This is a great article on the music scene in Japan. In the US and Europe indie music is very popular (sometimes even when it’s no good) but it’s very common for small indie artists to get a foothold and grow rather big without ever landing a contract with the big labels.
In some cases they even create their own labels for self release (like Suburban Legends or Less than Jake’s “Fueled by Ramen”) and these labels can grow to be a dominant force in their genre like Bad Religion launching Epitaph, so that the indie labels can go toe to toe with the big labels… at least in their own genre. However this is unheard of in Japan.
In Japan, “punk” is not an attitude or a spirit, it is just a fashion. So Japanese people will think that the Sex Pistols and Avril Lavigne are the same thing, because they are associated with a trend. The British movie This Is England has just been released here, but young Japanese people in are more interested in the skinheads’ wardrobes than in the historical background. They definitely enjoy it as a fashionable film, but won’t consider its political content. They don’t know what a skinhead really is.
Japanese people have a tendency to think that music is not “art”, but “entertainment”, something to be consumed.
Japan is just the opposite, fans flock to big labels and indie releases are seen as a holding pattern until you’re “discovered”. This leads to the assumption that if you haven’t been picked up by a big label you must not be any good.
There could be a lot of possibilities for this: the article mentions how fans see music as a fashion for consumption and not an art in itself. I personally think it has a lot to do with the Japanese tendency to conform, fit-in, and follow authority without question or without bothering to try something that may be “different”. In the west we pride ourselves for listening to something others don’t, in Japan they pride themselves for being a part of the fanbase of all their peers.
Regardless the outcome the result is a music industry even more top heavy than the US with a few massive labels and an almost non existent indie scene. Really there’s nothing wrong with that in itself, being signed to a big label doesn’t mean your music is any worse than before you signed the contract (although the label may make asinine requests to change or market your music). In America we sometimes go too far thinking that because a good band signed a deal with a big label that the music isn’t as good anymore and they’re nothing more than “sellouts”. This is sometimes true but often times not.
In Japan the trend leads music to become more homogenized that usual, good up-and-coming artists can be absorbed into a giant machine like Avex but never promoted as much as the big name artists like Ayumi Hamasaki, or Koda Kumi. Thus they don’t get the exposure, fans don’t find out about them, and they get swept under the rug.
Although I like a lot of big label music from Japan the times I’ve been to Japan it’s been nearly impossible to find underground punk music comparable to what I like in America. And even what I’ve found is usually bands that have been adopted by big labels so that they have a high enough visibility that an outsider on vacation like me can find them.
But when you do stumble upon the tiny underground scene it’s nothing like America. It’s akin to a watering hole slowly evaporating on the Serengeti, as it shrinks it gets more concentrated than when it was huge. So the underground scene in Japan is much more intense and raw than here in America. Instead of finding shows at big venues attended by a bunch of MySpace/HotTopic kids who are there because it’s popular to like psudo-irish music (Flogging Molly concert review coming soon), you get tiny hole-in-the-wall venues full of fans who truly listen to the music for what it is.
It may be small but when you do find it the indie scene is much more like Agnostic Front at CBGB’s than it is like Blink 182 at Warped Tour.
The shame of it is it’s the fans that miss out by not discovering new music they may like more than Ayu-BoA-Amuro-Kumi, and overseas fans miss out because good indie bands never get to play a venue larger than 200 people, let alone perform for an anime intro that might make it to the Japanophiles in the US.