Featured

Landing Your Business in Japan: An Expert Guide To Success

Photo by Ben Cheung, Pexels.com

Japan is one of the world’s largest economies, ranking third behind the USA and China, and even then punches above its weight in terms of cultural power, prestige and global interest. Understandably many organisations, startups and businesses are eager to get a foothold in the Japanese market. But if your organisation has ambitions to start doing business in Japan, how should you start? I reached out to a number of experts: business owners with years of diverse, hard-won experience in the Japanese market. Here’s our guide to help your business flourish in Japan. Focusing on three key points: language, mindset and diversity.

Language

Japan is a relatively monolingual society. Despite attempts by the Japanese Government to increase English competence Japan hovers at an unimpressive 78 out of 112 in the EF English Proficiency Index. This means that step one of any business plan when it comes to entering the Japanese market should be Japanese language proficiency. Everything else springs from that. Ed Thompson is a marketing consultant and founder of the ConceptDesign I/O consultancy. Having lived and worked in Japan since the mid-90s he puts it plainly, “You will either need to learn the language at an adequate business level, or you will need staff and/or partners to help you fully navigate most business interactions.” Julien Tirode, an event organiser for 13 years and now bar owner agrees, “always use Japanese language to promote your activities.” Ed elaborates that all effective international business starts with clear mutual understanding, “it is usually in the context of messaging and communication where I have seen certain types of disconnection arise.”

This kind of advice might sound obvious, but it’s notable how wrong an approach can go if language is not handled properly. Stop and think before you reach for Google Translate or cheap auto-translation software. Romen Barua runs both a talent acquisition firm and supercar rental service in Tokyo. He makes the point that translation isn’t simply about flipping words from one language to another in a binary way, but about holistically altering how you communicate, “language, it’s not “translating” but trusting someone to re-write and brand in the correct way.” The two different businesses he runs have different markets and so require very clear approaches, “one business is services so it’s fairly easy [to translate in a straightforward way], the other is luxury branding which is super tough. Too many mistakes can be made when you try and translate your vision into the Japanese language. You need to re-start the entire UI-UX discovery process ideally from the perspective of a Japanese business owner and user. I made this mistake previously and burnt a lot of cash.” A thorough translation approach therefore might require comprehensive rethinking, rewriting and redesigning of content.

This kind of language ability will also help to make genuine connections with existing businesses and potential partners in Japan. Ian Chun has lived in Japan for 20 years and runs an e-commerce export company selling Japanese tea globally, procuring tea from Japanese suppliers and then shipping it across the world. “I think my Japanese language fluency and understanding of Japanese culture (for example, that I can express an understanding of umami flavour in foods) helps in approaching suppliers, in finding suppliers and getting ultra conservative industry members to work with me.” These suppliers now form the trusty backbone of Ian’s flourishing business.

Knowing your limits seems to be the message here. No matter how great your initial business plan is, you need to have, improve or hire the skills required to communicate your idea to consumers in a language and style they understand. If you’re caught lacking it’ll be very clear. However, this kind of effort shouldn’t be seen as an unnecessary burden. As Ed points out, “the deepest connections and long-term opportunities will come from cultural and language competence.”

A busy Japanese street, the sakura bloom.
Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric, Pexels.com

Mindset

When trying to do business in Japan it’s important to understand that different consumers have different wants, needs and priorities. Japan is a complex place and cultural differences can be nuanced. But what is certain is you can’t just copy/paste your existing marketing and business outreach material, translate it into Japanese and call it a day.

Suryanarayanan S. works in program management for Amazon in Tokyo and illustrates this with a case study, “the expectation in terms of customer service, value (価値観) of a product or service are entirely different. Case in point is Amazon implementing unattended delivery in Japan which was not initially well-received”. Japanese deliveries are usually carried out face to face, which can result in a lot of missed-deliveries needing to be physically attempted multiple times. Amazon attempted to disrupt this by rolling out unattended “drop-off” delivery to the Japanese market, which led to mixed results and consumer concern about potential loss and theft.

Suryanarayanan continues with another example, explaining that conforming to market expectations might require a business to go against their own initial processes or instincts. “Japanese consumers tend to value more (quantity) information on a single page/screen – this is typically found in e-commerce platforms such as Rakuten, or in printed promo materials etc. While non-Japanese consumers find it very confusing while presented information in such form, it is standard UI/UX for the Japanese consumers. “

Getting these basic cultural elements right is important: you don’t want to make consumers confused, annoyed or hostile towards you. The specifics of what to do and how to do it will depend on the product or service being sold. The Japanese retail, banking, travel and entertainment industries will all have their existing systems of doing business, so prepare yourself by researching how the industry you want to enter currently works in Japan.

That being said, disruption is inevitable in the world of business, so simply blindly conforming to existing standards and ways of doing business isn’t always the right call. Suryanarayanan continues, “With a declining population and stagflation, the value perceptions of Japanese consumers are changing drastically. The biggest challenge for an entrepreneur or a marketer in Japan will be how to appeal to the right senses of the Japanese consumer.” In other words, how to appeal to the right sensibilities and fit in, while also pushing the envelope.

Internal Challenges

Differences will also exist in terms of internal company processes: the Japanese businesses and employees who are hired to help an organisation succeed in Japan. Steven Lejeune founded My Circle International Digital, a marketing agency in Tokyo, five years ago. “Major business misunderstanding can come from valuing results over process in western culture. In the west we tend to implement strategies, see what comes out of it and make adjustments when necessary along the way. Learning from mistakes and failure. When dealing with Japanese professionals, you almost have to come up with a cookie cutter type of plan packaged in a safe and somewhat conservative way. Avoiding risk.”

