Start Your Music Career in Japan

Features - March 16th, 2007

 by Ben Meehan 

Being a foreigner in Japan does have many advan­tages, particularly as a musician. If you look and sound good here, there are many potential jobs that you will be hired for ahead of a Japanese musician. The fact that you are a native speaker is in itself a valuable commodity. For example, narration. A friend of mine from London read three articles from the Yomiuri Shimbun and was paid ¥120,000 for 25 min­utes work! However, if you are a budding Pavarotti, Celine Dion, talented instrumentalist or even if you can’t sing a note you still need to know how to get started and how it works here in Japan.

Prep Work

First off you need a demo re­cording. A demo can be as sim­ple as an MP3 recording done on an iPod in your living room, or a professional CD you cut in a studio. The important thing is that it should demonstrate on your demo as many of the styles that you perform—re­member that you may have opportunities in other genres that are not your primary spe­cialty. Pop, rock, jazz, classical and heavy metal are all styles that come up on a regular basis—best to cover all the bases. The same goes for narration if you can speak another language (even Japanese) best to get samples of everything.

The second essential as a part of your resume is that you will need a decent photograph of yourself. Again professional is better but anything with a clear headshot will do. You have to remember even if the job is audio only, the studio and the agency want to get an idea of your personality, and the pictures will sell you as much as the recordings.

if you are late or unrehearsed or get a little bit
tipsy on your gig, you can forget about
a regular slot becoming available.

Lastly, if you need to expand your equipment, any musician who has gone to one of the big music shops in Ochanomizu or Shibuya will appreciate the absolutely unbelievable selection of equipment—do­mestic and foreign—available in Japan. Unfortunately prices can be steep, particularly for American and vin­tage equipment. The good news is Japanese-made in­struments like Yamaha, Takamine and Japanese-made Fender, are all very reasonably priced and excellently made. Second hand instruments are also very much a buyer’s market here particularly for guitars and audio equipment. Most of the larger shops have a homepage with regular updates with the latest offers—but most shops don’t speak English.

Getting Started

Once you have your demo and pictures, whom do you give them to? Of course you can go straight to venues, studios and record/production companies, but I think the best place to start is with an agency. There are many agencies handling foreign tal­ent in Japan, but definitely one of the most reputable for TV and radio recording work is DAG agency. Started by Aus­tralian Jazz songstress Donna Burke, who is an accomplished recording and live artist, the agency has been the leading provider of top foreign talent to the leading production and re­cording companies for the last few years. All you need to do is send in your details and lat­est demo/pictures then sit back and wait as they showcase your stuff to everyone who needs to hear it.

Best Foot Forward—Every Gig

As my old tutor in college would say, “You are only as good as your last gig.” This has never been so true as in Japan. When you get a gig in Japan, make sure you are well prepared because unlike Europe or the US, musicians, in general, are a little bit looked down upon, and if you are late or unrehearsed or get a little bit tipsy on your gig, you can forget about a regular slot becoming available. Like every­thing else, every level of music is a business here, and if you are half decent you will get paid more than you would in your own country.

Japan’s Venues

There are two types of venues in Japan, a regular bar (usually foreigner friendly) that does not charge a cover, has a stage and regularly features live music for their drinking patrons, they will pay you either a predetermined amount, do a headcount and pay per head or give you a percentage of the alcohol sales. Then there is a Japanese “live house” where essentially you pay to play—you rent out the live house, charge cover at the door (with a percentage going to the venue), and they make the 100 percent of bar sales. Most live houses in Japan feature bands whose fans are not of a legal drinking age, so you can appreciate their system. A good point of the live house system is they have great sound and equipment—an advantage being they are solely designed to be a venue, not as a bar that happens to have a stage in the corner.

Here’s a list of foreigner-friendly live houses to try when looking to set up a gig—good luck!

The Rock Factory
Tel: 03-5545-4242

The Baron
Nishi Azabu
Tel: 03-6406-4551

What the Dickens
Tel: 03- 3780-2099

Super Deluxe
Nishi Azabu
Tel: 03-5412-0515

CoZmo’s Cafe
Tel: 03-3407-5166

The Ruby Room
Tel: 03-3780-3022