Saturday, April 2, 2011
The view from Tokyo
'Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.' Leigh Hunt
Since the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on 11 March, I have been amazed with the outpouring of concern by the techno community. People in this country have deeply appreciated this support. There have been a lot of people worrying the situation in Japan, especially in regards to the Fukushima nuclear plant. So far, however, the vast majority of this commentary has been coming from people outside of the country. I have been thinking about what to say for quite some time, and I have held back because I am still experiencing everything happening here, processing it all, and I haven't felt ready to share my thoughts. But my feeling is that it is now time to say something as there are certain (mis)perceptions about the situation in Japan, and these are already having some harmful and potentially very significant consequences. To be clear, I am not going to talk about the earthquake, tsunami, the ongoing nuclear situation, or the general impact of these events on Japan. What I am going to address is specifically the relationship between these events and the techno community here and abroad. This is certainly not to disregard these larger issues - notably, on a most basic level the ongoing human suffering that has been caused by these catastrophic events - but there is already a huge amount of information and analysis out there, and I am not sure there is much valuable that I can add in this forum (I am, however, working on addressing some of these issues in my day job). On the specific question of how all of this impacts on techno here, as someone who lives in Tokyo and is part of the techno scene in Japan I believe this is something I can address. What I am writing is based on my own knowledge and experiences, and has benefited from discussions with other people involved in the scene.
What has been very clear from the response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami is the deep, strong bond that exists between Japan and the larger electronic music community. I have been amazed and overwhelmed by the level of concern that has been displayed. On a personal level, I have received so many emails and messages from artists we've worked with, labels, PR people, fellow bloggers / media types, and, of course, our readers. This was just my own experience of a much wider phenomena. I strongly feel that techno has long had a special relationship with Japan. Many artists that have visited have been deeply influenced and impacted by their time here. I have lost count of the amount of interviews I've read where Japan is listed as the DJ's favourite place to play. Japan has also been an important staging point in the development of techno music, one need only think about something like Jeff Mills genre defining mix CD recorded at the Liquid Room in Tokyo. And for techno artists, the first gig in Japan is seen as an important milestone in one's career. On a more general level, Japan - and people's perceptions of Japan (especially its 'futuristic' image) - have inspired many tracks, albums and projects. This deep affection for, and fascination with, Japan has manifest itself in the remarkable way the techno community has responded to the disaster. There has been benefit gigs to raise money for Japanese disaster relief from the UK to Germany to US to Australia and many other places. Beatport and other online retailers have donated portions of their earnings. And there have been a quick succession of compilations to raise money for various Japan related charities. The amount of artists that have been willing to donate music to these different releases has been truly staggering.
This very genuine outpouring of support has been appreciated, and it is needed at a time when electronic music here - like all other parts of our lives - has been deeply affected by this disaster. The vibrant club scene that has helped put Tokyo on the map has come to an almost complete standstill. Aftershocks, power cuts, radiation fears, artist cancellations, and feelings of uncertainty and sadness have all contributed to most club events since the earthquake being cancelled. It has been 3 weeks now since the earthquake, and life is slowly returning to normal here in Tokyo (unfortunately the same cannot be said about further north). Shibuya crossing is not full of its usual bright lights, some food and liquid is missing off supermarket shelves, but Tokyo is settling and people are going about their daily lives. And, as part of this, clubs are re-opening and parties are happening again. It has been a difficult and stressful time, and people need these outlets, they need to relax, be with friends and share music together.
Unsurprisingly the techno scene in Japan is a long way from normal, and it has been hit hard by these events, as have many other industries in this country. Sales at record stores have plummeted in recent weeks, I have heard figures that sales are down 40%. If this persists, there is the danger that one or two of the few remaining record stores in Tokyo will go out of business. This is also an issue for the larger techno community, given that Japan remains one of the main buyers of vinyl. Clubs and promoters have lost huge sums of money due to cancelled events, clubs not opening, and attendances being considerably down. Local DJs are missing opportunities to play, and get paid, because of cancelled parties. Likewise, most club staff, who are casually employed, are going without their usual income. Of course it is understandable and unavoidable that in the weeks after the disaster clubs were closed. But even if life is returning to normal in Tokyo, this is not happening for the clubs. Artists and their booking agents are continuing to cancel, or threaten to cancel for events in April, May and beyond. The most extreme example of this is the Red Bull Music Academy deciding to relocate this year's events from Tokyo, despite the fact that it was not due to start until October. I understand that there is considerable concern about the nuclear situation in Fukushima, but responses to this are being driven much more by fear than science. The international media has sensationalised and greatly exaggerated the possible risks. Artists playing here would pick up more radiation flying to Japan than they would by staying here a couple of days, and their health would probably suffer more from the amount of sake they would drink rather than eating anything contaminated. Certainly at this stage cancelling something not scheduled until October is a big over-reaction.