Making structures clear and avoiding risk are two points that repeatedly stand out in discussions with professionals working in Japan. Romen concurs, pointing out that that even within Japanese professionals there can be a wide diversity in terms of mindset and attitude, “my first GM hire was Japanese but he spent a big portion of his life and career in Europe as the “overseas” director. When he returned to Japan he joined a global OTA where again the culture was globally minded-Japanese employees or international school folk, who are a different bubble and very different from the average Japanese consumer.” It’s important to find the right professionals, at the right stage of their career, who can connect you with the wants and needs of the wider consumer.

Even beyond these more abstract questions about mindset and mentality an important task is to centre your organisation and quantifying the material reality of the market you are entering. This can range from industry price-points, marketing trends, service expectations, logistics, technology and beyond. Ed elaborates, “I noticed from the early 2000s that there was always a difference in the ways that Japanese consumers / companies would adapt and use digital media. In many ways this was driven by the peculiarities of mobile carriers and media platforms at that time. Over the years, this has been less so with the wholesale adoption of smartphones and dominance of global social media platforms (IG / FB / TW). But there are still rare cases where global standards can be upended by legacy technology.”

You might have heard jokes about Japanese offices still using fax-machines or Japan being the last hold-out of the once illustrious filp-phone. Sometimes these are lazy stereotypes, but there can be a grain of truth to be had in terms of respecting industry difference and preference across culture. Do your research and if you don’t know, find someone who does. Just copy/pasting your existing assumptions and mindset isn’t going to lead to good results.

Bustling neon nightlife streets in Japan.
 Photo by Abby Chung, Pexels.com

Diversity

Whenever you try and analyse a whole country or market there’s going to be a degree of simplification. To some extent this is unavoidable but it can and should be mitigated. Essentialising an entire country and culture can lead to out-dated thinking which can easily hinder business and sour relationships.

Ed explains that while differences can exist, often entrepreneurs will use the nebulous idea of “cultural difference” as an easy crutch. Sometimes the reality is that there isn’t a profound cultural barrier at play, but that the aggrieved organisation simply hasn’t taken the time to learn how business is conducted in Japan.

When problems occur, “this is usually covered with a blanket phrase that [in Japan] ‘ways of doing business are opaque’. The proper way of looking at it is that there are some heavily entrenched methods and practices for how business is conducted in Japan.”

Ed uses a case study to illustrate this. He was working for an international whisky company who was urging his team to push their product directly to Japanese consumers. Ed quickly realised that the whisky company simply didn’t have the right marketplace knowledge or sales team to pursue this B2C route. Instead Ed focused on fostering connections and orders from popular and highly respected bars in the nightlife district of Ginza in Tokyo. “Once the campaign was perfected as a hybrid B2B2C, we were able to expand the our efforts from Kanto to Kansai and subsequently cover 20+ locations to drive growth in annual sales by 7-10%.” Sometimes slowing down and focusing on business fundamentals and strengths is the answer to seemingly confusing barriers.

Ian’s position running an export company, interacting with Japanese producers and international consumers, gives him a unique perspective from which to understand any differing outlooks. “I don’t think it’s useful to take a general approach to “Japan” vs “non-Japan” My customer base of tea connoisseurs is, for example, much more educated about Japanese tea than Japanese people in general. I think you need to look at a specific market and understand it…understand when a market is a high context situation or low context situation.” A high context situation being a culture or market that requires extensive assumed knowledge, vs a low context situation where information is provided overtly and directly.

Ian gives a further example of this, “As we refocus our company to take on the Japanese market, we are not going to market to the same customer profile but rather examine what our strengths are, and where the opportunities are in the market: specifically, we think that there is an opportunity to create a brand focused on incorporating Hawaiian influences into traditional Japanese products, and with tea specifically, creating interesting Hawaiian-Japanese themed flavored tea products.” Cultural blending, not cultural flattening is the way forward.

A Changing Population

It’s also important to respect Japan’s internal diversity. While Japan is relatively monocultural by global terms, it is gradually diversifying, with foreign residents now representing 2.3% of the population. With these changes come different consumer wants and needs.

Suryanarayanan makes this point, “The non-Japanese consumers in Japan, while low in number compared to the general population, tend to be more global in their outlook (for instance they are already working/living in a different country). It’s therefore important not to generalise the entire foreign population in Japan & not treat them as a homogenous group.” Emphasising that, “The communication style & messaging need to be different for Japanese & non-Japanese consumers.”

However, this works both ways- and illustrates why specific market research is so important. Julien explains that, for his particular market of nightlife and entertainment, he actually uses the same messaging and advertising content for Japanese and non Japanese attendees. “In my case, marketing and promotion is exactly the same for Japanese and non Japanese customers. I’m proposing to them a service [which allows them] to meet and interact, in as many ways as possible, (Language exchanges, cultural meetings, Dating events…).”

Everyone is looking for the same culturally-mingled experience, so the alterations Julien makes are in the building blocks of his advertising, namely the language. He promotes in a bilingual way using both Japanese and English/French. This is why context is so necessary. Julien’s business is focused on connecting and blending Japanese and non-Japanese consumers. While for an organisation targeted squarely at non-Japanese consumers in Japan the messaging may need to be totally different as Suryanarayanan suggests. No one-size fits all.

On Track For Success

Entering and succeeding in the Japanese market is a significant task for any organisation. Preparation and research are the bedrock of any successful market introduction. But with the right tools success can be effectively chased and potential pitfalls avoided. Focusing on solid language competency, understanding differences in mindset and priorities and respecting the diversity and richness of the culture a business is seeking to enter are all vital and will lead to success from day one of launch, far into the future.

