Writing about YouTubers and Paellas at The Japan Times
Two stories this week, both of which I’m quite happy with. First off, I looked into the ever-growing world of English-language YouTubers in Japan. Specifically, I wanted to see if making a living from this — and obtaining the proper visas — was possible. I met up with one of the country’s most popular vloggers, Sharla In Japan, to disucss:
In 2015, Sharla of the YouTube channel Sharla In Japan found herself juggling two careers. Since 2011, the Canadian-born creator had been making videos about her life here to a quickly growing audience. But actually making them was tough, as she also had a day job.
“I hated it,” says Sharla, who’s asked us not to publish her last name for privacy reasons. “It was a startup tech company, I liked having the chance to help build the company up. But the hours were insane, it was your typical work-to-death hours, not getting paid for overtime.”
Increasingly stressed out, she soon realized her YouTube channel was actually pulling in about the same amount of money as her tech work.
“I was getting the same income doing something I enjoy, so why am I doing this other thing?” Sharla quit the job, and gambled on making YouTube videos her primary source of income. It paid off.
I also talked with Osaka outfit Paellas, about their new album Pressure:
Fitting into the sound of the moment while still standing apart from it can be a tricky thing to do. Paellas guitarist Satoshi Anan says he wanted the feeling of “now” to come out on his band’s newest album, “Pressure.”
“But I didn’t want to make it like fast-fashion clothes … or fast food,” Anan says, adding that he rectified this by adding some 1980s and ’90s nostalgia.
Writing about ryokan for Ethiopian Airlines and looking at 2017 for Metropolis
Two stories to start 2017…first, for Ethiopian Airlines in-flight magazine, I wrote about some of the best traditional Japanese hotels in Tokyo. Read that here, unless you find yourself on one of their flights sometime soon.
I also talked with a few of the artists in Japan who had big years in 2016, and asked them what they expected from 2017, for Metropolis.
Overall, Japanese music had a pretty good 2016. Heavy-metal-meets-cutesy-pop trio Babymetal continued charming listeners both at home and abroad, while fans of the golden age of J-Pop rejoiced when Hikaru Utada returned to the spotlight after a six-year hiatus. And perhaps you heard about Pikotaro? He had a pen, he had an apple…uh, something something.
But now the new year has arrived, and it’s time to look forward to 2017. We asked a handful of folks in the Japanese music scene who had a very good 2016 what they hoped to achieve in the coming 12 months…and what larger trends people should keep an eye out for (or, at least what artists are worth taking a listen to).
Looking back at the year in J-Pop for The Japan Times
Looked back at the year that was for The Japan Times, and focused on a divide in power that has emerged over the last 12 months.
Media, both domestic and overseas, spent a lot of time focused on the streaming services arriving in Japan in 2016. Months of “Can these platforms thrive in CD-loving Japan?” speculation reached a climax in September, when global market leader Spotify finally debuted here. There was a big press conference, launch parties and one final flurry of articles pondering if this could be the sea change so many thirst for in the country’s music industry.
One problem, though — that shift already happened, via digital platforms that arrived in Japan years ago, and which became pop cultural forces over the course of this year.
There are two ways to look at the state of Japanese pop music over the past 12 months. On one hand, 2016 was a golden year for looking back and celebrating artists that exemplify the traditional power structures so many tech companies are trying to disrupt, highlighted by J-pop titan Hikaru Utada’s comeback and the drama-cum-mourning around the soon-to-disband outfit SMAP. You can’t find either of their albums on streaming services, and only snippets elsewhere online for that matter. In these cases, labels and talent agencies held all the power. Same as it ever was.
On the other hand, there has been a new wave of Japanese artists aware of (or lucky enough to benefit from) how younger listeners are drawn to music today. Early 20-somethings and teenagers aren’t rushing out to buy CDs — they can’t afford to drop ¥3,000 too frequently — and they aren’t fixated on sound alone. Rather, they gravitate toward video-sharing sites such as YouTube and MixChannel, where users just like them can create their own dances and silly clips set to the music they like. Online, the listener holds the power.
And in 2016, they helped oddballs like Pikotaro (he has a pen, he has an apple) and Taiiku Okazaki achieve viral success. Those in their late 20s and 30s still embraced the artists that were big during their younger years, but the burgeoning digital generation anointed their own pop stars through their own mediums, highlighted by the ever-chipper Kana Nishino and the disco-indebted Gen Hoshino.
Catching up with tofubeats for Metropolis Magazine
Caught up with one of my favorite artists tofubeats for my first-ever magazine cover story, for Metropolis Magazine:
Yusuke Kawai grew up just outside of Kobe in a “new town,” the Japanese term for a planned community. Kawai, who records music under the name tofubeats, describes his government-developed hometown: “There’s no city center and no local shopping streets like in other towns. Every station has similarly designed shopping malls, just with different names.” They were ideal residential zones, with big-city vice swapped out for big-box chains and department stores. Kawai recalls the only cultural center of any sort being a music shop, rental store Tsutaya and second-hand shop Hard-Off.
“The new town was made from nothing, and so we didn’t really have any traditional festivals. To me, it was vacant. The new town didn’t really have its own uniqueness in Japan.”
