Back in 2008, I interviewed Mr. SATOH-SAN (not his real name), who worked for a fairly well-known Visual Kei record label in the ‘90s.
Visual Kei is a sort of glam-gothic-rock thing where the band might look like a space vampire who is also a gay Kabuki French countess.
That makes it sound better than it is.
Personally, the main thing I like about this genre is the same thing I like about punk: the FANS: 15 year old girls from good families, with designer handbags, who beat the shit out of each other during the show, to prove to their dreamboat that they’re the ‘best’ fan.
But as rad as those girls are, they are victims of the fantasy, the image that these bands project. Luckily, we have Mr. SATOH, who is going to tell us about the grim reality. That's right: I am trying to bum out visual fans. If you've come here from a link on a message-board, assume your crying posture now.
During this interview, you’ll hear a lot about the Yakuza. But don’t get it twisted: the Visual Kei industry is NOT more mobbed-up than any other part of the entertainment industry in Japan. That's fine. Precisely BECAUSE the Visual Kei mobsters are so typical, visual is a good way to learn about the dark side of Japanese entertainment IN GENERAL.
Before we start the interview, I will let Mr. SATOH explain the background information that you need to know:
BRIEF HISTORY OF VISUAL
Around 1983 (says Satoh), Japanese hard-rock bands from big cities began to incorporate the then-new forms of new-wave, gothic, L.A. hair metal, and punk. They combined these foreign influences with SHOJO MANGA which was big in Japan at that time.
(this article is long enough without getting into a detailed explanation of shojo manga – for now, let’s just say that “shojo” means “comics for tween girls” and features a bunch of androgynous, long-haired pretty-boys in frock coats, who stare deeply into each others’ eyes while roses bloom in the background)
The manga influence was mainly in the stage fashion and homoerotic stage antics(kissing, groping), and was done, of course, to appeal to girls and their pocketbooks. It was a classic case of “combining different old things in a new way”.
It was a small scene in the beginning: only in certain cities in Japan. The artists were all highly motivated and had a DIY attitude – some even started their own labels (X Japan’s Yoshiki started DADA records, which later became Extasy). Eventually, the scene grew big enough to catch the attention of record labels, who made it a nationwide phenomenon – but the trade-off was that the bands had to play by the rules of the labels.
The eras of “popularity” and “good music” barely overlapped.
The best bands were in ’93-'99. The boom (meaning, bands on daytime chat shows and mainstream magazines) was in '97-'99. Visual didn’t catch on overseas until 2000’s, after it was already pretty much over in Japan.
Themes of the lyrics: sweet romance / dark suicidal (everything teenagers might like…).
"Fan-service" is common (band members kissing each other or touching each other) = this comes from shojo manga. The feeling of not being physically threatened by these 'sexual-but-not-for-me' characters (men dressing in a feminine way) attracts young teenage girls.
MOB ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY 101
TIP ONE: CONNECTIONS
Connections are even more important than money! (or, perhaps, they ARE money?)
Jhonny’s Jimusho (the biggest boy-band factory in Japan) is the most famous example of the importance of connections: if you have Johnny’s boy-bands on your TV show, you can’t have any other boy bands. If you have a non-Johnny’s band on your show, Johnny’s boycotts your show forever (and not just your show, but whatever other media organs your parent company has).
He’s the king of that, but these sorts of mafia-ish arrangements are the norm for the whole entertainment industry. The connections between powerful mobsters and powerful entertainment moguls is why band A will only appear on channel 1, but never on channel 2. And it’s the connections that make it a ‘mob.’ operation. That is to say, to a high-level Yak, long-term connections are even more important than short term financial gain.
So who cares if the bands in TV or radio are even remotely what the fans want to hear?
TIP TWO: CONTROL OF EVERY STEP OF THE PROCESS
This idea of "total control" is presented to bands in the more friendly tone of, “We are your one-stop fame shop, you don’t have to go anywhere else.”
Your band needs clothes, so so our clothing brand will supply them for you. They need press, and we own a cable TV show or radio program. Better yet, we've developed a monopoly relationship with a large publishing company (see Tip #1!) so that all our various bands appear exclusively in their various magazines.
For example, “CURE” magazine is the organ of “free will” records – the only surviving relic from the era when every record company could afford to have their own magazine. How it stays in business in these lean times is a mystery.
Instruments – all big bands are sponsored by ESP guitars (or Fernandes) , which makes the bands unique, custom instruments. This web of connections between various showbiz companies, secretly owned by the same record label, allows them to hire musicians that know nothing about the industry OR about music. And this makes the musicians easier to control – the Japanese musicians come so cheaply that all record industries (Visual, pop, rock, rap, whatever) can get away with making the most crappy records possible – sort of a “throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks” approach.
TIP THREE- you can never have enough SHELL COMPANIES
To avoid appearing like a monopoly, you got to split your big label into 10 tiny labels – each small label will have its own “world” – its own design, musical sound, attitude, etc, which will pander to fans much better than a big, general label. The fans will be more immersed and dedicated to a label that they think is “just for them”. Also, by having all the small labels in different cities (usually run by a member of a prominent band from that city), you can ensure logistical support all over the country – For example, in each city there is a small label which will help ALL bands from the parent label with publicity, tours, and getting CDs in stores, when those bands come through that city.
OK, so much for the "lecture" portion. Now, on with the interview!
STRUCTURE OF THE INDUSTRY
TDR: Can you explain the business structure of the Visual industry?
SATOH-SAN: So we said Yoshiki is the executive producer, he is in X Japan, and now lives in Los Angeles. He is the top visual music producer in Japan, but he mainly makes decisions on how things will go. Dynamite Tommy handles the actual nuts-and-bolts of the visual business.
TDR: Even though Tommy is on a different “parent label?”