Many thanks to all of the industry professionals who took part in giving their perspective for this article.

Ed Thompson, WebsiteLinkedIn

Ian Chun, Website

Julien Tirode, WebsiteFacebookInstagram

Romen Barua, Instagram 1Instagram 2

Steven Lejeune, Website

Suryanarayanan S.LinkedIn

Featured

Nightdrive With You: A Vaporwave Guide to Tokyo

Tokyo is one of the greatest cities on earth. Home to 14 million people, stretching from mountains to sea, the metropolis has been stealing hearts for centuries. With a sophisticated culture, world-class food, smooth public transport and endless treasures to explore, it’s no wonder Tokyo attracts waves of visitors from across the globe every year.

Shinjuku Central: Walls of Neon

It’s a city with an aesthetic like no other: dense neon hanging from weathered office blocks. Shrines dotting the landscape, opposite brightly lit convenience stores. The streets busy and dense, thick with excitement. It drips electronic sweat. Tokyo’s waves and vibes have inspired countless artists over the years, from Bladerunner and City Pop, Persona 5 to Vaporwave, via Pizzicato Five and Your NameIf you’re planning a trip to Tokyo and would like a taste of the specific a e s t h e t i c gems the city has to offer, these are the districts to visit.

Late Night Delight

Shinjuku & Shibuya
Twins Shinjuku and Shibuya are the beating hearts of Tokyo. Immense and intense these districts make you feel like you’re standing right in the middle of Mega City One. Taking your first step outside the station, into the blazing streets below, is sure to be a vision.

Neon upon neon, each sign loudly, defiantly competing for your attention. Years of accumulating electronics building into a power web.

Shinjuku & Shibuya serve as a brilliant example of one of Tokyo’s most notable traits: shops, bars and restaurants stacked on top of each other high into the sky. While western cities tend to focus on the street level experience, Tokyo is all about verticality. A great tip for any visitor is to make sure to look up over your head as you walk the streets. Don’t be afraid to ride elevators and pound stairs to reach that quirky bar that’s just caught your eye.

When you combine the countless skyscrapers full of shops, with the signage used to promote them you start to appreciate the full power of Tokyo’s nightlife. Each and every single one of those dive bars and izakayas are full of people who have come from somewhere and are going elsewhere. Every single block and floor has a story to tell.

Bladerunner isn’t just a movie from the 80s. If you want to feel connected to the city, dizzy with excitement and the possibilities open to you, these districts are a must.

Osaka’s world-famous Dotonbori district

Osaka
While not in Tokyo itself- no discussion of neon in Japan would be complete without mentioning Osaka. Specifically its rolling central district of Dotonbori. Dotonbori has some of the most famous neon displays in all of Japan and one of the busiest nightlife districts in the country. If you’ve got a JR Pass (you definitely should) and are looking to chase the lights make sure to check out Osaka.

Luxury Elite

Ginza
Japanese shopping malls have a distinct vibe. Clean and crisp, with a focus on neatness and propriety. Unlike the more practical shopping centres you might find in the UK or America, Japanese malls can be a calmingly pleasant, almost beautiful. The kind of gleaming ‘Mallsoft’ aesthetic captured on Palm Mall or Hologram Plaza can be felt in the flesh.

Nowhere in Tokyo boasts more elite malls than Ginza. The feeling of excess, wealth and money sticks to the district. Yet it’s not without an artfulness.

Broad, clean streets, glass and steel, shops gleaming with luxury goods. You can easily spend an afternoon casually wandering. Browsing the shops, visiting the many cafes and food courts. Letting loose your inner Millionaire.

Osaka’s Dotonbori canal, where calm and buzz clash

Roppongi Hills
For another kind of style visit Roppongi Hills- a shopping mall complex built high on one of Tokyo’s major hilltops. It comes sporting fantastic views of Tokyo Tower in the distance. If Ginza is the place for Mallsoft during the day, Roppoingi is the place to go at night.

Waterfront Dining

The Sumida River
Tokyo’s main river, the Sumida, might be not be as famous as the Thames, Seine or Tiber, but it comes brimming with its own unique charm. The low-key nature of the Sumida is where its appeal lies. A clean crisp flow of water, buttressed by a jagged urban landscape, its banks are some of the quietest areas you’ll find in Tokyo.

Far from the main tourist trail, the riverbanks are well-used by locals. Many Tokyoites use the banks for jogging and running. And for visitors, the Sumida can be a great place to come to relax and reflect. When you want somewhere quiet to process your experiences of the city. It brings calmness and stillness to a place defined by energy and movement. Put your earbuds in and let world’s end girlfriend twirl you.

Since it flows through so many districts of Tokyo there are multiple ways you can approach the river. I usually get the train to Asakusabashi and walk down the high street. Eventually reaching the banks and following the bends and winds of the water from there.

I find myself walking down this same stretch of river each time I come back to Japan. Usually on the last day before I leave the city. Thinking about everything I’ve experienced and forming plans for the future.

A calm stretch of the Sumida river close to Akihabara

Far Side Virtual

Akihabara
Arguably the most popular tourist area of Tokyo. Akihabara is a district of the city almost entirely swallowed up by anime, manga and gaming culture. The streets are packed with anime figure shops, DVDs, merch, Blu-Ray vendors, maid cafes, gaming stores and karaoke parlours. Akihabara is all about what’s new and what’s hot in the world of anime and gaming: billboards for currently airing anime dot the skyline. For any modern anime fan, the district is a sight to behold. Anime characters plastered on buildings and billboards. Multi-storied department stores full of virtual merchandise. A physical space dedicated to a hobby which most people only partake in through the computer screen. Akihabara can feel like a victory, that niche, weird hobbies can blossom and develop into something truly powerful. Vaporwave fans take note.

