Music isn’t quite a universal language, but it can break down language barriers pretty well. I’ll never forget the day I tentatively stepped into a Japanese rehearsal studio for the first time after agreeing to try out for a band that wanted a native speaking English singer. I was fresh off the boat, my bandmates-to-be spoke next to no English and my Japanese was little better. I must be absolutely insane.
The pre-rehearsal chitchat was a little difficult but once we got our instruments out and started playing, everything improved. We liked the same bands. We couldn’t speak each other’s languages, but we had shared musical experiences. Of course, some foreign musicians have achieved fame and (more rarely) fortune in Japan. Donna Burke sings on the game Metal Gear Solid, does the announcements on the Tokaido shinkansen (bullet train) and is founder of the Dagmusic recording studio and talent booking agency. Monkey Majik, a band started in Sendai by Canadian brothers Maynard and Blaise Plant, were signed by Avex and reached the top of the Oricon charts in the mid- to late-2000s.
If your star rises, great. But the benefits of starting a band in Japan go above and beyond. Through music, I have formed the majority of my friendships here, improved my Japanese and had the time of my life. If this is a passion or an itch you need to scratch, well then: “If music be the food of love” — read on.
I’m a harpist and singer-songwriter from the U.K. While I’ve had a lot of fun performing solo in Japan, to reap the social benefits of playing music, it’s better to join or form a band. Luckily, there are many ways to find your musical soulmates. If you speak even a little Japanese, there are websites dedicated to finding bandmates across the country. I’ve had most luck with Oursounds (Japanese), a nationwide social networking site for bands with a system that’s easy to use even if you don’t speak Japanese.
Many bands want to write lyrics and sing in English and so may well find your perspective valuable and be forgiving of imperfect Japanese language skills. If you want to search for fellow foreigners or Japanese musicians who speak English, there are additional options. The GaijinPot site is one place to start: you could try posting in the classifieds or on its private Facebook group. I’ve met English-speaking musos on Meetup Japan and I’ve known people who have had success with other expat Facebook groups and even Craigslist.
Practice makes perfect
Now that you’ve gathered your musical brethren together, the next step is to find a place to practice. Alas, noise complaints from people who don’t understand your talent are universal. Unless you live in a house, you may have problems with your practicing being heard through the walls and Japanese neighbors complaining. Music friendly apartments do exist, but you will probably have better luck renting studio space. In this arena, Japan leaves the U.K. in the dust. I’ve been constantly impressed with the quality and affordability of studio rental here. If you Google “スタジオ” (studio) you will get options in your local area or you can try this nationwide studio searcher (Japanese).
Because they know they won’t lose money, Japanese music venues are more likely to take a chance on a new face…
What is a live house?
Once your set is starting to sound good, the next step is taking your music to the stage. In Japan, small music venues are called ライブハウス (raibu hausu) or live houses. While your typical live house is probably a rock and roll dive, the term can refer to anything from classy jazz rooms to 200-plus capacity venues. Approaching live houses is simple. There usually are no promoters for entry-level gigs, so venue owners are used to being contacted by bands directly and often have their emails easily accessible on their website. I used no special process, just emailed them with terrible keigo and a link to a YouTube video of my playing.
The new norums
One word that strikes dread into the heart of any indie band in Japan is noruma. It means “quota.” In this case, the number of paying audience members you need to bring to your show or lose your money. Essentially, it’s pay to play — something that is regarded as downright shady in Europe but normal in Japan. Typical noruma stipulations could be five, 10 or 20 people depending on the size of the venue with ticket prices around ¥2,000. So if you play a gig and all of your friends are on the guest list and all of your fans get colds… you could easily lose ¥10,000 of more.
On the surface, there is nothing good about the noruma system, but every cloud has a silver lining. I think it’s thanks to this pay-to-play enterprise that I found it easy to form relationships with live houses even though I was an unknown foreigner with bad Japanese. Because they know they won’t lose money, Japanese music venues are more likely to take a chance on a new face, whereas in the U.K., getting gigs can be a tedious and nepotistic process of knowing someone who knows someone. In my opinion, it’s best to think about noruma-style shows as a stepping stone to better things. For example, I performed a couple of times at a famous-ish Tokyo live house and built up a relationship with the owner who liked my music. She now books me when she has to fill a slot on quiet nights.
Better yet, use this system to establish a name for yourself, get experience, gain followers, make more musician friends and then start organizing gigs yourself. There are many friendly venues who are happy to rent out their spaces to foreigners. You could also lose money by putting on your own nights — but often there is less risk and far more potential reward.
No music, no life
Once I’d played some gigs and organized a few nights myself, I started receiving emails with better and better offers. Sometimes I play for tips and a bar tab at restaurants (probably easier if you are a smaller acoustic duo or band) and sometimes I — gasp! — actually get paid decent money.It’s important to be realistic, however. When you are just starting out, there are no big paydays and fancy riders. Fees can start as low as ¥5,000 to ¥10,000 per gig though there is the potential to earn more if you can land gigs at high-end restaurants or corporate events. Some venues pay well in the long run but expect the first performance to be free. The noruma system isn’t great but so many good things would not have happened for me if I hadn’t put in the time and effort first.
Through playing music in Japan I have made wonderful friends and found creative fulfilment. Certainly, this labor of love isn’t for everyone and I still have serious criticisms of the Japanese live music industry. Still, I can’t imagine my Japan life without music. It was my missing piece and it could be yours, too.
Do you have any experience playing music in Japan and have some tips to share? Let us know in the comments!