SATOH-SAN: Yes, of course! Fully. They always work together, since day one. ’85, ‘86. Yoshiki’s companies include major labels, not just visual labels, and he also has the Japanese license for bands like, say, Queen or other international rock acts. But since Yoshiki started as the drummer for X Japan, the inventors of ‘visual rock’, he’s always going to keep that as part of his empire. Since X Japan started that genre, they had all the best contacts, they knew how to do everything. And they taught the other people, other musicians that they hired, and some of the other bands started their own smaller labels (under the table with Extasy Records). And now we’re on the , what? Fourth or fifth generation of visual bands, in this system.
Yoshiki is from Chiba, (Tokyo area), and Dynamite Tommy is from Osaka. So Yoshiki handles Tommy’s business on the East coast, and Tommy handled Yoshiki’s business on the West coast. (of course, Tommy is in Tokyo now as well, but that sort of system is still going on)
In the beginning there was some – how do you say? – rivalry? between them, but they soon became friends, when they realized they could make more by working together. And of course that’s the exact system used by the Yakuza: controlling different parts of the country, but working together for maximum profit: “I’ll handle your businesses in my territory if you look after my businesses in yours!” And at first they were in bands, as I said,(X Japan and Color) but soon they started thinking that that wasn’t enough, so they started forming record companies. Extasy and Free Will, respectively. And together (mid-‘80s) they started this enterprise- visual kei - which was effectively one big company. And soon, they met another guy – Yasuhiro. He wasn’t in a band, he was – a lot of things! He had live houses, record labels, and a management company, etc (He now has record shops and a live house chain company called Club Holiday). So pretty soon, Yoshiki and Tommy also had their own management and video companies (Visual Trap, in the case of Free Will records), plus their own fashion studios and magazines as well!
TDR: Did Yoshiki and Tommy do this to try to force Yasuhiro out of the market? Or was he under their umbrella somehow?
SATOH-SAN: No, they are friends and work together. I don’t understand your question.
SATOH-SAN: Oh. . (pause) Yes, I suppose a foreigner would ask a question like this. But to us, the idea of the ‘big guys’ or, I should say, the ‘inside people’ competing is strange! In the late ‘80s, Visual was not yet nationwide. So all the major players had plenty of room to expand – there was no need to fight. Anyone who brought something to the table – production companies, live houses, labels, management – anyone who had enough clout to help the ‘inside people’ in his part of Japan, could HIMSELF become an ‘inside person.’ And that turned out to be, mostly, those three guys.
TDR: And visual bands at that time, who didn’t have connections? Those were . . .
SATOH-SAN: The ‘outside guys’ – those were the guys who became employees.
SMALLER LABELS AND HIDDEN CONNECTIONS
SATOH-SAN: They (the top 3 guys) have the right to start as many record labels as they want, as long as everyone in ‘the family’ knows who owns what. And if you want to avoid taxes, you just go bankrupt! The label suddenly vanishes . . .and soon you start another one!Together, they got the whole country! By giving, I suppose ‘licences’ (if I can call it like that) to other musicians to start their own small labels (which are secretly tied to the main guys), they can do much more business than with 3 big, slow-moving labels.
Every band has one smart guy who, after a few years, wants to actually make some money. And because of his band, he has contacts with all the major musicians, businesspeople, roadies, managers. . . so he decides to leave his band and start his own label.
TDR: What do you mean by licenses?
SATOH-SAN: Well, the band guy comes to one of the ‘parent label’ guys (Extasy / Free Will or whoever) and asks permission. Permission means that the big Visual labels won’t shut down his small label – they WON'T go to a retailer or live house and say, ‘If you do business with this guy, you can’t do business with any of our acts.'
But to get permission, the little label has to promote and host all the parent label’s acts in its little region. Also it has to send a portion of its revenue directly to the parent label, in the form of interest on start-up loans.
TDR: Does the band guy put up his own money to start the little label, or get money from the big label?
SATOH-SAN: Both! You put up some of your own money, and borrow the rest. But there is never –never! A point where you have paid off the debt to the major guy. You will always be his employee, even if it looks like you run your on label. Also, all the publishing rights for the music go directly to the parent label!
SATOH-SAN: Well, some of the royalties are paid to the producer ,as well.
TDR: What is a producer?
SATOH-SAN: In this case, the producer is the person who writes all the songs and lyrics for the band. Although, it’s quite normal for a producer to put the band together, decide their look and concept, AND write the songs! At every label there is always one smart guy who actually creates everything, and is basically responsible for getting all the creative work done for the whole label. And that’s why most of those guys take drugs.
TDR: To be creative?
SATOH-SAN: No – because they don’t have time to sleep.
TDR: So, at your label, the guy was responsible for. . .?
SATOH-SAN: ten bands, let’s say.
TDR: And they’d all put out an album a year?
SATOH-SAN: More than that.
TDR: So what kind of toll did this take on the poor guy? Could you understand when he talked? Or was he like AAAAAH MARMOTS AAAH!
SATOH-SAN: You’d feel like he was always under the influence of something – drugs, coffee, anything to get energy. He would even take LSD – I don’t understand how that could help him focus, but some people have a talent to focus, I guess! As for understanding his commentary, it would depend on the day!
TDR: Would he write songs with sheet music? a computer?
SATOH-SAN: No, they had a recording studio in the office! He’d pick up a guitar, record the part, and then the band would come in and listen to it and learn it that way.
Of course, there are other bands that have been around for a long time, so they can write their own songs, and the producer just tweaks it! Or he’ll just write the lyrics.
But most of the bands can’t write songs. They’re 17, 18 years old, usually ex-bosozoku or at least dropouts. On their own, they’re pretty helpless. If you’re good, or smart, you wouldn’t sign that kind of contract to begin with! But Visual bands. . they don’t know how to book a tour or give interviews. And even if they did, they wouldn’t have the connections to play at a professional level.