But it’s not just about anime. Akihabara’s roots lie in the electronics shops which still dot the district. Originally the city was dedicated to the kind of cutting-edge progressive tech which once defined Japan. Filling the streets around Akihabara station with vendors selling computer parts, wires, processors, LEDs and capacitors. Over the years, anime (with its similar demographic audience), was layered over the top, leading to the mesh between the two cultures which now exits. Explore the backstreets of Akiba and you’ll be able to find the echoes of the area’s old focus. Old CRTs, countless jumbled mechanical parts and retro video game stores, an absolute goldmine of computer nostalgia waiting to be discovered.

Whether you’re a diehard anime fan or not, Akihabara is a fascinating vista. An ideal place to spend anywhere from hours to days exploring. A space where the virtual and physical connect, a trip to the far side.

Nakano
If Akihabara is dedicated to modern anime, what about older series? Where do I go to find my Sailor Moon and Urusei Yatsura merchandise? The answer is Nakano Broadway.

While equally famous for its anime culture stores, unlike Akihabara Nakano Broadway operates less like a grand shopping district and more like a flea market. A mix of shops selling edgy fashion, curios and niche collectibles (think model trains, anime, Godzilla figures and Sentai merch).

Since the majority of wares for sale in Nakano are second-hand, the anime which populate it tend to be older series. This makes Nakano a great place to go to look for merch from the ’90s and ’00s classics which got many western fans into anime in the first place. The kind which now populate a million looping Future Funk .gifs. The selection is constantly in flux, so you’ll need to do some serious crate-digging and window shopping to filter through the massive selection. But as with all hidden treasure, it’ll feel that much better when you find it.

For the now era, Akihabara is your friend. But for nostalgia, Nakano Broadway is hard to beat.

Empire Building

Tokyo TMG
No visit to Tokyo would be complete without a skyline view. Luckily the Tokyo Metropolitan Government provide a free viewing platform at the top of their gigantic towers. Remember: make sure to get to the towers an hour or two before sunset- so you can watch the sun go down and the city spring up.

Tokyo Skytree
If you’ve got a few yens weighing down your wallet you could also visit the Tokyo Skytree. While not free like TMG the Skytree is more modern and offers an especially slick viewing experience at the top of one of Tokyo’s most famous buildings.

Hot Summer Nights in Tokyo

Hologram Plaza

Odaiba
Odaiba is, without compare, the most Vaporwave place on the planet. An artificial island built in Tokyo Bay, during the 1990s the island was turned into an ultra-modern entertainment district. With morphing architecture blending in with bright sidewalks, palatial greenery, giant shopping malls and crowned with a gleaming monorail. The island remains popular today with tourists and locals alike. Proving itself to be one of the most unique and singular of all Tokyo’s districts.

Take a trip to the Joyopolis, a Sega theme park built at the height of ’90s Sonic-mania. Relax at Oedo Onsen, a massive Onsen complex complete with an eternal Summer festival. Take a stroll through Palette Town and experience a faux Roman shopping market, complete with a fake blue sky and plastic roman busts. Enjoy some culture at teamLab Borderless, an art installation designed to be experienced just as much through your selfie camera as your eyes. Peruse the grand mall of Diver City, before emerging under the shadow of a giant Gundam robot. Take a photo of the miniature Statue of Liberty at the shoreline, before heading back to the station next to the giant rainbow Ferris wheel.

When I took a friend to Odaiba recently they remarked that it reminded them of the world imaged by 1950s retrofuturism. Too clean, too pristine, too full of pleasurable sights and sounds. It shouldn’t feel real- but it is.

This article only scratches the surface of the multitude of delights which Tokyo holds. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to explore yourself and find your own delights. The secret parts of the city that give meaning to you, and that you find yourself returning to. Tokyo is too big to be distilled effectively into guides and lists. Use parts of what others suggest to you, and combine that with what you discover yourself. That way you can really make Tokyo yours.

Words and photos by Sam L. Barker. Sam is a freelance writer and marketer living in Cambridge, UK. He writes about music, technology and memory. Follow him on Twitter.

This piece was originally published at AE2 Online

Crystalpep64 talks Nova Sixty-Four

Building on the success of his Kingdom Hearts inspired 2019 release Door to Darkness rising Vaporwave star Crystalpep64 talks about his upcoming album Nova Sixty-Four. A Synthwave tinged adventure back into his inspired realm of Technology, Nostalgia and Video Games.

Could you talk about some of the musical influences on Nova Sixty-Four? You mentioned there’s a Synthwave influence?

Seeing as most of my releases draw from video game soundtrack, it’s not a surprise this one kind of does too. Delving into these PC-Engine and NES role playing games often feels like rummaging through an old cardboard box in the attic and it always gives me intriguing new ideas I want to implement in my style of music. That’s when the clashing begins. The synthwavey aspect of the ep certainly stems from games like Hotline Miami or Slipstream, but there is no denying the fact that HOME played a role, too. Translating those influences into a coherent sound is difficult but also very interesting.

Crystalpep64’s upcoming release Nova Sixty-Four

Conceptually the release is about a utopian society which is decaying and facing collapse. What kind of ideas are you looking to explore with this setting?

