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Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012
Netlabels Ano(t)raks and Canata Records give the old DIY spirit a go with some new tools
Special to The Japan Times
Dai Ogasawara's fledgling online label Ano(t)raks has released music from six Japanese artists from the Kansai region since the summer. However, Ogasawara, who lives in Aomori Prefecture, has yet to meet any of them.
"I visited Kansai back in the 1990s when I played for a band called Candy Eyes," he tells The Japan Times at a cafe in Tokyo's busy Shibuya district, adding that he hasn't been back west since. "I just meet artists through music-sharing site SoundCloud or I find out about them when they follow me on Twitter."
Ogasawara's Ano(t)raks netlabel is one of a few that have helped create a surge in Japanese indie-pop this year. Such netlabels resemble traditional record labels in that they release music, but they don't take on other roles such as distribution to stores or large-scale promotion. While bands can use websites such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud to put their music online, there are too many musicians for fans to wade through. Hubs such as Ano(t)raks act more like curators, making sure the best acts get the attention.
Indie-pop (or twee) refers to a type of melodic music that was first popularized in England in the '80s. Its earliest manifestations comprised do-it-yourself releases from bands that lacked formal musical training — they adopted that spirit from punk but shunned rebellion in favor of cuddlier tunes about crushes and candy. Labels such as Sarah Records in England and K Records in the United States defined the guitar-centric sound, which has proved popular in Japan's live-house concert venues since the '90s.
What netlabels can do nowadays is bring these bands out from the live houses and onto the stereos of people around the world — if fans can find them.
"I thought our musical style was kind of different, so I decided to make Ano(t)raks," he says. "It's good to create a scene."
Ogasawara says it also helped that he was able to put together the label by himself and at no cost.
Ano(t)raks (a play on the word "anorak," a piece of clothing often associated with British indie-pop acts) launched on July 1, and their first online release was an EP from the speedier-sounding Paellas. In September, the netlabel released a compilation titled "Soon," featuring young indie-pop acts from across the country. It's one of the best snapshots of the scene yet, jumping from the hook-centered rock of Post Modern Team to the fuzzier offerings of Kyoto's Homecomings to the cute pop of Nagoya's Old Lacy Bed. It can also be downloaded for free.
"After the release, some of the bands have started getting opportunities to play gigs, so it helped bring the scene to the next level," Ogasawara says. "Soon" also received attention from international music blogs, and following that he says a French postrock label has shown interest in releasing the compilation as an LP in Europe either late this year or in early 2013. (Ogasawara couldn't say which label is interested as the deal has yet to be confirmed.)
Ano(t)raks, though, isn't the only outfit spreading Japanese indie-pop domestically and abroad. Earlier this year, Tokyo band Moscow Club put together "C86 JPN," a free downloadable compilation featuring 16 takuroku (home-recording) artists from across the country. Artists such as Wallflower, Juvenile Juvenile and Kensei Ogata have also taken the netlabel route and put out albums on various small labels across the country.
Tokyo's Canata Records is a netlabel run by Azusa Suga, who Ogasawara turned to for advice when he put together Ano(t)raks. Suga started the label last November with Yoshiki Iwasawa, the lead singer of Tokyo indie-pop group Boyish, after speaking with a person that he only wants to identify as "someone who works as a buyer at (Japanese book store) Village Vanguard."
"He strongly believed that a third 'Summer of Love' would be happening soon," Suga continues, and it would be "partly influenced by Japanese indie music and anime culture." The buyer believed this would lead to a larger revival in indie-pop in Japan. Suga and Iwasawa ran with that idea and subsequently several releases on Canata Records feature samples from anime programs that the musicians like. Some of the earliest releases on the label came from groups such as Mane Laundering and The Hatsune Mikus, who both combined Vocaloid software, a type of singing-synthesizer program, with more traditional indie-pop elements to create a distinct form of the style.
Even with the anime samples, though, most Canata Records releases — like those on Ano(t)raks — lean toward a more classic indie-pop sound. Suga has now begun a new project called For Tracy Hyde, which on first listen sounds like another textbook example of Japanese indie-poppers embracing nostalgia and harkening back to past sounds. However, unlike a lot of current indie-pop groups, For Tracy Hyde's music is sung all in Japanese.
"I feel like a lot of bands are singing in English for no apparent reason," Suga says. "I don't really think it makes much sense for them to sing in English when they can't pronounce or write it properly."
Suga also values diversity in his music, which is why several songs on For Tracy Hyde's recently uploaded debut EP, "Juniper and Lamplight," go in more electronic directions.
"I have spent a lot of time listening to chillwave music, and have recently been exploring (a micro-genre called) vaporwave, where artists primarily create samples from old Japanese television shows and commercials," Suga says. "I always wanted our label to be genre-less. ... Actually, I want more electronic stuff."
Regardless of genre or style, Suga and Ogasawara are giving bands exposure they wouldn't normally get. Using platforms such as Bandcamp, groups that get overlooked by major labels now have a way to share their tunes — and music lovers get access to a ton of new artists for little to no cost.