Let me give you an example – live houses. If you’re not on a label, you have to audition. That means you have to play on a Tuesday night to basically nobody, and the live-house guy sits and watches you. Maybe if you do this 3 or 4 times, at EACH of the main live houses in town, one of them will take pity on you and give you a weekend gig. But you are now in debt to that live-house, and can’t play anywhere else. It’s a ‘virtual contract’ – another item from the Yakuza world. An un-written ‘understanding.’ But if you’re on a label (even a small one which is connected to a big one), you don’t have that hassle. The label sets up the shows. The label gets you in magazines. They script your between-song banter so you don’t sound like an idiot. They take care of everything for you. It’s like you are part of their family. So why would you ask for money? Why would you want to rip off your family, after all they did for you?
And by the way, that’s the same for all Japanese labels! And most foreign pop music, of course.
TDR: Well, in America we have T-Pain, the guy who is famous for letting a machine sing all his parts. It used to be you’d get in trouble if you didn’t lip-synch properly! This guy doesn’t even sing, but the way he plays the pitch-corrector machine is supposedly really great, so he gets that million dollars.
SATOH-SAN: Oh, one other thing: On the CD jackets, there is always credits, saying “the guitarist wrote this, the vocalist wrote that.” That is all bogus – just a fantasy for the fans. The copyright and JASRAC (like NASCAP) licences all go to the producer or the parent company. I have no idea what the split is, but at any rate, some producers can get paid quite well – if they write for a famous band!
SATOH-SAN: Anarchy Records is a label that never made any money – they had a lot of bands and always would play shows, but no one got famous. And all the musicians were kind of bad boys – they had some sort of hustle on the side, so they could live – being major was not as important to them as to the average Visual band. The label head “Crazy Danger Nancy Ken-chan” was in bands connected to Dynamite Tommy, such as KAMAITACHI as well as their mysterious duo named SISTERS NO FUTURE. So he’s kind of a heavy guy. I think Tommy helps Ken with distribution. Plus Ken has his own bar, in Kabuchi-cho (where else?) and various business ventures of which little is known.
THE JIMUSHO (OFFICE)
TDR:So, can you describe the first time you went to the office (of your company)? Was that a bit of a surprise?
SATOH-SAN:There’s four or five offices – converted apartments – in a big building. Each office space has its own task - the recording studio, the clothes-making studio, the label, graphic design studio, and so on. The producers run around between one office and another, since they are responsible for everything!
TDR: The label owner is not?
SATOH-SAN: Well on the smaller labels- the ones in small cities – the owner is also the producer. But usually the owner will come up with all the ideas (for new bands, promotional campaigns, etc.) and the producer is responsible for making sure that everything is done well, which is a problem because the people under them are usually not that bright. Usually it’s all kinds of ex-mafia types: ex-bosozoku, ex-boxers, ex-chinpira. Not “made men” by any stretch, but guys with jail records, where this might be their first desk job. All kinds of bad boys!
TDR: How about ex-jockeys?
TDR: You know, ex-horse-racers? Or ex-motorboat racers?
SATOH-SAN: I don’t know about that!
TDR: So what do these guys do?
SATOH-SAN: They might do office work, but if there’s not enough roadies, they might do that, too! Basically it’s a big family, and the family takes care of them, and then they do whatever is needed. And when I say 'whatever', I’m not talking about office work. That’s why I’m using a pseudonym for this interview!
TDR: In America, a lot of mafia guys will get their family or their friends a “no-show” job down at the union office or the construction firm (or whatever) – that way the friend gets free money AND if the IRS comes around, they can say, ‘I bought this car with my legitimate job!’ Is that a thing with these mobbed-up record companies?
SATOH-SAN: No, no. They all work. It’s a real company, after all. But they usually have their respective side-businesses, which are run out of the label’s office. Like a guy who is officially a record distributor might use the same desk to run his private-eye business. Or other cash-only ventures: pachinko, karakoke, real-estate, and so on. And of course there’s the one office in back, where who-knows-what goes on.
TDR: OK, let’s talk about financial shennannegans. We’ve covered fake bankruptcies and the ole’ publishing rights scam. What other mischief can label guys get into?
SATOH-SAN: Money laundering is a big one, of course.
TDR: What does that mean? I’m not a financial panther (Simpsons joke).
SATOH-SAN: Money laundering means – say you’re a Yakuza and you have a million dollars – you can’t spend that money because it’s dirty. You could get arrested. You keep it in your mattress. But if you take some of that money and invest it in a legitimate business – ideally one which does a lot of business with cash, then not only do your make legitimate profits, but you can “wash” your dirty money by hiding it in the profits of your legitimate business.
TDR: Like I sell 1000 records, at $10 a pop, but I claim I sold 4,000? And $30,000 comes out of my mattress into my bank account? Kind of thing?
SATOH-SAN: Sure, that is the kindergarten version. Also, since a Japanese record label owns all the related businesses (music video company, clothing company, production company, studio, magazine, etc.) then you can basically pay yourself free money by padding contracts.
SATOH-SAN: Say you need to record an album. You are the ‘shadow owner’ of both the studio and the record label. So it costs $10,000 to record the album. But the studio charges the label $20,000, and you walk home with the other $10,000 in your pocket. Now multiply this by every business in the entertainment industry. In fact, Dynamite Tommy is currently fighting a court case – he got popped for padding a video contract.
TDR: Yeah, but even if these guys are corrupt, isn’t that scam just basically stealing money from themselves? If they own both companies? It’s not like they have stockholders to swindle!
SATOH-SAN: Well, it (that scam) makes the label look like it’s losing money, so they never have to pay tax! Also, instead of spending the money on a music video, they can now spend it on whatever they like, so that’s a benefit, isn’t it?
TDR: How do the bands talk about the fans, in private?
SATOH-SAN: I would say, we had good laughs (about them). It’s always, a game of "who has the weirdest fan?"
TDR: Are the fans thought of as being sexy, suckers, or just plain weird?
