WITNESS the seedy underbelly of the Visual Kei scene

Everyone, stop what you’re doing and read Tokyo Damage Report’s epic piece on the visual kei music scene. The way it’s written makes it hard to quote, but here are some relevant facts. The interview is long but well worth your time. Read to find out:

  • The coming together of of shojo manga and glam rock that created Visual Kei in the 80s.
  • How Japanese recording acts are formed and popularized.
  • How popular bands find ways to maximize revenue from fans (selling photos, lots of “limited edition” merchandise, and special izakaya parties for the most gullible/hardcore fans)
  • Where the labels go to find talent (it’s mostly ex-thugs).
  • Why Japanese record producers — think Yasushi Akimoto of AKB48, Tsunku of Morning Musume, etc. — are so heavily relied upon to produce every aspect of the final product that they become drug-addled auteurs.
  • The typical salary for a visual kei band member (lots of in-kind perks, very little cash)… and why they put up with it
  • The willingness of label bosses to forego short-term financial gain in favor of long-term connections (perhaps an ubiquitous aspect of Japanese business relations)

For some reason he’s been sitting on this gem since 2008! Shame on you, man.

It’s hard to tell the credibility of some parts, but I think it’s easier to swallow as a true-to-life mockumentary than as a faithfully transcripted interview.

To close out, here’s the video for one of my favorite viz-k songs, Luna Sea’s “Tonight”:

24 thoughts on “WITNESS the seedy underbelly of the Visual Kei scene”

  1. Yeah, great. Except the white text on black background screws with the eyes so bad it’s impossible to read the whole article…

  2. @hidflect

    I agree with the black on white. Using Firefox, I went to View>>Page Style>>No Style to convert it to a “print mode” like format.

    “In this case, the producer is the person who writes all the songs and lyrics for the band. Although, it’s quite normal for a producer to put the band together, decide their look and concept, AND write the songs!”

    This is where I think mainstream music in Japan went off the rails. There are very few George Martins or Quincy Joneses.

  3. That article reminds me of a chapter from an old book called Speed Tribes by Greenfeld. One of the chapters described the struggles an indie rock band had after being ripped off by their manager. It outlined the way Japanese bands get famous is to have a song used in a TV commercial. The typical way for songs to be picked for TV commercials is for the record company to cough up payola.

    Speed Tribes was kind of a strange book because some chapters were about true events that were only barely fictionalized. I always wondered what band was being described.

  4. Check out Bloomberg.com for some truly epic white-text-on-black-background action. Along with the yellow headlines it looks like they might have taken inspiration from those Christian signs all around rural Japan.

  5. Based on the little bit I know about the music industry in Japan, this interview sounds 100% legit, but I’d like to see Marxy’s take on it.

  6. Of course, black background is part of the Bloomberg brand. And amber on black is actually easier on the eyes to read than one would think. Like black on yellow, you can discern text from a distance as well.

    Which is probably why one would decide to write signs with quotes from the Bible in a similar format.

  7. Japan is a sweet place to start a business. You can treat your employees like shit and pay them peanuts, and they won’t complain because they are part of your ‘family’

  8. It’s hard to tell the credibility of some parts

    I’ve been reading TDR for close to 10 years, and don’t get me wrong: I love his style and there’s sometimes some top-notch “reporting” from the trenches of Tokyo’s weird underground… But if this is a bona fide interview, I am a 19th century space-vampire drag queen with 6ft bat wings.

    At the very best, it would be a heavily reworked (in form, if not in content) recount of that guy’s words. Some bits are near-identical reformulations of points he made in previous entries (older than 2008)… Which is not to say that all of it is inaccurate (I’m sure TDR knows its Visual Kei lore), but allow me to cast some serious doubt on the existence of “Satou-san” as anything else than a mouthpiece for combination of miscellaneous random tidbits gleaned by TDR, mixed in with his own personal reflections after a near-decade hanging out near the scene (including a lot of things that apply to Japanese [pop] music in general, which are universal knowledge).

