Ian Martin is a man who wears many hats. Not only is he busy running his own Tokyo based music label, Call and Response Records, home to bands like Looprider, Tropical Death, and SHARKK, but Ian’s also a seasoned journalist with many articles printed in The Japan Times. In addition, he’s a published author with a book, Quit Your Band! Musical Notes From the Japanese Underground, covering the rich history of Japanese rock, as well as some of the fascinating but less well-known facets of Japan’s music scene. He was kind enough to answer some of our questions about bands and the challenges of managing an independent label.
First off, can you tell us how you ended up running a record label in Tokyo? What was your impetus for starting one?
It really flowed out of organizing live events. Venues in Tokyo tend to be pretty small and audiences are rarely more than two or three dozen, so the bar for participation didn’t seem unreachably high for an amateur. I think what really happened was that after a year or so, I wanted to have something more tangible and long-lasting to show for my efforts, which is why I gathered some of the bands I liked onto a compilation album. Of course, it ended up being way longer-lasting than I really wanted, and I still have hundreds of unsold copies of that album cluttering up a spare room at my sister-in-law’s house. That was the start, though.
Interesting. I know quite a few labels got started with compilation albums including, I believe, grunge icon Sub Pop. What are some of the things you look for in a band whose music you release?
I don’t usually have a conscious shopping list of attributes in mind, and it’s probably changed over time—for example, if you listen to that first compilation album and then some of the music I’ve released in the past year, I think there are some obvious differences as well as a lot of similarities. I guess in terms of the sound, a lot of what I release still kicks off from a kind of post-punk and new wave-influenced starting point, or the three big “post-” genres: post-punk, post-hardcore, and post-rock—post-everything, I guess.
Increasingly, though, the most important thing is the question, “Are these people I can work with?” If the musicians make amazing music, look cool, whatever, it’s worthless if they’re flaky people who cancel gigs, go on regular long hiatuses, don’t do any work to promote their gigs, and don’t have any appreciation of the work I put in to help them. On the other hand, you have a band like P-iPLE, who right from the moment they started were just really energetic and enthusiastic, and really fun and easy to work with, so it really felt so much more rewarding to do stuff with them and to see them grow up as a band. I mean, I don’t make any money out of this, so what’s the point in doing it if it isn’t fun?
Yes, music and music making should be fun! Ian, you’ve written a book about the Japanese music scene and underground music. This is a broad question, but what’s your take on independent and underground music in Japan? Are most of these bands playing for the love of the music or are some of them aiming for stardom?
I suppose the facetious answer to that question would be “yes”. I mean, there are both, and there are also bands that I have absolutely no idea why they’re doing it! To namedrop a bit shamelessly here, I was interviewing Jim O’Rourke recently and he made an astute comment that I don’t think made it into the final published text—along the lines that most people make music or get involved in music for the social aspects. I think he’s right about that, and that doesn’t diminish the passion many people have for music, but rather that music is a hook that gathers people together under the umbrella of a shared interest.
The title of your book is “Quit Your Band”, which I’m guessing is a somewhat humorous nod to the fact that most bands hit a wall at some point. What are genres popular with indie bands right now? Is it mostly guitar driven or more hip-hop/beat driven or just a mix of everything?
When you say, “popular with indie bands”, you’re kind of defining the genre a bit, to begin with though, aren’t you? I mean, indie bands are only one category of bands, who invite certain musical expectations.
What I mean is that a lot of hip-hop artists wouldn’t classify themselves as “indie bands”, and those who would, are a certain kind of hip-hop act who maybe have some connections to the indie rock scene, like Skillkills or something.
Yes, that’s a good point. In the U.S. “indie band” connotes a certain style. In some ways, audiences are more fragmented than ever but also easier to reach via social media and other online channels. Has the amount of self-promotion bands have to do increased over the years in your opinion?
Not really. The nature of promotion has certainly changed with the growing importance of the web, and there’s been a growth of artists who exist pretty much entirely online as a result. As far as bands playing live in real places goes, I think social media has just become another largely passive tool musicians have at their disposal when getting the word out.
But that’s always been the case—flyer distribution is mostly passive in that most of them are left in record stores or live venues, or they’re handed out in bundles at the entrance of venues and immediately chucked in the garbage. Social media isn’t so different from that, except you don’t even have to leave home to do it. At least as long as I’ve been here, the promotion has always been entirely the responsibility of the artist or organizer—venues don’t usually do much to help.
Although there’s some pay-to-play (where the band pays to play a concert) in the U.S. and other places, my understanding is this is the norm in Japan, is that the case?
