the fact he eventually dropped the Hangul to no negative impact shows it is probably easier just to avoid the issue entirely) tends to look better than the person using it as exotic wallpaper. A Japanese McNuggets commercial from the '70s isn't inherently more interesting than an American one just because the prior is in a different language.
The case of 2814, however, is a little different than others. Whereas an imprint such as Moving Castle presents a set of problems primarily related to cultural appropriation, 2814 and their label Dream Catalogue offers an issue ultimately more about economics -- both monetarily and in terms of online exposure.
When I started my blog about music from Japan in 2009, the primary online space to find indie acts in the country was MySpace. This was not ideal. The MySpace music player couldn't be cleanly embedded on another site, and I remember the tagging system being near non-existent...I would have to go to an artist's page and just start clicking on every picture in their "top eight" area, hoping it would lead me to a new musician I could listen to. YouTube was far more convenient all around, but how many artists working outside the major label system could make an eye-grabbing video...or a clip at all?
SoundCloud and Bandcamp gained traction around 2011 in Japan, and what a relief it was. Gone were the days of clicking random pics -- you could opt for a tag that said "Japan" and hear songs from artists who actually hailed from there. This was how I saw the Internet positively transforming music -- artists (especially those operating outside of the English world) who never would have made a blip on anyone's radar before could now share their music with anybody and, potentially, everybody. Tomad, the founder of Maltine Records, echoed the importance of these sites to me in an interview earlier this year, pointing out how they erased the language barrier in favor of focusing on the music.
It was a great time to discover new artists not just from Japan, but from all over the world. Then, starting around 2014, something changed. The Bandcamp "new arrival" tag for Japan became crowded with albums featuring cover shots seemingly ripped from old VHS tape, with katakana and kanji slathered on top. The inside looked more or less the same, with song titles written in Japanese, sometimes making sense, but oftentimes reading like ad copy or pure nonsense. It usually took a little bit of clicking around to realize the person who made this was more likely to live in Tacoma or Tampa than Tokyo.
At some point in 2015, these badly photoshopped, boring homages to the first generation of vaporwave -- which had been released unobtrusively through Mediafire for the most part -- outnumbered releases from real Japanese artists. For a while, I just stopped using Bandcamp as a place to explore new Japanese music, because everything tagged "Japan" seemed like a lie. it was annoying, but not as annoying as toggling over to the "best-selling" section and seeing the exact same thing. And all of the albums seemed to come primarily from one place.
Dream Catalogue has released a lot of music, and not all of it dabbles in Japanese imagery. A lot of it isn't even tagged as "japan" or "hong kong" or some other Pacific Asian destination label founder (and half of 2814) Hong Kong Express (HKE) told Tiny Mix Tapes about in an interview. But a lot of the albums released through the digi-imprint do get tagged in that way and, due to Dream Catalogue's popularity in the vaporwave (and beyond) community, end up on the "best-selling" pages for those countries. They aren't alone in this -- but they are definitely the most successful, even before getting Rolling Stone's attention.
The utopian view of music on the Internet (at least at some point) is that it offered an opportunity for everyone to get their art out there to new ears. It was about the music, man, a point Tomad made to me, and shared by HKE in that above interview, as he says "the relative anonymity of vaporwave producers is the perfect antidote to that school of though in fact — it puts all emphasis on the music and concept rather than the artist’s appearance or personality."
Which sounds romantic, except the Internet doesn't work this way in 2015, and possibly never has. The idea that if music is good, it's bound to reach people has always been a statement full of air, especially when it comes to non-Western artists. Tomad waxed nostalgic about SoundCloud in our interview, but he also acknowledged the glory days are over -- major labels coopted the network, and now a recording of Drake making fun of Meek Mill will easily outpace anything else.
Yet one way artists in non-English countries could stand out...even if just to reach a small amount of people seeking it...were through location-specific tags. Maybe you'll still only connect with people who check "Japan" on Bandcamp everyday...but that's still something, leading to someone new hearing your music and who knows what else. Yet that space has been compromised by releases such as 新しい日の誕生, which take up digital real estate from actual Japanese artists, adding an extra incline for independent acts to scale. Not only do they have to stand out in the vast horror show that is the music-corner of the Internet in 2015, the areas once reserved for them have disintegrated, and now they have to compete against a new wave of artists.
One of my favorite Japanese bands since arriving here has been Moscow Club, a Tokyo indie-pop group. After several years where they were basically broken up, they released a new album, which is very good. I talked to them for The Japan Times, and it was one of my favorite interviews I've done in 2015. Yet one quote stuck with me above all others, courtesy of lead singer Kazuro Matsubara.