    I don’t think it would matter much, and I get the feeling TDR might have intended as such… but seeing this link pop up in absolutely every Japan-related blogs and presented as straight-up evidence-based investigative journalism, leaves me quite uneasy…

  9. Mmm, the interview is way too long and elaborate to be fake, who would bother?. And a lot of things in there sound very true (the fact that band members are general purpose minimal wage worker rather than actual musicians etc.). And we know some of the business practices described in there also apply to other parts of the entertainment world in Japan.

    A lot of it sounds a bit gossipy though, maybe the interviewee is someone with second hand (rather than first hand) knowledge? Another thing that bugs me is that “Satoh-san” doesn’t sound like a japanese person talking english at all, but he doesn’t sound like an english native either.

  10. I didn’t call it evidence-based journalism, I called it a probably true-to-life mockumentary. The music industry is secretive enough that exposes like this seem like about the best we can do to learn how it operates.

  11. Serious exposes are very difficult because the industry shuts out or sues anyone who spills even a single bean. I’m thinking of the case of Oricon (the chart compiler) suing a freelancer (Hiro Ugaya) who was quoted in another journalist’s article. Ugaya was quoted in the article saying the chart pads sales figures for preferred artists. There was another foreign journalist, whose name I don’t remember, who wrote a story about unfair contracts and got blackballed.

    It doesn’t mean we should lower our journalistic standards for blogs. But it is a reason why you aren’t going to be reading/watching stories on the problems in any mainstream press.

  12. White background on website kill my eyes (too much backlight), so I’d rather read on templates like TDR’s, but that’s just me. This is not a piece of paper, this is a computer screen.

  13. @napa: “too long and elaborate to be fake”? You obviously have never read any content on TDR 😉 This is, to a dot, exactly the style (length and endless digressions included) of practically everything he has written on his website. Not saying that’s a proof it is fake (which is not quite what I’d call it anyway), but certainly not evidence against it.

    As for Sato-san’s English: it is also very exactly the usual tone and style of TDR (standard Japanish jabs included). There again: this is not saying much, as it would be perfectly possible that TDR translated the original source to English in his own voice (hence my “heavily rewritten at best” original statement).

    @Adamu: Sorry, I wasn’t referring to you particularly (which is why I quoted your own doubt regarding the credibility of the source)…
    But out of the small dozen of Japanese-related blogs I read (most of which are usually as far as can be from covering music and visual kei), I’d say half have been linking to it. And not all of them take the mandatory step back to realise it is not a piece of journalism but probably more, as you call it a “mockumentary”…

  14. I forgot to add a link to an old article written by the sound engineer/musician Steve Albini about the American recording industry. http://www.negativland.com/albini.html

    He used figures to show that a typical band singed to a major American label in the 90s earned about one-third of what they would get if they worked at a 7-11. So exploited Japanese musicians don’t come off quite so bad.

  15. Musicians being underpaid (on average) is not too surprising. What surprises me is that the “idols” and bands that make it in Japan are not all that musically endowed. The bands sound like they’re imitating video games and the idols sound like they’re imitating normal women singing karaoke.

    rant, rant, snarky snark…

  16. suprise surprise Asian popmusic is even worse than its european counterpart

  17. Read TDR’s translation of the Ura Hello Work book – the style is the same – this is how he translates stuff – it ends up with his voice. My guess is the interview is real.

  18. Awesome find, thanks for sharing. I have a friend who used to work for columbia music and he told me that most of the folks that make it big are not really there because of their talent. Like any other country, its all about how well you play the game and if your inner shark is strong enough.

  19. OMG, I used to read TDR but then it shut down at its old URL a couple years ago and I didn’t know it re-launched. The guy who does that site is hilarious. I loved his review of the Hello Kitty theme park (Puyoland?) and his piece on Japanese Punk Butts.

    Thanks for cluing me in to its renewed existence.

  20. As always the number of people willing to talk about the quality of a translation without ever having seen the source text is breathtaking. Hey, at least it’s consistent in the target language.

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