SATOH-SAN: Both! All! Depends on the fan, right? But sometimes musicians fall in love with a fan. One thing is for certain: the ongoing frustration! In the beginning bands want fans, and will do anything to get them. Yet once the band gets bigger, they realize that the fans aren’t really smart or interesting – they don’t want to talk about anything but the band, they don’t have a life of their own, they can be scary and aggressive. So it’s kind of a catch-22 for the band. It’s a lifelong struggle to find the perfect fans! The non-existent middle group.
TDR: Between ignoring the band and obsessing?
SATOH-SAN: There are sort of gangs of fans, girls who hang out before the show, who create their own para-para choreographies, who try to uncover secrets about the band and swap them. These fans also get aggressive with other fans – both fans of the other bands at a show, or girls that they consider ‘fake fans’ of their favorite band.
TDR: What band was known for having the most maniac, violent fans?
SATOH-SAN: Most bands had some kind of hard-core followers. But the ‘bad fan’ band – that was a title that changed every year. Mirage, Malice Mizer, Kuroyume are some of the bands that come to mind.
TDR: Would fans ever attack a band?
SATOH-SAN: No. Well, just a few times. But mostly there were clubs of girls, dedicated to hating a certain band – usually because they felt that band A was a ‘rival’ or ‘usurper’ of band B, who they supported. In the industry, we called these clubs, アンティファン (ANTI-FANS).
TDR: WTF? That must be an only-in-Japan thing.
SATOH-SAN: This is something unique to Visual Kei – other types of indies labels don’t have anti-fans.
TDR: So what would they do???
SATOH-SAN: Just what you’d expect!!! They’d start their own BBS and talk about how much they hated the band, and then they’d flame the BBSs of the band’s fans. “You must die!!”
TDR: Wow, all jihad-style! Nowadays we have that with hackers and griefers working in organized packs, but to do it about music? That is wild.
TDR:But was there ever physical violence? I mean besides the ritualized slamming and ‘gyaku-daibu’? of the visual live-shows?
SATOH-SAN: Yes, there was some pugilism. But it wasn’t the ‘ANTI FAN’ groups physically fighting – they wouldn’t pay to enter the live show of a band they hated! Some of the most serious fights were between fans of the same band, who would go at it after the show – trying to decide who was the ‘best fan’ or the ‘one who really understood what the band was about’.
TDR: Sounds a little Cultural Revolution-y.
FANS AND FANTASY
TDR: Can you talk about the way the label makes itself a wall between the band and the fans?
SATOH-SAN: No photos (if you take your own photos, we can’t sell you photos) , no sound recording (ditto), no talking to the band (except at in-stores where you have to buy something)!
TDR: What is that about? I mean, some of these bands are kind of small-time, couldn’t they use the publicity of fan photos/recordings in the beginning?
SATOH-SAN: Keeping the fantasy intact is the biggest priority. If there is no image, no fantasy, the band will never get big.
TDR: You mean, if the guys talk to fans, and let slip that they’re working the midnight shift at 7/11, or living on ramen and pachinko, it’ll be hard for the fans to picture him as a bisexual 17th century British vampire space-man after that?
SATOH-SAN: You understand this phenomenon very well!
TDR: So basically the deal is, the more sexually frustrated that teen girls get, the more money they’ll spend. So how else do these businesses increase the frustration?
SATOH-SAN: Well, a main thing is limited-edition, one-time-only items. And this is not just visual kei – this is all pop music in Japan. Like “Here is a photo set, it’s limited to 300 copies, and we’ll never sell these photos ever again. Today only!” Sometimes they give little presents - like a CD of the band talking to fans.
TDR: Oh shit! Like the 1-900 phone lines where Justin Timberlake talks about his rash for $2 a minute – but limited-edition stylezzz.
TDR: Remember VELVET EDEN? The drag-queen with the 6 foot fiberglass batwings and foot-long “vampire” fingernails?
SATOH-SAN: That guy is a graphic designer now, at FREEWILL records. But yeah, I remember being shocked by them because his pants were so low, there were pubes sort of sprouting out.
TDR: I think I would have remembered that. Maybe I went on a bad day.
SATOH-SAN: Well, pubes are strange because it’s too much! Traditionally, Visual bands are very sensual but they are not supposed to have a gender – they are not ‘men’ or ‘women.’ The idea is to give the fans a band of androgynous, ethereal, magical creatures.
TDR: Ix-nay on the ubes-pay. So they’re not supposed to be sexy?
SATOH-SAN: No, they’re sexy, but they don’t exist in the same universe as the fans. They don’t have chlamidya, they don’t worry about child support payments, they don’t have girlfriends or baby-mamas. They don’t have a stinky van. The fans don’t want to think about that! They want a dream, (not a man or a woman), they want a higher being, a look out of a fairy-tale. That’s why we do all the makeup and hair. It’s not about the guitars or playing A-flat in a Lydian mode.
TDR:Can you talk about the after-parties?
SATOH-SAN: Sure. There’s actually two distinct kinds of after-party: public parties and industry parties. I’ll talk about the public ones first. So, you have a band, who’s usually on tour, who has been playing gigs for the last month – tired. Not every night – after a big show, where there’s lots of fans. They’ll rent an izakaya for the night, (or usually there is one that is part of the ‘family’ – someone knows someone – so they can get it cheap) and invite fans by name. They’ll invite the ‘non-dangerous’ ones.
TDR: BWA HA HA! How do they know?
SATOH-SAN: Believe me, they know.
TDR: Dangerous like how?
SATOH-SAN: They base it on the band members’ stories of the fans. That’s a major thing bands talk about when they have some time to kill: who has the craziest, most socially-awkward fans. Also they base it on the enquete (written questionnaires passed out at shows). Also, they just know! Especially at the beginning, when the band has very few fans, you can count them, you know them by name.
TDR: And even after the band gets big, the ‘original fans’ always get invited to the parties, right? To thank them for helping the band get where it is?