Starting with sentimental, nostalgic sounds and then slowly plunging them into a darker sphere was the first idea which culminated in the final concept of a decaying society. And while the synths build up to be the tracks they now are, my head canon build up as well. In the end there was just really a lot to work with and almost half of it fell by the wayside, but I’m confident I got the very best out of the different ideas.

Is there a particular story to the album (characters and narrative)? Or is the setting more abstract and conceptual?

There is no real story taking place in the ep. The tracks are supposed to paint a large picture in which each listener can interpret a narrative themselves. But it is no coincidence that the tracks at the beginning of the ep are still very light and are slowly becoming darker. In that way, yes, there is a story. And there is also the artwork on the cover with the lady staring at her hologram, looking for answers it probably can’t give to her.

You’re getting one of your friends to play guitar on the record right? Could you talk about the instrumentation on the album and how that might be different from past releases.

Exactly, one of my friends lend me his guitar-skills and his singing talent, which I used to make a track called “Dataquest 3000”. He’s a talented musician and gave me good feedback when working on the ep. The instrumentation heavily relies on synthesizers, the guitar part actually is an exception. But while “Door To Darkness” consisted mostly of samples, I’m really proud that this release contains almost no samples. That is an achievement for me, although I kinda miss recontextualizing already existing music and I think I will definitely work sample-based again in the future. At least for some of my music.

In our previous conversation we talked a lot about nostalgia and memory (kingdom hearts especially) are you looking to explore these ideas again with your new release, or are you trying to look more into the future then the past?

I hope that “Nova Sixty-four” delivers that certain nostalgic feel for people who crave that but it was a decision made early on to not fall back on the same themes, my last release already dealt with. 

Following on from that question, how do you see nova sixty-four within your discography? Is it a culmination of all your work up until now? Are you drawing influence from past releases or is it a new departure and experiment?

I’m doing this whole music thing for a relatively short time span, I would say. And I wanted this release to be something, I could pour all my insights and learnings of the last few years into. And of course there are old influences that shape the way this ep was made. Even though it is a culmination of my old work I could have probably done Nova Sixty-Four under another alias. I know that many artists in the scene have a range of different identities to do exactly that. Trying different things and making it easier for the listener to grasp the artists respective vision. But I’m not at the point where I can pinpoint the exact road we’re gonna go with all of this and I’m super excited to explore new possibilities with my music in the future.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

There is so much output nowadays and time is always limited and new and exciting content just waits around the next corner. That’s why every minute someone spends with listening to something I made is precious to me. So thanks to every human being who gives this a chance. I appreciate you.

Screenager: The World of Alpha Chrome Yayo

I’m a sucker for weird, experimental music. So when I came across Alpha Chrome Yayo I was struck. A music industry veteran blending a synthy progressive morass. Glitchy aesthetics with grungy, versatile imagery. I wanted to talk to him about his new album Choke, his musical influences and the grey, lively streets of Northern Ireland.

Alpha Chrome Yayo’s Choke

Mxhdroom:
One of the things that attracted me to your work is the idea of it as “experimental synth”. What’s the thinking behind this label?

Alpha Chrome Yayo:
Y’know, it’s a funny one. I guess first and foremost I tend not to describe my music as straight up synthwave as I don’t want to annoy anybody! Sure I’ve got tracks that are pretty much classic Outrun, like Cerberus 3000 (Killing Time), but I’d say the majority of my output is more accurately described as ‘synthwave adjacent’. It tends to land somewhere in and around synthwave, vaporwave, lofi and ambient, with some hot flashes of funk, metal and other assorted oddness.

I’m not too fussy when it comes to genre descriptors myself, and personally I love when the lines blur. But I know that’s not the case for everybody, and that’s totally cool too. So I figure ‘experimental synth’ is a good catch-all for what I do! I love exploring new territory with each release, and I often go down weird wormholes. One thing I am extremely grateful for is the warmth with which these new directions are welcomed and encouraged by synthwave and vaporwave fans and artists alike. It’s so freeing and refreshing to be able to break new ground and have whole swathes of communities interested in what I’ve got going on.

Following on from that question, are there any particular genres you like to blend into your music to give it that experimental edge? I get tinges of hip hop, industrial and maybe a bit of jazz from your work.

Oh man, just so many. So, so many. I’m musically fickle! On my most recent release, Choke, there’s a huge jazz influence going on as you mentioned, which is noticeable straight off the bat. I was listening to lots of Ryo Fukui while I was making it and, honestly, tons of Chuck Mangione. I love that guy! And of course, all the rest of the genres you mentioned too. The closing track, Facilis Descensus Averno, is overwhelmingly influenced by black metal, and I had such a great time with those vocals, and the lyrics. I absolutely have to tip my hat to the endlessly incredible Winterquilt for helping reignite my love of all things kvlt, and inspiring me to snake my musical tendrils in that direction.

Elsewhere though… ooohh where to start! A track of mine that’s a personal favourite is ‘Anchorage’, and it’s really just me doing a straight up slice of yacht rock, with some smooth grooves and soaring soft-shred, whereas Take My Advice is a whole EP dedicated to cop movie soundtracks. So lots of Lethal Weapon squealin’ sax, and sultry grooves a la Lalo Schifrin’s latter-day Dirty Harry scores.
I could go on all day, and that’s not meant to be a boast or anything. I think most people have a pretty rich sonic palette when it comes to the things they enjoy listening to. I love taking a snatch of an idea and running with it, in whatever direction it takes me. An album that is a huge influence on me is Imaginary Sonicscape by Sigh. I first heard it when it came out in 2001, and it really stuck with me, not just in terms of the music itself, but its approach. Ostensibly at face value it’s a black metal album, but it’s also full of weird woozy jazz, disco and funk.
So yeah, blame Sigh!