In light of this current situation, what I think it is necessary for the electronic music community to understand is that the club scene in Tokyo is very vulnerable. It simply is not the Tokyo of 10-15 years ago where DJs were paid huge sums of money and were treated like kings. This might still apply to a few very select people, like Richie Hawtin etc., but most clubs and promoters do not have the money to pay the high fees they used to. The fact that airfares are so much more expensive to Japan really limits how much money there is for artists fees. And club revenues are not what they used to be. These days many young people are unemployed, while many that are employed receive low wages, and this also means they are going out less. And when people do go out they are drinking less and have less money to spend. Also something which is common here, which I haven't seen to the same degree in Australia and the UK, is that within club culture there is an expectation that there should be discounted entry for parties, either through bringing a flyer or having your name on a discount list (something much easier to get on to than a guest list). A lot of people here will actually not go out if they can't get a discount (this relates to the issues I mentioned above about people not having that much disposable income). The result is that parties and clubs operate on very small profit margins, as door prices have been pushed down excessively. To put things in perspective, with our planned mnml ssgs party (which had to be cancelled), based on our advance price of 2,500 yen and door prince of 3,000 yen, we calculated that it was basically impossible for us to hold the party without losing a decent sum of money, yet to raise the door price any higher would have likely seriously impacted on the number of people who would come. So for those putting on parties here, there simply isn't that much wriggle room. Despite Tokyo being a metropolis, there are not actually that many people into techno music and regularly going to clubs. Indeed, given the size of the population, there are not many techno clubs here, so if one or two clubs have to close, this will have a big impact on the whole scene. From what I have been told, already one small club in Tokyo has closed directly as a result of losses following the earthquake. Add in the police and authorities being very conservative and not at all understanding and tolerant of club culture, and you have a combination of factors that makes the Tokyo scene very vulnerable. And if the Tokyo scene suffers, so does all of Japan. Given the expense of flights, parties in Osaka and other cities rely on flight shares with Tokyo clubs to make touring artists viable.
The vulnerability of electronic music here is hardly unique to Tokyo, these are issues that club scenes face in many cities. So why I am explaining all of this? Obviously I care about the scene here and I want it to be strong. Beyond that, I think there is a lot of misperception about the scene in Tokyo, it is not as strong as it looks. The Japanese put on a brave face, but this doesn't mean they aren't hurting. I know the clubs here are losing a lot of money, I have even heard stories of club staff having to work without pay to keep the places operating. If things do not normalise soon, I think there is a realistic possibility that at least one of the bigger clubs will close. Even if they manage to stay open, they will have even less money to pay for artists and parties.
To return to a point I made near the beginning - Japan has been, and continues to be, an incredibly important place for electronic music. I firmly believe that Tokyo, along with a number of other cities such as Berlin, London and New York, plays a pivotal and fundamental role in electronic music. And because of this, if the scene here really weakens, the effects will reverberate across the larger techno community. I think this is something that has been considered carefully enough by the techno community. The consequences will potentially reach much further than Tokyo and Japan.
Now, at a time when Japan is suffering, this is when we really need your support. I understand why some artists have cancelled, there has been a lot of fear and uncertainty generated the nuclear situation, but if you look at what the experts are saying, what the radiation levels in Tokyo are etc., continuing to cancel and to avoid Japan seems like a major over-reaction that has damaging consequences for the scene here. People in Tokyo are settling, but of course people are still not completely normal. More than ever, now is a time when music matters. The perfect example of this was Derrick May coming to Tokyo and playing at Dommune last week. It is hard to understate how important this was for people here - so many of the Japanese comments on twitter were people writing that they were crying. Derrick May being here, supporting us, sharing his music, this mattered. In contrast, the Red Bull Music Academy making the decision to cancel an event that was not scheduled until October and November was abandoning this country at exactly the time when we need support. RBMA's decision was narrow, shortsighted and damaging. If it had gone ahead, it could have given a much needed boost to the scene right when it was needed. Instead RBMA gave Japan a kick when it was down. I understand for artists and their booking agents, which are hearing sensational reports in the media and not knowing what the actual situation like is here in Japan, cancelling might seem like the only option. And, of course, promoters and clubs here cannot guarantee that the situation here is 100% safe, though I am not sure how different this is from day to day life where we have been socialised to live with many kinds of risks and dangers. But it is important for people outside of Japan to really understand - life in Tokyo is returning to normal. We are not glowing, another Chernobyl is not imminent, the sky is not falling down, and the food still tastes great.
What I am trying to say is: artists, booking agents and organisers, please think carefully about the situation here. Try to make decisions that are not motivated by panic. Think about the consequences of your actions - for the scene in Japan, for the larger techno community, and for yourselves. If you have benefited from Japan in the past, please think about that at a time when we now need your help. Life needs music, and more than ever I feel that is the case here in Japan. Please continue to support us.
One good thing about music
When it hits you feel no pain
So hit me with music
Hit me with music now
Hit me with music, hit me with music