Live Music Exchange Blog

The pervasive curse of pay-to-play in Tokyo – James Hadfield


Today’s guest post is by James Hadfield, an English writer and photographer based in Tokyo, where he writes about music and other subjects for The Japan Times and Tokyo TimeOut amongst others. In this piece he looks at the ubiquity of pay-to-play, or noruma, in the Japanese capital.

In theory, the contract between musician and music venue is pretty simple. Venues book music that people want to hear. Musicians play that music. People come to see them, and gladly pay for the privilege. Everyone goes home happy, their pockets lined with silver and hearts warmed by the knowledge of a creative endeavour well done.

You need only spend a few days trawling the amateur circuit – actually, make that any live music circuit – to know that things don’t normally work so smoothly. Never mind the countless brilliant talents who’ve been reduced to penury by a cloth-eared public who’d rather be listening to Robin Thicke: what of the local heroes who draw a capacity crowd one night, then end up playing to a dozen stragglers a few weeks later? The online sensations whose plethora of Facebook likes and Twitter followers end up translating into approximately zero takings on the door? The venue that books impeccable line-ups, but struggles to draw a crowd because it’s in a duff location?

Oh, there are plenty of intangibles. But what happens when one of the most basic assumptions of the music scene – the supply and demand ratio between performer and listener – gets flipped on its head? You might get something like the live circuit in Tokyo.

The Japanese capital is a city with lots of everything, and music venues are no different. There are hundreds of the damn places, from vast auditoriums like the Budokan to cramped performance spaces that make my apartment look spacious in comparison. For the musicians who’ve “made it”, in the sense of having solid record label backing and the attention of the country’s spoon-fed music press, live shows might adhere to the simplistic model that I sketched in the opening paragraph. But for anyone operating on the lower rungs of the industry, life is tougher: you have to pay noruma.

Noruma translates literally as “quota”, and that’s basically what it is: venues will routinely ask musicians to guarantee a fixed number of tickets for their shows, usually 15 or 20 per act. If said musicians are able to convince that many supportive (or gullible) friends to come and watch them, often paying upwards of 2,000 yen (about £13) for the privilege, they’re in the clear – and can expect a portion of any additional takings if they really manage to pack the place out. But if they fail to bring in the requisite number of punters, they’ll be expected to foot the bill themselves at the end of the night.

When expat musicians hear about this system for the first time, they’re generally appalled. Sure, pay-to-play is hardly a uniquely Japanese concept (I remember The Barfly in Sheffield [RIP] enforcing a similar policy), but I’ve not heard of anywhere else in the world where it’s used as systematically as it is here. And it’s not just a question of rapacious venues cynically exploiting whichever wannabe is dumb enough to stump up the cash (though those places certainly exist) – many of the most esteemed live spots on the Tokyo indie circuit are also willing participants in the scheme.

For an unsigned band, noruma becomes a significant part of your operating costs. There’s nothing in Tokyo to resemble the London pub circuit, meaning that pretty much every gig you play has to be at a dedicated music venue and comes with a price tag attached, often working out at around 30,000-40,000 yen (£200-268) a pop. The path followed by many British bands, starting shambolic and then slowly honing themselves into a decent live act as they play more shows, is pretty much impossible here unless you’re well connected or have very, very deep pockets. Instead, bands practise furiously in the studio, emerging occasionally for the thrill of playing to a three-quarters-empty venue on a Wednesday evening.

It’s madness, right? Why would anyone choose that as a model for a live music scene?

My music writer pal Ian Martin tackled the subject in a column for the Japan Times a few years ago, and created some quite heated arguments in the process. In “Cruel to be kind: Does noruma work in bands’ favor?”, he advances the unpopular view that the system, however unfortunate, is a simple matter of economic necessity. “Tokyo musicians, rather than audience members, are the customers,” he writes, “and live venues are geared up primarily to provide them (sadly in many cases more so than the audience) with a service.”

That “service” is a pretty respectable one, all told. Forget lugging your amps and drum kit to every show: venues provide all of the essential gear, and even the grottiest dives often pack pricey Marshall stacks and Orange amps. There’s also a proper sound engineer manning the mixing desk throughout the night, rather than buggering off as soon as you’ve finished the sound check, which is what I’d always assumed was the norm before coming here. If you’re lucky, the venue might even put you on a bill with some acts with a similar audience – though it’s far more common to find sensitive singer-songwriters wedged alongside jam bands and hirsute headbangers, each of them eliciting enthusiastic applause from “their” crowd and blank-faced silence from everyone else in the room.

None of these perks really justify paying the equivalent of a couple of hundred quid just to play a show, mind you. And that’s where the supply/demand thing comes in: Tokyo has a lot more music venues than it really needs, but more importantly it also has a lot more musicians. While there are plenty of thriving scenes and subcultures to be found here, I’d hazard that a sizeable chunk of the gigs taking place on any given night consist of bands who don’t, and never will, have any kind of following. When they take to the stage, they’re not satisfying any kind of consumer demand besides their own, so why should someone else have to pick up the bill?

That’s just one side of the picture, mind you. Even when musicians are part of an established, mutually supportive scene, this in itself might not be enough to make a gig viable. Here are a few of the Grim Realities of Running a Small-Scale Music Venue in Tokyo:

• Rents are high for that dingy basement of yours, sometimes astronomically so

• Staff don’t come cheap. Well, not that cheap

• Unless you book acts with proper record label backing, the music press is probably going to ignore every show you put on. Actually, they’ll probably do that anyway

• You can forget about relying on a widely read listings magazine or website to give you a publicity boost, either. Basically, there aren’t any

• Even the popular acts are only a big draw when they’re playing their own headlining shows. Their fans won’t come to watch them open for somebody else

• Punters tend not to drink much at shows (to the extent that venues routinely make people buy a drink ticket on the door, to guarantee at least one bar sale per customer)

• Punters tend not to go to gigs much in the first place anyway

In Ian’s story, he quotes the booking managers of two well-regarded venues on the Tokyo indie circuit, both of whom defend the noruma system. Take away the pay-to-play, says one manager, and “live venues would just close.” The other argues – not implausibly, I might add – that the system also makes life easier for people making weirder, less commercial music. If venues had to rely solely on booking acts that were guaranteed to bring a crowd, “the only bands who would get gigs would be major-label bands and young bands being groomed for major success.”

That comment hints at the wider problem. The systematic use of noruma only makes sense in the context of a music scene where casual gig-going is unusual, indie acts are starved of media attention, and only the scene insiders (read: venue staff and the bands themselves) have a clue what’s going on around town most nights of the week. With a less rigidly hierarchical music industry, a more dynamic and inquisitive music press, a more engaged and better-informed listening public, the system might not be necessary.

But that’s an awful lot of hypotheticals. In the meantime, if you’re an aspiring indie band looking to play in Tokyo, you’ll probably have to pay.

James Hadfield

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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