“Sometimes I think if we weren’t Japanese, more foreign media would write about us. We would be looked at differently."
Dream Catalogue have made a lot of money for an online vaporwave label. Unlike pre-existing vaporwave imprints like Fortune 500 (who didn't tag things "Japan," despite using Japanese), Dream Catalogue charges a small fee to download each release. And they've won over a solid audience, one willing to pay that price to own the label's music. 2814's album has been purchased digitally by at least a thousand people, and they've also sold cassette tape and CD versions of it, with a vinyl pressing coming this December. And now they've been featured in Rolling Stone.
In that Tiny Mix Tapes interview, HKE gets asked about "accusations of racism" against vaporwave's fondness of Asian languages and imagery. He responds first by mentioning how, personally, it stems from a love of director Wong Kar Wai's films, and how he couldn't recreate that "mood" in "a Western context." After that, though, he kicks back at (uhhh perceived) critics, basically calling them racist while also pointing out they have Japanese artists on the label (true and true, though both of these creators have sales lagging well beyond others on the label), before closing out with some big picture musings:
"As everyone becomes more connected through technology - the internet and mass media now, and eventually to the time when we’re connected by underwater bullet trains that take you from New York to London in fifteen minutes, the world will increasingly become something of a giant sprawl, rather than separated entities."
I honestly think HKE has only good intentions overall, but I think he doesn't realize how damaging to actual non-English artists his label's approach to spreading its music is. Despite the idea that the Internet can equalize the playing field, the reality is that it has just allowed whatever gets the most attention to continue dominating space. Just try pitching an article about a Japanese artist to an American publication -- you have to work extra hard to convince them to give it space, when they could just drop something about Adele in and be guaranteed a good hit rate. I imagine it's the same for other non-English scenes.
And something like 2814 has now taken up valuable space that it probably didn't need for conceptual reasons. It seems small -- the Japanese tag on Bandcamp -- but that's territory that could benefit actual Japanese artists who don't have many areas to share their work, basically blocking them out. Dream Catalogue doesn't need that -- they are a successful operation not only getting attention but also making money from music. Yet for some ill-defined conceptual reason (which isn't even consistent -- despite featuring mainly Japanese, the first song on this album is written in Chinese. Asia, close enough, right?) this album and a handful of others are clogging up one of the few spaces where Japanese acts could get attention, and possibly influencing others into doing the same thing. I mean, if those Dream Catalogue guys can make bank and get media pub, why can't we?
All while embracing a language and culture that, in many actual Japanese artists minds, holds them back significantly. Guess I should just make an email template for new artists, huh = /
Japanese Music Highlights From The Past Week
The Fogpak series of electronic music compilations reached its 14th installment last week, and it's a home run. The theme, "sports," won me over before even hitting play on any of these (unrelated: I've watched this clip a gross amount of times), but the actual music is even better.
Producer Miii had a busy week, first showcasing some solo numbers slated for an album out next year that find him going in a more vaporous direction. His project with producer LASTorder, The Wedding Mistakes, also chilled out a bit on their newest song.
More electronic albums worth hearing from producerTowa, along with Tokyo's Waterprize. If you are a rockist -- or power-poptimist -- and have felt alienated by this week's collection, well Honeydewhas your back.
The supergroup Metafive, featuring some of the most important musical artists in Japanese music history and also Leo Imai, shared a song from their forthcoming album and...I don't know, it seems pointless? I think it hits all the tripwires mega-outfits of this type tend to do, which is like, why wouldn't I just listen to a Cornelius album, or a Denki Groove album, and enjoy myself more? "Don't Move" comes off like a bunch of dudes who have nothing else to prove -- and they've earned that! -- just jamming away. Anyway, a much better throwback comes courtesy of Boogie Idol, who released a City-Pop-inspired album that is glitz at its most joyfully opulent.
Every week, I'll share the top-charting single from the Oricon Charts, a deeply flawed ranking system that favors groups who get fans to buy multiple copies of the same song, offering a warped view of what anyone actually listens to.
#1 HKT48 Featuring Kishidan "Shekarashika!" (280,567 Copies Sold)
It feels a bit unfair to think of this as a novelty single when both of the main participants are doing what they always do. HKT48 deliver a ~48-approved bit of uptempo pop that's doomed to be lost in a similar sea of peppy tunes, while retro-tinged rock group Kishidan...offer some gruff backing vocals and uncork a guitar solo. Yet viewed as...or imagined to be...a one-off collaboration, this combination is at least sort of funny, or maybe I'm not the one meant to appreciate big goofy shredding.