SATOH-SAN: The opposite!!! Actually the ‘original fans’ are the most dangerous. They want to ‘protect’ the band from the new mainstream fans, who are in fact the ones making all the money for the label! And that’s when the original fans get very aggressive – either gossip, email flaming, or smacking faces. That’s not the kind of thing you want at your after-party, especially considering the amount that the fans are paying.
TDR: You mean paying for food and drink?
SATOH-SAN: Oh, no! They pay to the company to be in the same room as the band. That’s why we do the parties ! To make money off the fans. It costs as much as the concert, at least – $40 or $50. To start, they will sell tickets (around 50 is normal). Also, there is a lot of attention paid to the seating arrangements. Band members don’t sit together, for one thing. They have to sit in the corners, to make room for the fans who cluster around them. Also rival groups of fans have to be seated at different tables. Usually the band is in a smaller room off to the side of the main room– sometimes even with a glass window - so the fans can see their idols actually eating! And drinking! And every five or ten minutes, some label guy will tap a fan (who has been deemed ‘safe’ or at least ‘not dangerous’). and say, ‘OK, it’s your turn, come into the ‘band room’ and eat for a second.’
TDR: Dangerous like how?
SATOH-SAN: Tearing the clothes! Or losing the consciousness – Fainting!
TDR: Avoid the fainters, OK.
SATOH-SAN: Right. So if you behave, you can chat with the band for five or ten minutes. It’s like a – what do you call it in America?
TDR: A ‘meet-and-greet.’
SATOH-SAN: Right. Like a meet-and-greet except everyone’s drunk and it’s 5 in the morning. An all night event.
TDR: Whoa! So this is not the junior high age fans, then.
SATOH-SAN: Sometimes they look like it! But usually it’s the 18 or 19 or even 20 year olds.
TDR: The old ladies.
SATOH-SAN: And this goes on until maybe 6AM. Then, outside the pub, when everyone is going home, the band members will approach certain fans and ask for their phone numbers.
TDR: For crazy hairspray sex?
SATOH-SAN: No. If you get a girl’s phone number, then she will have to come to every gig and buy every album, since she thinks you like her. Provided that you don’t publicly have a girlfriend – hence the rule.
TDR: Jesus. That is so scientific, the way they do it. . . . Rad!
SATOH-SAN: Nowadays, they exchange emails. But still it’s all business – the band has to mail the fans to get them to come to shows. Just like a host! Anyway, that’s the public party.
TDR: And the private party?
SATOH-SAN: No fans, of course! You’ll have the band, maybe some members of other bands on the label, but mostly businessmen, industry people. And then the sexy ladies.
TDR: I thought you said no fans?
SATOH-SAN: I’m getting to that. If you – an outsider – were to go to one of these parties, you’d think, ‘Wow, these band guys have it all! Hot ladies and rock lifestyles and such!’ but you would be mistaken! The women are prostitutes. They’re brought in to keep the guys entertained. Like how a factory has to maintain its machines. It’s not just sex – they try to liven up the party with witty comments. This is important because I have never ever seen band guys more bored than at these industry parties. And they can’t leave until 6AM when it is over- ducking out would be an act of total disloyalty to the label. So the prostitutes make it more bearable for the band guys, and after the party, if he wants to have sex, he can. But honestly, judging how dog-tired and bored the guys look, I doubt that even happens often! Basically the private parties are for the benefit of businessmen, to network and make deals. The band is a necessary prop.
TDR: Weeest siiiiide!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
BAND GUYS – WHO ARE THEY REALLY?
TDR: Sorry. Can you tell me about the band guys – before they were in bands, what did they do in life? What kinds of guys are drawn to this lifestyle? Can you generalize?
SATOH-SAN: These guys are really young when they join – 17, 18 years old. Because nobody with industry experience will sign a Visual Label contract! A typical dude is an ex-bosozoku or ex-chinpira, a high-school drop-out. Not everyone is a crook or delinquent, but everyone is from poor or working-class families. They don’t necessarily love visual glam, but they really do like rock and roll, and think it would be exciting to be a rock star. They want to learn to play guitar, basically! Also, since this is the ‘90s we’re talking about – visual is popular. So compared to a punk or rockabilly band, visual looks like the way to succeed, to be famous, in a short period of time. They think this because visual is popular in magazines and radio charts. (but the magazines are printed and the radio charts are bought by the companies that are making this myth)
TDR: Well, if the label’s business is selling images and perceptions, they’d be a piss-poor label if they couldn’t whip up a fake image of their company as a rockin’ place to work.
SATOH-SAN: In the beginning, one of the things I found the most ironic, was these band members: these very tough-talking street guys, playing these very femme-y, androgynous roles which were straight out of a shojo manga.
TDR: Were there any guys who were freaked out by all the requirements re: lipstick, camping it up, and ‘fan service’ ?? Were some guys all ‘Wait a minute, boss! My biker friends will make fun of me!’
SATOH-SAN:No. Before they sign the contract, they’ve seen a bunch of visual bands. They know what is expected. They also have training in ‘stage presence’ from older band guys. Nothing is forced on them. Also, some guys don’t get to be in a band right away. They start as a roadie, or a sound-tech. And once he’s watched enough other bands, and gotten enough experience, they’ll promote him to the level of ‘band member in a new band.’ And if his band doesn’t work out (i.e. break even), he might have to quit the band and go work for the company at another job.
TDR: It’s almost easier to think of the band guys as regular company employees, doing whatever they can to help the company. Except instead of wearing business suits, they have bat wings and prosthetic breasts.
SATOH-SAN: I have nothing to add to that.
MAKING THE BAND
TDR: Can we talk about making the band? Is it some Puff Daddy thing where the label head puts an ad in the paper: WANTED: GUITARIST, SINGER, AND BASS PLAYER WITH PRO HAIR AND ATTITUDE? And then auditions people?