The Limited Edition Cassette bundle of Choke


How do you pick your visuals? The promo video you made for Choke was incredible. It caught my eye immediately and had that kind of ‘experimental’ edge which drew me to you.

Hey that’s very cool of you to say! Thank you very much. Above all else, I really just want to paint pictures with my music. I’m a pretty visual person and come from a film background so, while the music does the talking, if I’m accompanying it with video, it’s hugely important to me that it’s also saying the right thing.

I spend a huge amount of time trawling through all kinds of footage, and one of my favourite promo videos I knocked together for Choke was for my track, Veins. It’s a real slow-burn of a track, no drums at all, heavy on ambient piano and strings. I wanted something on the older side of retro for it, that also captured something more ancient and primordial. What I ended up with was an edit of old ’50s – ’60s public domain educational biology videos. 
They’re just wonderful; really quite macabre. They remind me of old ’20s German Expressionist films, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Partly for pleasure and partly for inspiration, I spend hours watching old advertisements too, as well as late ’80s/early ’90s CGI. The kinda stuff that reminds you of bowling alley videos! And, eh, yeah, I watch a lot of bowling alley videos. I love all that Mind’s Eye kinda era animation, guys like Robert Abel, Tatso Shimamura, The Post Group… It’s just pure joy, and for me typifies an era of unbridled experimentalism.
And for my Komorebi EP I found myself diving deep into some performance art videos, particularly work by the legendary Roger Shimomura. I actually got in touch with Professor Shimomura during the making of that record, and ended up using – with his permission – an incredible image of him for the artwork. That was a real highlight of 2019 for me.

What aesthetics and vibes inspire you? Choke especially is really dark and heavy. I get a really strong ’90s industrial vibe from it. Like a cyberpunk kind of landscape of grungy tech and gaudy lights.

Oh you’re so on the money! Choke is probably the darkest release I’ve ever put out, and it originally stemmed from hearing an ice cream truck rolling around my neighbourhood late at night. There’s something so fiercely unnerving about that, something innocent and sweet turned suddenly sour under sinister circumstances. I mean, I don’t know what that guy is doing, but he sure ain’t selling snowcones!
The first track on there, Snuff ‘Em Out, really draws on that twisted carnival kind of sound, and that’s something that resonates throughout the whole record. I wanted it to sound like something for movie goons and henchmen to listen to; a soundtrack for those unsung denizens of the night.
But there’s inspiration to be drawn from so many sources. I’d even argue that Choke is probably the direct inverse of my previous release, Twirl. In fact, talking of which…

Alpha Chrome Yayo’s Twirl

How would you say Choke builds on or develops from Twirl?

Heyyy good timing! Twirl was brilliant fun to make, and I love it so very dearly. It’s also so, so different to Choke. The whole thing is basically my love letter to the adventure that was the early internet. That beautiful time long before trolls and YouTube comments, when it was all the Information Super Highway and abstract software art. Where Choke is black, white and every shade of grey, Twirl is hypercolour.

In terms of sound, it’s also very, very different. Both have a sort of lofi jazz sensibility, but at opposite ends of the spectrum. Where Choke is noir, Twirl draws from the jazz fusion soundtracks associated with the Sega CD, and ambient work by guys (or rather, legends) like Spencer Nilsen.

Something that I haven’t really seen mentioned by many is the distinct lack of guitars on Choke. When they are there, they’re mostly very understated. Whereas on Twirl, and most of my other records, there’s a fairly hefty amount of shred going on. This wasn’t a conscious decision, it just isn’t that sort of record. But it did made me quite happy when I realised I didn’t need to have wild widdly solos all over the place; this particular record is stronger without ’em.
That being said, I’m already working on some stuff that has… SHITLOADS OF WILD WIDDLY SOLOS ALL OVER THE PLACE, so fret not, axe fans.
*Fret* not. Eh, eh?

Haha, so following on from that. How do you produce your music? What instruments and programs are you using?

I’ve got a modest little home studio with a nice mix of hardware and software synths, and I’m the biggest fan of Reason. Within ten minutes of first trying it, I knew it was for me; it just makes sense to me, and that’s not meant to be a clever play on words. The fact that it’s software that plays like hardware is awesome, and I adore it.

In terms of hardware, I’ve got a few trusted synths, and one particular favourite is the Roland D-05, which is really just a D-50 in a tiny little box. It’s perfect for the late ’80s/early ’90s tones I love so dearly; it can do new age, new wave, new jack swing… it’s just wonderful. And I recently became the owner of a Moog Sub Phatty, which I’m already in love with, and future records are going to be saturated in so much hefty goodness from that box of joy.

Other treasured synths include the Roland JV-1080, the DX7, the Casio CZ family… I’ve also got such a soft spot for slightly shitty sounding organs, which I do my best to emulate as I don’t have the room or the wallet to handle collecting them.

Aside from that it’s a lovely ice-white Ibanez that I use on just about everything, and the usual assortment of cables, stomp-boxes and oddities. I love to record live instruments here and there, the odd bit of sax. Today I was sampling a bosun’s whistle, used for naval calls. I think this year I’m going to make a concerted effort to dig into more found sounds and unusual instrumentation.
I mean, I say that, I’ve got at least two songs with a hurdy gurdy on them. But I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of where I want to go in terms of ancient instruments. Time to get weird.


You’re from Northern Ireland, what’s the electronic scene there like? Is it mostly online or are there fan meet-ups/shows and such?

