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Exploring the Japanese Underground Music Scene with Kaala Music

In February 2022, I had the pleasure to interview Matt Ketchum from Akiya & Inaka, and he shared his expertise on vacant houses in Japan. During the course of that conversation, he mentioned his passion and involvement with the Japanese underground music scene, and drew some unexpected parallels with the vacant houses problem.

The Japanese underground scene is hard to access for the neophyte, which is one of the reasons why Matt and his long-time friend Chris decided to build Kaala Music, a service designed to help bands who would like to tour Japan, as well as fans who would like to dip their toes in that rich music ecosystem. 

Read on to learn what makes the underground scene difficult to access for first-timers, the difficulties foreign bands may encounter while touring Japan, and the solutions Kaala Music offers to provide enjoyable music trips for bands and audiences alike.

The Difficulties of Entering the Japanese Underground Music Scene

My impression is that the Japanese underground music scene is difficult to discover if you’re not invited by friends who already know the places to go or play. How did you start exploring that scene, and what keeps you drawn to it?

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the US, and got into hardcore punk when I was 13. There was a venue there called the Mr. Roboto Project which was the go-to place for independent musicians, a lot of them being punk. Pittsburgh is not a small city but it’s not on many tour circuits. Still, for some reason, during summer vacation, many Japanese bands would tour the United States and play in Pittsburgh at that venue. In fact, that’s the reason I started learning Japanese—to talk to all these people.

In 2008, I went to my first venue in Japan, Earthdom in Okubo, a highly regarded venue for the metal scene. I went to see a band called Coffins, which is quite big. However, underground venues are literally underground. At the time, the venue had a sign which was in the staircase, behind a corner. Nowadays they don’t even have a sign. So, unless there are audience members with t-shirts and battle jackets hanging out outside, you cannot see the place. You have to know exactly where to go. So of course, I got lost and I went to the police box, dressed up like some degenerate [laughs], and they explained how to get there. That is when I met Chris, who is our photographer at Kaala.

What keeps me going back to the underground scene in Japan is its diverse offering in genres: death metal, grindcore, and doom being currently the most popular. I am also drawn to the audience. Just compare the audience at an extreme metal show and the corporate board at any big Japanese company [laughs]. At underground venues, you will find people of all nationalities, all shapes, and all sizes. It’s really diverse and shows another side of Japan that is rarely, if ever, on display.

Matt Ketchum (photo credit: Chris Granum)

In our previous interview about Akiya & Inaka, you mentioned that many underground bands don’t even exist online and are hard to find if you don’t know them personally, drawing a parallel with good vacant houses that are very difficult to find. What are the other specificities (and difficulties) of Japanese underground music compared to what people can experience in the US, for example?

My opinion on the underground Japanese scene is that it is objectively better than the one in the US, and the reason for that is infrastructure. Organizationally speaking, it’s all over the place, but from a logistics point of view, it’s better. If you’re a touring band in Japan, all you need is your instrument, because most venues are backlined. Especially if you work with me, I’ll book 100% back lined venues. Of course, you won’t play on state-of-the-art equipment. It’s probably going to be used gear. And in Japan you can rely on trains for transportation. The experience of touring in Japan is outstanding because it’s easy and forgiving. It’s also safe: you don’t need a van that might get stolen, and there is no gun violence.

When I had a band, in Seattle, I noticed how extreme it was. At every venue you have to bring your own guitars, amps, your full drum kit… the band needs to own anything that makes noise. On top of that, they also need to own a van to transport all of that when going on tour. So, just to start a band in the US it costs $15,000. The barrier to entry is so high that I don’t understand how there are so many bands in the US.

However, Japan has become worse in the last few years from a data perspective. It has become more analog from an organizational point of view. All the things you would need if you’re not a fan and have never been to a concert here—listings with band names and links and accounts on Spotify, YouTube, or Bandcamp—are not available. It takes considerable work to know what’s going on. I can understand some gatekeeping to a certain extent, but I think that’s an excuse. What it really does is that it harms potential turnouts and makes it unreasonably difficult for everybody that participates in the underground music industry ecosystem. It makes it unprofitable, by which I mean being paid for what you do with a bit on the side.

Let’s say I’m a fan of a particular band. How do I know where they’re going to play next? Do I have to rely on announcements during gigs?

You can do that, but it’s like the chicken and the egg: how do you get to a show in the first place? Facebook and Twitter are used by a lot of venues and bands, but it’s not very well organized in terms of searchability. For example, you might have the name of the venue but not the location of it. My method is to acquire knowledge of the top five venues for the genres you are interested in, and go to each of their websites and look at their schedule.

The Birth of Kaala Music

Photo credit: Chris Granum

A comment that I often see online is that Japanese music is terrible. Where do you think this image comes from, and what can you say about the quality of the Japanese underground music industry?

I know what people refer to when people say Japanese music is terrible. Johnny [of Johnny and Associates] has been in the news recently for sad and terrible reasons. And guess what? Johnny is the guy who made the major music industry in Japan: he is the model! Aside from sexual exploitation, which is inexcusable, you can make an argument for that lowest common denominator model from a business point of view by saying “I’m going to make cookie-cutter music, which is the most accessible, thus selling the most, so I make more money,” but that’s just a soulless consumer product, and I don’t touch that.

