John Jay on the Tokyo Music Scene

Posted on February 4, 2008
Filed Under People, Press, W+K | 39 Comments

john jay: the moment

John blogs for the NY Times with this overview of the Tokyo Scene, including the history of W+K Tokyo’s interaction with Tokyo music culture, and the impetus for the inception of W+K Tokyo Lab. The article is also reproduced in full below.

The issues facing the music business — the growth of digital distribution and a new emphasis on live performance, for example — present legal and creative challenges to the livelihood of modern artists. While the business of music may be in peril, music as an art form is progressing and opening niches for a new generation to express itself on the world stage.

Tokyo is facing similar business challenges with resilience and creativity. The music industry is stagnant despite the potential of a highly developed cell-phone culture. The industry was given a psychological hit when a highly popular music retailer, Cisco, shut its doors in Shibuya. Earlier, another retailer, Manhattan Records, the unofficial headquarters of Hip Hop music, ceased doing business at a time of rising rents. Another big hit was felt just today when the iconic club, Yellow, announced its plan to shut its doors this June. Tower Records, long defunct in the U.S., still exists in Tokyo and its classic mantra, “No music, No Life,” still reverberates throughout Tokyo youth culture. Here, music serves as a connector between diverse interests and lifestyles in a society that doesn’t often encourage such cross-over. Interestingly, low-tech vinyl culture continues to live, despite the difficulties brought on by digital sales.

At the start of the new century, Tokyo had emerged as the vinyl capital of the world. During the exuberance, small apartment buildings were turned into mini music shops with each tiny room focused on one genre of music. Venues to experience the artistry of musicians proliferated, and professional DJ schools became available. Music was the common bond of global youth and the confidence of Tokyo’s experimental musicians grew after successful appearances at SxSW in San Antonio by artists such as Cornelius. Today, Tokyo’s subculture of music is creatively thriving but only mainstream music is selling well.

International bands booked gigs in Tokyo just to go record shopping on their days off. Japanese Hip Hop began with the stereotypical emulation, but soon, by using their own language and beats, they formed a sub-culture that outgrew its “sub” label. There was a creative revolution happening and we at Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo wanted to be a part of it — to contribute to the music movement rather that just sit back and observe it. As an industry that often sucks the life out of popular culture, mining it for new ideas it would be our hope to give back to the creative community.

In 1999, Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo produced a limited–edition Japanese Hip Hop album, celebrating new heroes of the NBA for Nike Japan. It eventually became a cult item online, selling for $1000, and was named to the Top 100 Greatest Hip Hop Albums of Japan. Later in 2001, we created DVD’s and LP’s for Nike Presto, a collaboration with six influential Tokyo DJ’s where you could change and remix all the visual and music content with your DVD remote at home.

Suddenly, the “real” music industry began to call and we began to ask, Could we do something for the industry itself? Could we contribute back to the creative community and help them face a changing marketplace? Could we develop original music and ideas for fans without client sponsorship? Could we create a new kind of music label and find a way to encourage young people?

The President of Polystar Records, Ken Hosokawa, had experienced our creative work at club events that Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo had originated for clients. Hosokawa offered to help us put our dream into reality. For two years I kept trying to make it happen but the timing just wasn’t right for us. Finally, in 2003, the agency launched W+K Tokyo Lab. Perhaps it was a result of pent-up energy and creative ideas, but the label launched in 2003, not with one artist but with three very unique and different musicians. Takagi Masakatsu (“Rehome”), DJ Uppercut (“Pieces”) and Hifana (“Fresh Push Breakin’”). The CD/DVD label became a voice for our own hybrid culture of international talent.

10 albums later, W+K Tokyo Lab, the CD/DVD combination packages have become collector favorites and a unique voice for local Tokyo talent in partnership with EMI. Our contributions to the community came from our ability to assemble unusual collaborations of visual creators and producers to bring new Tokyo music to life. The project — going beyond the definition of an ad agency and earning the right to be an authentic music influencer for Tokyo youth — passionately continues. In 2008, W+K Tokyo Lab will raise the bar by creating new mediums of expression such as Tokyo Ten, a collaborative effort inviting over 40 of our creative partners to work digitally together through a blog interface and design the contents of a book celebrating the uniqueness of Tokyo.

W+K Tokyo Lab is in constant search for new talent and recently added two very interesting and fresh artists to its roster. Jemapur is 20 years old, an innovative track maker who is a superb composer, and Chin Za Dopeness is one of the most innovative talents in the popular free-style scene. New creativity will come from the Lab’s efforts to foster breakthrough ideas in Tokyo’s unique digital cell phone culture.

HIFANA CONCERT IMG

You can see Tokyo Lab’s library of music videos on MySpace and learn more about its philosophy on its Web site.

Creating better and innovative music will lead the way to a brighter musical future. If you have the ideas, the business will follow.

Comments

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