There has always been a really rich musical heritage in Northern Ireland, and I’m proud to be part of that. You’ve got these bona fide heroes like Gary Moore, The Undertones, etc… as well as more contemporary – but equally excellent and important – acts like Ash, and Therapy? I mean, damn, Therapy? are just unreal.

And the grassroots scene is similarly impressive, with a smorgasbord of incredible artists. Punk, metal and indie rock have always been huge, and metal is the world I guess I came from originally. So the electronic scene is slightly newer to me, but holy smokes, the talent. You’ve got guys like Arvo Party, Carlton Doom, giant duo Bicep, to name but a few. And in terms of synthwave/retrowave/vaporwave, there are incredible artists like Danny Madigan, Tripp Mirror, Transpacifica, Asyne and Last Survivor. And then down south, Bart Graft. Who is, for my money, not just one of the finest musicians in the country, but in the world. Dude. Is. Incredible.

It’s a funny one, as I’ve never really thought of myself as a ‘local musician’. I mean, does anybody really like to think like that? At the very least I don’t think anybody has to think like that anymore, with the way music works today. Most of the people listening to my music are from other parts of the world, and that is just amazing to me. It makes me feel very lucky, and I’m thrilled to think of my music finding a home thousands of miles away from me.

But still, lovely support from people nearby means the world to me too. I’m honoured every time I pop a cassette in the post, whether it’s destined for ten minutes down the road, or to the other side of the planet.

Any plans for the future from here? New projects/ EPs / albums / experiments?

Ohhh yes. Haha I got a few irons in the fire. First up… and I haven’t spoken about this tooooo much anywhere else really… is a fairly ridiculous golf themed album. I’m talking Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge vibes, a little bit of PGA Tour Golf for the Sega Mega Drive… and more than a dash of Shooter McGavin from Happy Gilmore.

I would say it’s not an entirely serious album, but that wouldn’t be true, I’m deadly serious about it! But it is definitely pretty funny and very tongue in cheek. I’m loathe to say it’s a comedy record, because it isn’t, but if Frank Zappa taught me one thing, it’s that you can be completely 100% serious about silly subject matter. If anything, I’m taking longer to write and record these tracks than normal as they’re very different to anything I’ve done before. I guess that’s what keeps it interesting!

Apart from that, I’ve got a whole slew of collabs that I’m working on, and am very excited about. And one other mystery project that I can’t talk about yet. Haha I always get a bit pissed off hearing people say that in interviews, that sort of teasing vagueness. But hey, here I am doing it. It’s really cool though, completely different to anything I’ve done before, completely unique, and involves working with someone who I find truly inspirational.

So yeah, sorry for the vagueness. I know it’s assholey. But, keep your eyes on my Twitter or whatever for updates if I’ve piqued your interest!

Alpha Chrome Yayo’s Take My Advice EP

Anything else you’d like to say?

I don’t know if this is the best place to say it, but this week I lost someone dear to me. Someone dear to a whole lot of people, an excellent musician and friend called Casey Platt, who released music under the name Shelf Black.

He passed away suddenly, and I’m still completely shook by it. So many people are. Anybody reading this who knew him, or even spoke to him once, probably realised that he was the kindest, most supportive, magnificent person, and a magnificent musician. There’s a Go Fund Me page to raise money for his family, and it is at over $10k in 24 hours. That’s a testament to the strength of character this man had, and if another two 0s are added onto it, it’s still not enough. We never met IRL, but talked online all the time. Shared photographs of our families, dorky videos of our pets, our hopes and dreams… real friend stuff, basically.

I don’t want to end this interview on a sad note… so I won’t! What I do want to say is, first up, a huge thank you to Casey. Without his effervescent enthusiasm and encouragement, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I just straight up wouldn’t. I’m so grateful, and I’ll never forget you man.
And to extrapolate on that a bit further, I want to thank each and every person who supports me and my music in any shape or form. Shit, I want to thank each and every person who supports ANY music, in any shape or form. You are making real, literal magic happen and it is beautiful. You are so appreciated.
And I guess that’s it. Thank you very much for talking to me!

A Million Miles Together: Crystalpep64 Interview

I didn’t even understand or process what was happening story-wise. But for years after that it stuck with me, that boy called Sora and his adventures.”

Crystalpep64 is a big fan of Kingdom Hearts. So much so that his recent release, Door To Darkness is a concept album based on the series. It dropped on Seikomart this April, blending lofi beats, samples from the game and Vaporwave stylings into a unique package. It’s a brooding, haunting album and whether you’re a fan of the Kingdom Hearts series or not- a necessary listen.

Nostalgia is important to Vaporwave- but what sets Door To Darkness apart from many of its peers is how focused it is. We know Vaporwave can succeed by drawing on big, wide emotions. Taking on broad influences like retro technology, Japan, Korea, hauntology and advertising. But the idea of taking one very specific piece of artwork -in this case a video game- and basing a Vaporwave album on it, holds a special flair to it.

Door To Darkness is also notable due to being slightly more futuristic in its ambitions. Much of Vaporwave draws on the sights and sounds of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but an album rooted in the ‘00s? That’s a cool idea. Kingdom Hearts brings back surprisingly vivid memories for me, so when I first heard Crystalpep64’s album I knew I had to speak with him.

Mxhdroom:

How important is Kingdom Hearts to you? I never played the games myself, but I still have a lot of nostalgia for it. It’s quite an iconic series at this point.