SATOH-SAN: It’s like that but different. They do head-hunting! The label owner sets his sights on the best members from 3 or 4 small, go-nowhere bands, and tries to persuade them to leave their bands and form a super-band. (‘This band is never gonna go anywhere. You’re the only one with talent. Come to my label and I’ll make you a real band!’) And this doesn’t always work. Sometimes the band guy refuses to leave his band. He’s allowed to– it’s not like some Godfather thing. Although it’s not uncommon for the guy DOING the headhunting to get jumped in an alley by the other band members: “Don’t head-hunt our vocalist!” POW. Honestly, head-hunting is one of the leading causes of fistfights between bands.
TDR: Deeeyamn. Is this headhunting – do they hunt bands on rival labels? Or within their own label?
SATOH-SAN: Usually they’ll head-hunt a band which is on a rival label, or not on any label. But if a band on their own label isn’t making any money, it’s not unusual for them to tap one member (with potential) to join a new band, and give him another shot.
SATOH-SAN: Also, this practice of head-hunting is the reason why so many tiny bands have frequent line-up changes or break up suddenly. It’s really unstable at that level. I can give you an example: DIR EN GREY is made up of members from a few bands. You have Kizaki, from Osaka. (he later formed various bands and labels such as Matina and Undercode). Anyway, in the beginning, he was in LA’SADIES with other future DIR EN GREY members, and he got a call from the label, saying “We want you for a bigger band.,” and I guess he must have believed that head-hunter! At any rate, it wasn’t DIR EN GREY sitting around their cave, saying ‘Hey let’s form a supergroup.’ That was the label deliberately trying to form one, and the band guys saying OK.
TDR: So does the label guy come up with a concept, and try to find the right guys for that concept?
SATOH-SAN: No, usually, he tries to get the best possible musicians (based on popularity with fans, not neccesairly shred-ability), and then he decides the concept later. Sometimes if the band members are more big, more experienced, they’ll work on the concept together.
TDR: What counts as a concept? Who would you say is a ‘concept band?’
SATOH-SAN: Every band has its own concept, its own story. Which doesn’t have anything to do with the music, of course, but it is expressed in the costumes, graphic design and most importantly the lyrics. So you’ll have the vampire band, the zombie band, the Decadent French Nobility band, and so on.
TDR: What was the concept of (picks a random page of FOOL’S MATE) nu:vogue?
SATOH-SAN: The Pete Burns of Japan?
TDR: Why would anybody want to – why does each country need their own Pete Burns? Was it like some Dr. Strangelove thing : ‘We’ve got a Burns Gap!’??? (sighs) Anyway, what was the concept of. . . French-name-band?
SATOH-SAN: “music from the sky”, I would say. Light, ethereal, cloudy kind of music. Not now, of course, but in the beginning – they were all dressed in white, diaphanous garb. . . and of course some bands don’t need their own concept at all!
SATOH-SAN: They don’t need an original concept if they’re in the ‘roadie chain.’
TDR: I have no idea what that is.
SATOH-SAN: ‘Roadie chains’ are another interesting phenomenon of Visual Kei! Here’s one example: KUROYUME was a band, their roadies went on to form dir en grey, which had the same image! And Dir en Grey’s roadies formed a band called THE GAZETTE. Another example. . .MALICE MIZER’s roadie was named Kamijo – a year later, he was in his own band called LAREIME, which looked and sounded like MALICE MIZER. In fact, he started a label called ARTIST’S SOCIETY, and all the bands on that label sound like MALICE MIZER (because he’s the producer – he wrote all the music!)
It’s like making a Xerox copy – at each stage some of the color gets leeched out and replaced with shades of gray – a calculated and formulaic performance.
TDR: OK, so we’ve found the street kids, we’ve head-hunted, we’ve given them guitars, and made their concept. . now we come to the best part: the contract!!!
SATOH-SAN: First of all – sometimes the contract is that THERE IS NO CONTRACT. Nothing is written. Like in the under-world. You don’t sign something that says, “I will pay you Tuesday for 4 kilos of heroin today.” You don’t put things on paper. There’s no need. If someone violates, everyone in that world knows about it, and that person is blacklisted from the industry.
TDR: What constitutes a violation? Having a girlfriend?
SATOH-SAN: Talking bad in public about the label! Or your boss! Those are the main ones. Or. . . steal the boss’ girlfriend. Not being on time, missing publicity stunts. Asking for royalties. If you keep aggressively nagging at them for money, or where does the money go? You need to be flexible, one, and don’t ask questions, two.
TDR: So they don’t get any publishing. But do they get revenue from live shows or merchandise?
Band members are treated to food, travel expenses, stage clothes, sometimes there's a big flat rented for them and there are like 12 people living in a 2 bedroom apt. As far as money, indies bands don't get any. They are promised they'll get money if they sign major. And even then, a major doesn't make much money unless it's a "really big band". Usual salary of a low-rank major band: 100'000yen a month. You get more money if you work at your local 7/11.
Also, the profits from live shows are split between the label and the live house. Profits form t-shirts are split between the t-shirt company and the label. The label would no more think to include the band in the t-shirt contract than they would include the secretary, the janitor, or the tour-bus driver. That’s not their place.
TDR: That’s got to be tough for an undead extraterrestrial marquis to deal with!
SATOH-SAN: Because the label plans your life. They are your family. It takes them years of time and money for them to build your fan base. It’s a big investment – radio spots, photo shoots, magazine articles, wardrobe, studio time, and so on. So the very least you can do for them is to be quiet and not rock the boat!
TDR: That’s a question I was wanting to ask – after investing all this money in the band, how long does a label wait to see a profit? Put another way, if a band DOESN'T make money, how long before the label decides to pull the plug?
SATOH-SAN: It depends on the amount that they spent on the band. Well, you’ll always need small bands – to be roadies for the bigger bands! So certain bands are set up from the beginning to be small-time. That’s their spot in the family. So they'll be kept on even if they make minimal money. Other bands are from the beginning supposed to be huge, the goal is to build them up and sell them to a major label at a profit. The label will continue to promote such a band for a long time (without necessairly making a profit), because everyone knows it’s a major undertaking.
