Housing one of the
most eclectic arrays of record stores on the planet, Tokyo is a music-buyer's paradise. Stuart Braun tunes in to find who's driving the
beat in this treasure-trove of high fidelity.
Tokyoites love to shop, and high on the list is music. Eighty-five percent of the music
sold in Japan-the globe's second biggest market-comes through Tokyo and Osaka, and the
likelihood of finding that elusive CD or vinyl record is probably stronger in Tokyo than
anywhere in the world. With the "mega-store" homogenizing the music-buying
experience in cities elsewhere, Tokyo continues to support a diversity of specialist
record stores stocking obscure vinyl and esoteric imports while the likes of HMV, Tower
and Virgin Japan are also marching to the beat of their own drums.
|Next Records: 12-inch only
Music consumers living in Tokyo are in an enviable position. "Record shopping in this
city is nothing like anywhere else...you have the best new music from Japan and Europe and
America and around the world all here," says Dennis Oliver, Program Manager at
radio:on, a local cable radio station. "New York is a very eclectic city, but the
imports are held in a different area... here it's all mixed up together... it's all
available and its all in the listening stations," he adds. The proliferation of
niche, genre-specific import stores specializing in everything from African-Caribbean
roots music to hip-hop to '60s garage bands is matched by the diversity of music contained
in mega-stores such as Tower Records, renowned for an impressive selection of indie music
The Japanese obsession for collecting, documenting and imitating the gamut of Western
popular culture partly explains the comprehensive selection of imported music available in
Japan. Beginning in the '60s, when jazz was imported with great zeal into the bars and
clubs that sprang up around Tokyo, the city continues to act as a magnet for music from
around the world. But much of the reason for the big import market is cost, with
foreign-made music avoiding the domestic price regulations - associated with licensing and
royalty fees - set by Japan's "music council." "Because the price is
cheaper you get a much better selection...When I got here I was finding all kinds of stuff
that I was trying to get but couldn't find in the states," says Scott Meister,
producer for Tokyo's Memory Lab records.
|Udagawa-cho: "Vinyl Town"
But while imports are
often cheaper, domestic distributors have upped the ante by throwing "additives"
such as lyrics, biographies, remixes and bonus tracks into the bargain. Guy Perryman,
program manager at Virgin records, notes that when Virgin's first store opened ten years
ago, most music was imported because the domestic version was released much later, but
that local distributors have become more proactive. "It used to be that Japan was
behind in music, but it's shifted the other way... Daft Punk came out with a special CD
cover that is only available in Japan," he says. Such "Japanese editions"
have become collector's items overseas. Nonetheless, some artists, including DJ Krush, are
still trying to avoid the relatively high price of domestic releases through "reverse
importing," a process in which local music is manufactured overseas and re-imported
back to Japan.
For Steve Harrell, import buyer for Avex music, the fact that Japanese music stores carry
"no risk" explains the abundance of music-buying options. Unlike the US or
Europe, retailers in Japan simply return unsold records and CDs to the record company,
while the latter also foot the bill for in-store publicity, such as banners and listening
stations. In the US, "you eat what you don't sell," says Harrell. Smaller, niche
music retailers are thus able to survive in Tokyo with little overhead apart from rent and
staff. This has allowed the city's diverse music market to avoid the homogenization
process wrought by the spread of the music mega-store.
House hits at
Incredibly, the panoply of
techno, trance, pop, rock, ambient and jazz genres being peddled throughout Tokyo have
little in the way of radio support. With three mainstream radio stations - InterFM, JWave
and FMTokyo - dominating, and with little dance or alternative music on offer, Tokyo's
radio culture is negligible. But while - unlike in America or Europe - the radio "Top
10" is not a driving factor in publicizing music - due in part, to the fact that few
Tokyoites drive, says Meister - the music press is highly ubiquitous. "Japan's music
buying public are extremely well-read and informed," notes Meister, explaining the
proliferation of specialized music markets whose survival depend on their
"status" in the various magazines that underpin music sub-culture in the city.
While the girly magazines driving the J-pop market come and go, many long established
"indie" music magazines such as Remix (underground dance, hip hop), Loud
(dance) and Ele-King (techno) are complemented by fashion magazines and
innumerable music zines that often carry CD samplers.
Bands playing the sidewalks of Shibuya, Shinjuku and Kichijoji, hole-in-the-wall bars
lined with thousands of records from the owners' personal collection, underground live
houses showcasing everything from punk to pop to reggae, and an endless cross-section of
trance, house and hip-hop dance clubs illustrate the depth of Tokyo's music culture.
of the reason for the big import market is cost, with foreign-made music avoiding the
domestic price regulations - associated with licensing and royalty fees - set by Japan's
relentless rhythm on the street is word-of-mouth and strong community networks centered
most often around record stores willing to push independent releases, distribute
information and act as a meeting place for like-minded music buffs. "Networking is
the lifeblood of the scene," says Meister, who notes that word-of-mouth and
mail-lists can do a lot in a city with such a concentrated population. Meister, who with
Kentaro Takahashi started the Memory Lab record label two years ago, spends a lot of time
at Shibuya's Iku Iku record store, which acts as a kind a clearing-house for the band
Phat, a Tokyo-based four-piece jazz combo recently signed by Memory Lab after being
spotted on the street in Shibuya.
Devoted to experimental jam bands, Iku Iku's survival depends on a very select group of
jazz/psychedelic/experimental music fans. But combine the various labels, stores and bands
that make up the scene and you've got Organic Groove, a collective of musically-minded
fellow travelers whose network amounts to full houses at Shinjuku's 2000-capacity Liquid
Room - most recently, Organic Groove brought the highly acclaimed Medeski Martin &
Wood to Tokyo. Such a tight network, combined with a strong DIY ethic, allows bands such
as Phat to sell a couple of thousand records without major label support. "We're
lucky with Phat," says Meister, "they're on the street, sell CD's, distribute
flyers." This independent approach is vital since Memory Lab, while having secured
distribution through some of the larger stores, lack the budget to pay radio stations and
the music press for mainstream exposure - a requisite within the increasingly competitive
|Various vinyl at Shibuya's Spice
In addition to the direct dissemination of music to the public, music stores importantly
feed the DJs who have become the launching pad for ever-changing music trends. "The
underground club scene is starting to bubble over into the mainstream," notes
Harrell, who adds that club DJs have become an important means for generating hype around
any release, including J-pop. With the likes of Ayumi Hamasaki working with global trance
impresarios such as System F, Paul van Dyke and Junior Vasquez, Avex is starting to press
a lot more vinyl if they think it will work on a club level.
Tokyo's burgeoning club culture is fertile ground, therefore, for promoting a range of
music that is "cross-pollinating" with dance and techno. John Robinson, resident
DJ at Velfarre nightclub, says that the club scene is at a high point. "I think that
it's probably more healthy than ever right now." DJ Vertex, who has been spinning
around Tokyo for three years, agrees that the club wave is peaking. "Tokyo has a
phenomenal club scene at present," he says. He adds, however, that spiraling DJ
numbers are outstripping demand. "The scene in Tokyo is flooded. There is not enough
work for all the DJs."
the panoply of techno, trance, pop, rock, ambient and jazz music genres being peddled
throughout Tokyo have little in the way of radio support.
explosion is matched by a demand for vinyl records, and it's commonly recognized that
Shibuya houses the most vinyl record stores per square meter on the planet. Centered
around Udagawa-cho, in the lanes across from Tokyu Hands, better known vinyl specialty
stores include Manhattan (Shibuya), Cisco's - featuring separate techno, house, hip hop
and reggae shops - Dance Music Records, Technique and Disk Union. Underlying the strength
of the vinyl market is the fact that Shibuya's Tower Records, the world's biggest music
store, is lurking down the road, with 50,000 square feet of CDs, records and related
paraphernalia, including books, magazines and videos. The vinyl market is so strong that
Cisco's and the like have become multinational retailers, with branches in both New York
and Tokyo. Complementing the bigger stores are diminutive, hole-in-the wall shops such as
Next Records, which deals solely in original - no bootlegs or re-issues - 12-inch hip hop
and R&B for the discerning DJ and collector. Added to the Udagawa-cho mix is the Disc
Jam DJ shop, where vinyl-toting turntablists can check out the latest decks, mixers and
|Is there too much trance in Tokyo?
For all the variety, much
of Tokyo's abundant vinyl supply, particularly around Shinjuku's voluminous pre-loved
vinyl stores, are geared to the "retro" collector, while much of the dance music
on offer is circumscribed by somewhat homogenous fashion trends. DJ Vertex disapproves of
trance's current dominion over the scene. "You can find most styles, but trance is
everywhere. It's hard to find a good breakbeat party because you can't really find the
music here," he says. "Trance and hip hop are the easiest to find, with techno
and house a close second, but I have to use the Internet to order breaks and deep house. I
find the rest in Tokyo." Meanwhile, Robinson is critical of the pervasive presence of
retro vinyl. "It kind of disgusts me that some record shops have more new copies of
old records on their shelves than new ones... with plenty of takers. I personally can't
live in the past... why bother when today is so exciting?"
Quirks of fashion aside, few would dispute Tokyo's status as a worldwide hub for music
buying. While the vinyl and specialist stores around Shibuya and environs continue to
proliferate, the mega-shops are continuing to expand, with Virgin, still leaders in
imported British dance and "brit-pop," opening their gargantuan Shinjuku store
in April, and Tower planning to launch a new store in Koriyama later in the year. Either
way, if it's been recorded, you'll find it in Tokyo.