Is indie music dead in Japan?

Is indie music dead in Japan?

A Guardian UK article raises serious issues about the state of indie and underground music in Japan
Japanese indie
Shugo Tokumaru, here performing in Norway, is one of the few new Japanese indie musicians who have found acclaim and success in the international indie scene. (Photo by Flickr user alexstaubo)

Guardian UK ran an editorial from Fumi Chikakoshi -- the manager of Japanese indie label Rallye -- about the barriers in Japan to creating an indie music scene like that seen overseas. For the most part, music clubs and music magazines are all pay-to-play, which means that talented but struggling young bands are a financial disadvantage to get their songs out there.

By some measures, however, Tokyo must have the most vibrant 'indie music' scene in the world. Actively performing bands must number in the thousands, and at least hundred or so play every night at the city's dozen of 'live houses.' Every imaginable genre is represented.

Yet Chikakoshi's attitude is very common amongst the indie elite. So the real issue here is how 'indie' and 'underground' are being defined.

Although 'indie' in Japan once defined the anti-major label ethos of making original music without commercial aspirations, 'indie' now means basically 'bands who are not signed to a major label.' As Chikakoshi points out, most of these 'indie bands' don't actually want to be indie nor have an indie attitude towards music. They are just using the indie circuit as a kind of minor league on the path to a major label contract.

There are plenty of young punk bands, for example, who have huge fan bases and make a decent living, but they don't fit the classic indie mold of artistic innovation, international fraternity and excitement from critics.

Chikakoshi looks back fondly to the days of the Shibuya-kei movement of the 1990s, when a indie-born musical genre influenced major label music, sold a bunch of records, got their songs on film and TV soundtracks, set fashion trends, had their own glossy magazines, found support from the Tokyo creative class and generally felt like a 'scene.'

For those who want to get a sense of some indie bands who do fit Chikakoshi's sense of indie, we recommend electro-ethno singer Oorutaichi, bedroom-symphony composer Shugo Tokumaru, Osaka spaz-rockers Limited Express (Has Gone?) and the sample-mania of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box.