TDR: So, are you saying – waitaminute – that selling a band to a major label is a GOAL of an indie visual record label? Did you mean to say that? What exactly gets sold when a band leaves the visual label and moves to a major?
SATOH-SAN: Yes, that ‘s the goal. That’s the labels' biggest source of profit and success!
TDR: And how does that work?
SATOH-SAN: It’s not like in the West, where the band leaves the indie label and signs to Warner Brothers, or whatever. The indie sells a LICENCE to the major. They sell the major the right to release one or two records by the band . So the indie still owns the band – they still manage the band, but they get major advertising and major distribution. They get money up front, so the major takes all the financial risk. Of course they have to split the cost of advertising with the major, but since they’ll sell many more records, it’s worth it!
TDR: Dood, I never even thought about that!
SATOH-SAN: That’s why you are still driving a bicycle, maybe.
TDR: And what if the band IS successful it IS making money and you, the musician, want to quit, because you are not getting paid?
SATOH-SAN: You can get in a lot of trouble for that!
TDR: For quitting?
SATOH-SAN: Yes. You can get in trouble two ways. You can get blacklisted from the industry, or you can get seriously assaulted by the label’s muscle. And the blacklisting can last for several years. They can’t tour even under another name. Of course if the band isn’t making money , who cares? But if the band is making money, and they want to leave the label, that’s not allowed.
TDR: But in the cases where guys got their legs broke and such – was it just a pay dispute? Or were they also bad-mouthing the label boss, disrespecting him to all and sundry?
SATOH-SAN: Well, yeah, they were doing that too. But you can get attacked just for quitting. I’m speaking of the indies scene here – major stars don’t get assaulted like that.
TDR: Speaking of major labels . . .Wasn’t there a case where a – a certain musician left his Visual band and became a famous pop star, whose songs sold millions of records? And the musicians in his old band had written some of the songs which turned out to be these hits? And when the musicians complained about not getting paid for these very lucrative songs, they wound up missing or damaged in some way?
SATOH-SAN: I have no idea what you are talking about. (draws finger across throat) Next!
TDR: OK, so say you’re running one of these small labels that is under the umbrella of Free Will or Extasy. And it’s the ‘90s. How many of your new bands will make money? I’m not talking about become major label bands, I just mean – to break even; to be allowed to make another album?
SATOH-SAN: Maybe one in ten. These days? One in 30!
TDR: Like America!
TDR: Allright, that is fascinating – but even a small band, a ‘roadie band’ or whatever – they can’t always be losing money. At what point does the label tell them, ‘it’s over!’
SATOH-SAN: They get a year or two. Then the band breaks up, if it’s not going anywhere. The band members usually decide this on their own, though. After all, if they’re not getting money OR fame, there is no reason to do it! Most guys will get to try again with another band, so it’s not such a bad deal. The members keep getting juggled.
TDR: But in the West, if a band is dropped from a label but they don’t want to quit, they can still keep gigging under their own name, without a label. However, in Japan . . .?
SATOH-SAN: Well, their only connection to the music business (live houses, radio, studios, you name it!) is through that label. It’s safe to say that without that label it would never have occurred to them to form a band in the first place. Also, the label made up their name, their image. That belongs to the label. Usually! But even if you made your own band, your own name, and THEN got signed. . . you don’t have the MONEY to tour or make your own records. You can’t get in a magazine or TV without buying ads – those cost money, too!
TDR: Is it true that bands aren’t allowed to have groupies? Because it’s bad for their image?
SATOH-SAN:Well, they’re not allowed to have girlfriends.
TDR: Just visual kei? Or Major-label bands too? All on some SMAP shit?
SATOH-SAN: Well, I can’t talk about SMAP, but that (no girlfriends) is the rule in any industry where they’re selling image rather than music. It’s paramount to keep control over the image and life of the band members. Of course, times change. Now, with the recession, there’s not much money for promotion, radio ads, cable tv shows, and stuff. So the way the visual industry copes is letting the band interact with the fans a bit more – but only in the sense that the band is now responsible for doing their own promotions for free. They have to build their own fan base, the label doesn’t do it for them anymore. They email the fans and ask them to come to shows. Not unlike the host or hostess club system! It’s really prostitution.
TDR: But back then , no girlfriends?
SATOH-SAN: Oh no, that rule is not changed. Still no girlfriends! If band members have girlfriends, they will give less time to the company. But also, the girlfriend will gossip secret stuff to the other fans – people outside the company. Also, a fan that you have never had sex with is a fan who will keep on coming to your shows. But usually once you have sex, she stops coming. That’s the end of the relationship. By the way, it’s the exact same system at the host clubs.
TDR: I was gonna say that!
TDR: So let’s talk about the lifestyle of these band guys.
SATOH-SAN: The band members live in a closed environment of the record company. Since they don’t have money, they usually don’t have their own apartment. They might have to live together in one big apartment; sometimes you’ll have several bands all living in the same space. Some small labels – the main guy will have several bands sleeping on his floor at once! But it’s never for a long period of time. People move in and out, go on tour, and so on. But let’s not exaggerate – most of the time, it’s just two guys from the same band sharing one shitty apartment.
TDR: OK, They live in crowded apartments, they don’t have money. Are they allowed to work on the side?
SATOH-SAN: They’re allowed, but usually they don’t have time. The labels have the bands gig constantly. Plus all the promotional stuff they have to do – TV interview, radio, magazines.
TDR: In America, bands typically would tour to promote an album, but then work day-jobs the rest of the year, until they record another album. How about in . . .?
SATOH-SAN: No! They keep them busy all the time – because unlike America, 90% of the bands were just formed this year! They need exposure. They keep forming new bands out of old ones – the fans need novelty, I think. Also- why would a label release one album a year??? That is senseless.