Yet this space helped develop Kawai’s creativity and shaped his approach to music. As a teenager, he spent most of his time absorbing the CDs available at Tsutaya and used any other free time to hunt down new sounds on the internet. “I tried to find anything interesting around me, but there were always only ordinary things. And so I started to think that I have to remix what I had to make something new.” Kawai spliced up mainstream J-pop sounds and YouTube discoveries into a fidgety style, which helped him connect with like-minded people on message boards.
Writing about Nagoya’s industrial tourism for CNN
Over at CNN, wrote about Nagoya’s emerging industrial tourism sector:
Japan’s rise to global tech supremacy is legendary.
But few realize where the country’s important industrial sectors have some of their deepest roots.
That place is Aichi prefecture, west of Tokyo.
One of Aichi’s biggest claims is a key role in developing the Tokaido Shinkansen, the famed bullet train that changed Japanese business by making day trips across the country possible.
Writing about Toyomu and Ex Confusion for The Japan Times
Two new stories in The Japan Times this week. In the bigger of the two, I talked to electronic producer Toyomu about imagining Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo and moving on from that.
American rapper Kanye West’s seventh album, “The Life Of Pablo,” felt inescapable when it emerged this past February. But that wasn’t the case in Japan. Streaming music service Tidal — which initially had exclusive rights to “Pablo” — isn’t available here.
This gave Toyomu Hayashi an idea. Unable to hear West’s latest, he decided to splice together his own version instead. The result was “Imagining ‘The Life Of Pablo,’ ” which the Kyoto trackmaker created based off a list of the samples used in West’s “Pablo,” by typing the rapper’s lyrics into his computer’s text-to-speech function, and by going on a gut feeling as to how West would’ve put it all together. He then uploaded his Frankenstein album onto his Bandcamp website, where it sat pretty much unnoticed for a month.
“Then one day I woke up and discovered I was featured on Complex, The Fader and Fact,” Hayashi, 26, says in his first in-person English interview. “I was going viral.”
I also talked to the ambient artist Ex Confusion, read that one here.
Writing about Yoshino Yoshikawa (and “kawaii” music”) for The Japan Times
For the Japan Times’ latest Sunday issue, I talked to electronic producer Yoshino Yoshikawa:
The Japanese word for cute, “kawaii,” has been popping up more and more in the English lexicon in recent years. From the popularity of Hello Kitty to singer Gwen Stefani’s new kawaii-filled cartoon “Kuu Kuu Harajuku,” being cute means making money, and it’s no different in the world of music.
Spurred by the global success of Harajuku model-turned-pop-star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and the headbanging teens of Babymetal, Japanese acts that traffic in up-tempo beats and playful electronics can also expect to be labeled kawaii.
One such act is Tokyo-based producer Yoshino Yoshikawa. His songs are often described as cute by music critics and fellow creators (Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth mashed-up a Yoshikawa track with one from rapper Danny Brown calling it “Kush Coma [Kawaii Yoshino Yoshikawa Version].”) And the label fits — some of Yoshikawa’s original works include “Kawaii Candy,” “Kawaii Macaron” and at least three cuts featuring the word “cat.”
Writing about Orange Milk Records and their Japanese artists for Bandcamp
Busy week! I talked to Keith Rankin from Orange Milk Records about the Japanese artists they’ve featured on their label.
It has been an eventful year for Takahide Higuchi, the artist who records sparse experimental music under the name Foodman (or, in his native Japanese, Shokuhin Matsuri). He’s just returned home after his first ever European tour, though he’ll be back on the road before the year ends, with several stops in North America. This past summer, he released a song via the Mad Decent sub-label Good Enuff, which usually dabbles in multi-layered EDM and trap. Foodman’s “Thicket,” though, threw a curveball at the Diplo devotees, with its copious use of blank space and its samples of snapped twigs. “This isn’t music…” is the phrase that best captures half of the comments responding to the song. The rest of them loved it.
Higuchi credits his success to his work with the New York/Ohio label Orange Milk Records. “After releasing my first album through Orange Milk in 2012, I got various release offers from various labels,” he says. “And the media started to write about me. Orange Milk was the trigger.”
Writing about Nagoya’s culinary offerings for CNN Travel
CNN Travel wanted to move a bit away from Tokyo and look at another city in Japan — Nagoya. I obliged by writing about their unique culinary offerings.
Japan’s Aichi prefecture has long been known for its automotive industry, anchored by homegrown car manufacturer Toyota.
Yet in recent years, the region has become just as celebrated for the food originating from Aichi’s capital city, Nagoya.
Fittingly, part of the charm of the metropolis’ cuisine is owing to an approach that’s also made the nearby automaker such a force.
Talking with Piko-taro, the man behind “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen,” for The Japan Times
Really really happy with this one — I sat down with Piko-taro, the artist behind one of the year’s biggest viral hits with “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen.” It was definitely a silly chat, but we also talked about slightly more serious stuff — his process to making music, being a long-obscure artist finally having his moment in the spotlight, and being referenced by The Chainsmokers.
Pikotaro still can’t believe it all. Two days before he sits down with The Japan Times, the performer saw that American DJ duo The Chainsmokers had changed their Twitter name to “Pineapple & Pen,” a nod to his song “PPAP.” That pair previously claimed YouTube’s most popular clip with “Closer” — until Pikotaro’s 45-second ditty took the top spot.
“Is that real? Is that really their account?” he asks me midway through our interview. I assure him that it’s authentic, and for a split second he looks surprised. Just another highlight in a surreal month.