The Japanese mainstream music industry’s production of CDs, from today’s point of view, is also wasteful, like the AKB48 model [which encouraged fans to buy multiple copies the same CD in order to get different album-cover pictures, tickets for fan meetings, and more]. For me, that industry is more spectacle and consumption than music: there is a lot of dancing and flashing lights. It’s a choreographed performance that is more like a movie than a concert. The band members are the face of sound that has been engineered.

Compared to that, in the underground music industry, people write songs that came 100% from their brain, and nobody told them how to write it. It’s genuine, original, intentional, and very creative. Of course, genres have their stylistic bases, but these evolve differently, especially depending on the geography. It’s also very selfless. When I started booking bands, I’d give them their cut and they’d tell me, “I’m not taking your money, it’s ok, we get the sales from the merchandising.” I had to force them to take their cut for their performance.

Is that how promoters work here? Taking their share and not giving anything to the bands?

Japan often operates on a pay to play system, so each band that performs has a quota of tickets that they need to sell. That’s common, but nothing has that locked in. In fact, I don’t work with venues that require that system, because it’s exploitative. The band is there to play music, they’re not marketers. My job, as the booker and the promoter, is to get heads in doors.

One of the major reasons we started Kaala is that we saw all the inefficiencies in bookings and exploitation, the things that made it difficult. When I started booking, the place in Okubo cost 200,000 yen to reserve for a night, although they changed their system now. When I first started, I didn’t have that much money in the bank. As a first timer, in such conditions, you’re probably just not going to do it, which means venues only have a small group of seasoned bookers that control the scene.

Photo credit: Chris Granum

Are there other things that made you realize there was a need for the services that Kaala Music offers?

What we do is that we put bands and fans on tour in Japan. One reason for that is that the US and Japan are very bad at delivering performance visas for bands, which we can now issue. Also, operating costs are quite high. To bring them down, you’ve probably heard about bands sleeping on the floor, which I have done in the past and is an absolutely terrible experience.

If you’re a band and want to tour in Japan, you need to get a visa, you need to get good hotel rooms, and you need to be eating correctly. So, for me to put a band on tour in Japan, it’s going to be at least 20,000 dollars for four people. What is hard for bands to understand is that if you come on tour in Japan, you’re not going to make money, you’re going to lose money. It’s better to think of it as a vacation on which they will play a few concerts. To optimize their time, they can play on Friday, Saturday, and another day of the week.

Then, they have some downtime, during which they can shoot music videos with our media production crew, get some Instagram posts, and we can get them in an akiya and film them there, and so on. They can do all sorts of interesting things that are not an immediate return on investment, but in the long term, will make them more interesting, potentially generate more fans in Japan or back home.

And one day, we just thought, “Why don’t we put the audience on tour?” and we had the idea to put up a vacation package for people who like a certain type of music.

Cross-Cultural Guidance

Photo credit: Chris Granum

How do you ensure the fans’ experience matches their tastes and interests?

We cannot make promises on what shows exactly they’ll be able to go to. We cannot be extremely specific, so if you come to Japan as a music fan, you must be open to experiencing bands and sounds that you may not have thought of otherwise.

A lot of work goes into dietary stuff. For example, Japan is not a very vegan-friendly country. I was vegan for six years, so I know what it is about. It would be nice if it weren’t the case, but it’s not made to accommodate extremely picky people. In Seattle, the way restaurants and businesses conduct themselves allows you to be picky if you want to be picky. It’s an option, and you will get that service. You can’t do that in Japan.

On top of shows, food, and accommodations, you also provide experiences. What makes all of this different from what can be found via typical travel agencies or websites?

Well, nobody can book what we book. If you leave people to their own devices, and they start booking ryokan [Japanese traditional inn] in particular, many of them don’t have private showers, and you need to be naked with everybody. Some people don’t like that, but they won’t be aware of that. Again, if you want choice, ryokan are not very welcoming most of the time. For example, food is typically included, and you cannot get a non-food inclusive package, which means you are stuck on their premises and cannot go out and experience other food. You cannot go to a concert because if you’re not back by 6:30 pm, they’ll be angry about you not making that dinner call. So, they can be problematic for people who are not used to that kind of offering.

So, you’re also acting as a cultural guide through all the cultural differences that may happen in Japan.

Yes! If you book with Kaala, I’m going to be with you every day of your tour. I have seen bands left to their own devices, and they ended up hitchhiking because their ryokan was two miles from the closest station. When you have a show booked on the same night, that’s a big problem. I’ll be taking care of such problems, misunderstandings, and of course, the language barrier.

A lot of people freak out the first time they land at Haneda, even before they’ve gotten out of the airport. The number of trains, the people… Especially if they’ve never been out of their country. And, apologies to my fellow Americans, but Americans are particularly bad at this [laughs]. They don’t go to other countries very often, and because of that, when they go to a country that is like Japan, there is culture shock. They’re scared to go, and when they do, they find they were correct to be scared, so they don’t do it again, and it just gets worse. That’s why getting this kind of service in other countries, making sure they have a good experience, so they can have another good experience, is important.

Is there any advice you’d like to give someone about to start their musical journey in Japan?

Go to shows! That’s where everything happens. If you get physically immersed in that environment, you will learn things.

Top photo credit: Chris Granum

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.

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