TDR: So what is the alternative? 3 albums a year? Isn’t that hard for the one guy who has to write all the songs for 10 bands?
SATOH-SAN: No, no, no. Why sell one album when you can sell 6 ‘maxi-singles’ with two songs each? You can sell them throughout the year – at 1,500 yen each (almost the cost of a full album!). And then at the end of the year, you re-release all the singles with a couple of filler tracks, and call THAT the album. You just sold every song twice, and made about four times the money!
TDR: what is a maxi-single?
SATOH-SAN: A regular single has two songs. A maxi-single has two songs PLUS an ‘SE.’
“SE” stands for ‘Sound Effect’ – something you don’t get on the album version.
TDR: what is this sound effect?
SATOH-SAN: an intro! And when I say intro, I mean. . .4 bars of a General MIDI string sound on a keyboard! And there you go! That makes it ‘maxi’! And of course each 1,500 yen maxi-single can be sold several times – one time with a special limited-edition band photo, another time with a separate CD of the band doing a spoken-word message to fans, another time with a commemorative sweatband. . .
SATOH-SAN: Yes, this is a phenomenon that is very particular to the Visual Kei business. In the industry we call it the “1,500 syndrome”!! If you price it at 1,500 yen, you can re-sell it as many times as you like!
TDR: You’re playing with girls’ emotions! They know they’ll be able to get all the songs when the full album comes out, but they buy all the overpriced collectors’ crap anyway, to compete with the other girls, and win the hearts of the band guys. ‘I’m his biggest fan!’ ‘No, it is me! I have more shit than you!’ It’s just like the women who go to host clubs and buy presents for the gigolos, hoping that they’ll be able to show up the other customers. “This three-wheeled motorcycle with built-in power-ballad-playing stereo speakers will prove that I am his real lover, not those other women!”
SATOH-SAN: There certainly is no shortage of parallels between the two industries.
TDR: But to return to the topic of band guys being too busy to have a side job –
SATOH-SAN: Yes! Now you can see why!
TDR: So to make the maxi money, they release a maxi-single once every 2 months or so – and a side-effect of this is, the band becomes a daily, 9 to 5 gig for the bands.
SATOH-SAN: 9 pm to 5 am!
TDR: They’re so over-worked, they’re practically salarimen! But seriously, they never have side jobs?
SATOH-SAN: There’s a lot of stories about musicians prostituting themselves. It’s no problem for the company if that happens – since it doesn’t cost the company money. Unless it interferes with showing up on time!
TDR: You mean prostitute as in host club? Or as in, they got an ad in the back of gay pornos in the “OUTCALL MASSAGE” section?
SATOH-SAN: Well, six of one, half a dozen of the other. . .
TDR: But they’re not using their ‘rock name’??
SATOH-SAN: Surely not! They change their appearance up, too.
TDR: What’s another hustle for a starving band guy?
SATOH-SAN: Gambling! Playing pachinko. Well, tricking the machines. What’s the word?
TDR: Maybe we can say ‘cheating?’
SATOH-SAN: With no high-school or college diploma and long hair, they really don’t have a lot of options. Some work the night shift at a convenience store. But guys who are selling themselves, they don’t do it every day. Just here and there to make ends meet. Not full-time in the night-life.
TDR: Well, if they could make good hooker money, they’d be able to quit the band!
SATOH-SAN: No, no. The allure of fame is stronger than money. The showbiz feeling of being on stage.
TDR: You ever hang out with band dudes offstage?
TDR: SO what are they like, besides tired?
TDR: Are they all wearing satin jackets and bedroom slippers?
SATOH-SAN: I would say that there’s always one guy in the band that is really into that music, and always dresses in some glammy/gothy way. But the other guys will wear sneakers and sweatpants. It depends on the label, actually. . .
TDR: Do the owners or producers have any lavish shit – cars, bling?
SATOH-SAN:Definitely nice cars and houses!! But that's only for the big company guys.
Even the producers live in shit apartments. They are usually abused by the companies.
TDR: What about bands getting in fisticuffs with other bands? Is that a thing?
SATOH-SAN: Of course! There’s a lot of fighting! You can’t fight bands on your own label, because that’s your ‘family,’ but un-signed bands, other label bands. . . They fight over head-hunting, like I said. If guy A asks vocalist B to leave band C, and B is going to do it, sometimes B gets his ass kicked. Other times, guy A (the head-hunter) can get HIS ass kicked, too.
TDR: What else could cause a fight?
SATOH-SAN: Stealing fans. If two bands have the same sound, same image, then they are strongly competing for the same fans. Sometimes one band will be outside the concert, aggressively recruiting the other band’s fans. Mailing lists also get stolen. Both things can lead to fights.
TDR: Can you explain about the “medusa?”
SATOH-SAN: It’s a Japanese punk haircut from the ‘80s. The big hair from the English ‘batcave scene’, mixed with Kabuki wigs, and then enlarged exponentially. The engineering is very specific: the first 6 or so inches of hair is spiked, to garuntee a huge size and general scariness, but the rest of the hair is loose, to facilitate headbanging.
TDR: It’s like a dual-function haircut. A Kabuki mullet, if you will.
SATOH-SAN: But let me tell you something really important. Visual bands – when they start – they have the big hair and costumes, but that is usually not what hey WANTED to do. They want to get famous and play rock music, yes, but the costumes and makeup is a burden to them. Just something to do to get fans, out of desperation. As soon as they get big, they lose all that stuff.
TDR: So it’s not like “Evil corporate label makes band water down their style to cater to mainstream?”
SATOH-SAN: No, quite the opposite. The band guys can’t wait to ditch the hair and costumes. That stuff is heavy to wear. Besides, they want people to appreciate the music, not just the looks.
Holy shit, give yourself a pat on the back. You finished.
Thanks to Mr. Satoh for his super mega inside knowledge and patience.
OK. as a reward for reading that insane interview, here is a chart which depicts the visual industry: