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

High frequency
Music consumers living in Tokyo are in an enviable position. "Record shopping in this city is nothing like anywhere 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 releases.

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 Cisco's

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.

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."

Driving the 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 J-pop market.

Various vinyl at Shibuya's Spice Records

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."

Incredibly, the panoply of techno, trance, pop, rock, ambient and jazz music genres being peddled throughout Tokyo have little in the way of radio support.

The DJ 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 sound systems.

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.



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394: Sister act
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393: Reel time
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392: Lap it up
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391: Everything old is new
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390: Cooking the books
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389: Up from the underground
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388: First wave
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387: Water world
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386: Open house
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385: A moveable feast
Some of the city's best yatai fare
384: Hair
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383: Summer in the city
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382: Tokyo Tomorrow
Stuart Braun tracks the future of the metropolis
381: From zero to hero
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380: Island escapade
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379: Open-air fare
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378: Reel story
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377: Sonic relief
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376: All at sea
No shortage of fun in the sun on the beach
375: Your cup of tea
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374: No time to waste
Tokyo's mounting problems with garbage
373: Freetown
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372: Broken record
Tokyo's ecclectic array of record stores
371: Bottoms up
Tokyo's finest martini bars
370: Admit one
Regulations for foreigners wanting to live and work on Japan
369: After a fashion
Spring trends from the catwalks to the streets
368: Bandwidth wagon
Japan's move towards DSL
367: Just for sports
How to play ball this summer
366: Life's a hitch
Helpful hints for hitch hiking in Japan
365: Altered state
Try Tokyo's tailors on for size
364: The Fringe Club
Shinjuku's infamous Golden Gai bar district
363: Take two Tomatos
Design gurus Michael Horsham and Steve Baker
362: Stage left
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361: The lowdown on TC
Everything you ever wanted to know about TC, but were afraid to ask
360: A reversal of fortune
Tokyo's home of racing, Fuchu Racecourse
359: Funny Valentine
How to do Valentine's Day in Japan
358: Two-faced
Heartthrob Katsunori Takahashi
357: Read all about it comes to Japan
356: Daikanyama
Central Tokyo's hippest hood
355: Wash out
Heaven Sento
354: Means to an end
Some good ideas to inspire you
352/3: Last Laugh
TC's rosey re-cap of the year
Signs of the times
Horoscopes for 2001
351: It's a wrap
TC's holiday gift tips
350: Cable ready
Cable and satellite broadcasting renaissance


Music Merchandisers

1. Cisco (house, techno, hip hop-import/domestic, new & used vinyl) 2F Yanagimitsu Bldg., 11-1 Udagawa-Cho, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo. Tel: 03-3462-0366. Open 11am-9pm.

2. Spiral Record Shop (house, bossa, ambient-import/domestic, new CDs and vinyl) 1F Spiral Bldg., 5-6-23 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo. Tel: 03-3498-0135. Open 11am-8pm.

3. Next Records (hip hop; R&B-import, new & used 12") 5F Kusuhara Bldg.,13-33 Udagawa-Cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Tel:03-5428-3738. Open 12pm-9pm.

4. Dance Music Records (trance, hip-hop, techno, R&B-import, new & used 12', LP) 2F, World Udagawa Bldg., 36-6 Udagawa-Cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Tel:03-3477-1556. Open 2pm-10pm.

5. Iko Iko (jam bands, psychedelic, jazz-import, domestic new CDs) 2F, Hachiro Bldg., 35-4 Udagawa-Cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Tel: 03-3780-1515. Open 12-9pm.

6. Disk Union (rock, pop, metal-import/domestic, new & used 12", LP, CD) 3-31-4, Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo. Tel: 03-3352-2691. Open 11am-8pm.

7. Vinyl Planet (soul, R&B, funk, rare groove-used 12", LP) 2F, Watanabe Bldg., 4-10, Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Tel:03-3496-66064. Open 12-8pm

8. King Records (world music, Japanese folk-new CDs) 1-2-3 Otowa, Bunkyo-Ku, Tokyo, Tel: 03-3945-2134 Open 10am-8pm.

9. DeMode Records (breakbeats, techno, hip-hop-import/domestic, new CDs, vinyl) 4F Kusuhara Bldg., 33-13, Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Tel: 03-3463-1153. Open 12-9pm.

10. Vinyl Japan (prog rock, pop-imported rare vinyl) 7-4-9 Nishi-Shnjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo. Tel: 03-3365-0910. Open 12-9pm.