Pretty much. Bands are given a quota of tickets they need to sell by the venue and then when they miss the quota, they have to pay the difference themselves. It’s usually something like 10–25 tickets at 1500–2300 yen each. If you want to avoid this system, there are plenty of ways to do so though. You might need to compromise on the quality of the PA system or back line the venue can provide, but there are always places. And venues are pretty inconsistent in applying it too: if they really like you, they often won’t ask you to pay anything. But yeah, despite the efforts of some venues to break the stranglehold of pay-to-play on the live scene, it’s still the official standard, albeit one young bands are increasingly looking to avoid.
I guess finding a place to play has always been a challenge for bands! Speaking of which, in the U.S. bands might rehearse in a garage or basement. That seems less likely in Japan. Are rehearsal studios difficult to find and also expensive?
At least in Tokyo, there are tonnes of well-equipped rehearsal studios with amps, full drum sets, PA etc. that cost in the region of 1200–2300 yen per hour to rent, so for a band that’s pretty reasonable. Bands can sometimes use the larger rooms to put on small gigs as well, and those kinds of studio shows are probably the closest equivalent to a house party that you can experience in Tokyo.
Elsewhere in Japan, depending on your neighborhood, you might be able to play music in your house or garage, but generally, the thin walls of Japanese houses, the tightly-packed neighborhoods, and the strict policing of any extraneous noise makes it impossible. Children are passing out in classrooms this summer because the neighbors complain if the schools open the windows in summer. Some kindergartens are unable to let toddlers play outside because old people call the cops on them. In that sort of environment, rehearsing a punk band is a big no-no.
I see. So, the Japanese version of the mid-’60’s Nuggets bands would have been called something other than “garage rock!”
The closest Japanese equivalents of the Nuggets bands were called “Group Sounds“.
Yes! The Golden Cups!
Probably the only one of those bands I really consider worth listening to, honestly. Although I saw them at Fuji Rock last year and they were kind of disappointing and middle-of-the-road. I mean, they’re old guys now, so expecting the crazed fuzz-rock of their youth is kind of unfair in the first place, I guess.
There are many music festivals in Japan. Is getting a slot at one of them realistic for most independent bands or even something they aspire to do?
Of the big festivals, Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic make some spaces available to indie bands. There’s nearly always one or two bands I know on Fuji Rock’s Rookie A Go-Go stage, and sometimes on the smaller stages inside the main festival, too. There are smaller festivals around the country, although the lineups for them tend to be quite similar. Right at the bottom end, there are circuit events, which are kind of like mini-festivals in urban areas where there are stages spread around among several live venues. Shimokitazawa in Tokyo has massive circuit events a couple of times a year like Shimokitazawa Sound Cruising, that rope in basically every venue in the area.
That sounds like fun, perhaps not with the current heat wave in Japan, though. Although maybe the last CD holdout nation on earth, I’ve read that streaming is becoming more popular in Japan. How has this impacted a record label like yours?
It’s hard to tell at the moment because we’re a small label so our sales figures aren’t really big enough to draw wider conclusions from. As it stands, I have to release CDs because bands always want a physical product and vinyl is still just way too expensive to produce for a label like mine. Cassettes are a thing, and we’ve done a few, but they’re still basically a gimmick for all but a few dedicated fans of the form.
I’ve been resistant to streaming so far, partly because bands are still usually paying for their own recording and only shop it around to me after it’s done, so I only feel I really have the rights to the physical product. As a result, Call And Response artists’ online presence has been inconsistent—acts like Looprider, SHARKK, and Tropical Death have made their music available online in various forms, so there’s a fair amount of good stuff of ours available to hear, but other bands have ignored it completely.
I’m getting closer and closer to going back over everything, extracting permissions from bands, and getting as much of it on streaming as possible, although not so much for the Japanese streaming audience as for the overseas one. It’s just a problem of time because there’s always something new on the horizon, and obviously, the customers who are making the effort to buy physical media are always going to be a higher priority. I’m not fundamentally morally against streaming exactly, but perhaps because of what a struggle it is to keep going with an endeavor like this, I just relate to people who have made a bigger effort to engage with the music more, and as a result, I value them more.
So, what’s next for Call and Response Records?
Well, we just put out this utterly unique and quite eerie and beautiful album called Dictionary (Handwritten) by a Fukuoka band called Sea Level, and we’re putting the finishing touches to the debut album Entomological Souvenirs I by this pretty intense, kind of Sonic Youth-ish noise-rock band called Velvet Ants. After that, we’re working on a couple on international split singles and EPs. I’m working with a UK-based label on a split 7-inch with one of our bands and a band from the UK, and we’ve also got a sort of riot grrrl-themed split CD EP with a Japanese band and a band from the Philippines, which I think is going to be pretty awesome. In theory, I’m working on my second book too, so we’ll see how that goes!
As is evident, Ian has put quite a bit of time and effort into nurturing bands and reporting on and expanding Japan’s alternative music scene. We thank him for his willingness to share his perspective.