Crystalpep64:

My Kingdom Hearts-story really began on a PlayStation 2 that belonged to one of my friends. We used to spend entire days having fun in front of the TV. There were a bunch of games, some good, some bad, but I liked one in particular, and that was Kingdom Hearts 1. When we played it for the first time, I was only about 10 years old and I was just thrilled to experience those adventures with all these colourful Disney characters. I wasn’t always there when my friend played it so I never saw everything in the game. And I didn’t even understand or process what was happening story-wise. But for years after that it stuck with me, that boy called Sora and his adventures. When I was sixteen I finally got myself a PlayStation 2…and there was much catching up to do.

I played Kingdom Hearts 1 for the first time from the beginning until the very end. And when Ansem was finally beaten and Utada Hikaru’s Simple and Clean chimed from the TV, I knew that this was as special a game as I imagined it to be all those years.

Kingdom Hearts reminds me so strongly of that mid-00s internet era. When streaming and fan culture was just starting to bubble up through the web.

I remember when I was first getting properly into music- and I was using the internet to find new artists. I’d be searching for all these punk and emo bands on YouTube and there’d be so many videos using Kingdom Hearts as a backdrop to the songs. Still images, edited videos, fanart, the lot. It was mixed in with a lot of the really popular media at the time, like Death Note, Naruto, Final Fantasy. So even though I never played it I associate it really strongly with that time period.

That made your album connect nostalgically with me, maybe in a different way to how you might expect!

The relationship between Kingdom Hearts and that kind of emo music was the real deal back then. I thought for a long time, that Evanescence’s Bring Me To Life was part of the original KH soundtrack. AMVs were something I’d never heard of before, and it kind of introduced me to the art of mixing unrelated visuals with audio and creating something new in the process. Those edgy themes really resonated with a lot of people and I know exactly that my 14-year old self was one of them. (I’m listening to Evanescence right now, for the first time in years haha).

There’s actually one specific Kingdom Hearts AMV that my mind always goes to. Gives me goosebumps rewatching it.

It’s also interesting because Kingdom Hearts is itself kind of an exercise in Nostalgia. It’s all about reconnecting people who (at the time it was released in 2002) were teenagers with characters like Mickey, Goofy and Ariel. Characters they probably grew up through their childhood watching and loving. But it’s blending that Disney influence with a kind of cool, edgy Final Fantasy aesthetic. Which was super popular with teens at the time. To help combine who they are now- with who they were then.

Yes, Kingdom Hearts is often described as a mix of Disney and Square Enix, but to me at least, the Disney-part far exceeds the Final Fantasy elements. The Disney movies that appear in the game are childhood favourites of so many people. Aladdin, Hercules or Winnie the Pooh, these were characters who accompanied me very early on in my life through their movies, tv-shows and merchandise. So I believe their inclusion really adds to that nostalgia inherent in the games.

Crystalpep64’s Door To Darkness

Can you talk about the packaging of the album? The artwork, the design, the poem card. It looks awesome. It’s got that chunky mid-00s style going on.

As the general idea of the EP was becoming clear, the big challenge was, of course, to find a name. As befits a game in which keys are featured prominently, there’s a lot of references to doors. Doors that lead to strange places and other worlds. Doors that protect something, or shut something away. Having such a strong symbol in the title and on the cover of the EP seemed appropriate for a series of games that so often worked with and through symbols. The original idea was to use the close-up of the door (the one that’s now the inlay) as a cover, to mimic opening a door when you open the case of the tape, but in the end, we decided to use the stronger of the two images as the main-visual.

Even if you have never played the game, you still might know about the game’s reputation of telling a rather complicated and convoluted story. It’s not hard to understand if you play all the games, but once time travel and doppelgängers get introduced, it’s easy to mix up all the different plot-points.

The quote I chose to be printed on the inlay highlights the twisting, layered nature of the series. But it’s also a very important part of a conversation in which one of the oldest beings of the Kingdom Hearts universe explains the principles of time travel to the hero, who is about to be swallowed up by the darkness. So that’s neat.

I’m a big fan of blending low, or popular culture (like video games or Pop Punk), with big impactful ideas. So I really love what you’ve done with Door To Darkness. Mixing a very cute, accessible video game with your really earnest impactful music. Like you’re taking something easy to dismiss as flimsy and corporate and going, “no: this stuff means a lot to me, and it has for a long time.” You really care about this. And I can super relate to that passion.

With nostalgia being a key-element of Vaporwave, tracks that come with this distinctive video game sound, like t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者永遠に生きる for example, really got me going when I first discovered this genre. Growing up with video games also meant growing up with video game music and I try to archive every good video game soundtrack I come across. Kingdom Hearts’  soundtrack composer Yoko Shimomura really left an impression on me, and I hope that I have enriched her compositions with my own influences.

I’d like to think that through that process I was able to create a new sound experience that can inspire the listener. No matter if they’re fans of talking ducks and big keyblades or not!

“You were able to go back in time to just before your home became a Sleeping World, only because a past version of you already existed there.

You’re not gonna wake up, okay?

This piece was originally published at ae2.online

We’re All Anime Fans Now

Billie Eilish has cleaned up at the Grammys. An impressive achievement no doubt. In the flurry of responses to the news one stuck out to me. A tweet by YouTube mash-up artist Triple-Q pointing out that Billie had risen from producing knock-off Love Live merch to winning a Grammy. Both a critique of Eilish and ironic comment on the state of music and internet culture in 2020. One: it was a bad decision for someone as prominent Eilish to attempt to illicitly profit off another artist’s work. Two: the absurdity of the most successful musician of the moment ripping off a cutesy school idol anime from 2013.

In this way Eilish represents a single, but persistent, example of a trend brewing for almost a decade. The transition of anime from a niche subculture into part of the texture of the internet. From a specific style of artwork which was appreciated and enjoyed by a committed community: If you liked anime you were an ‘anime fan’ and that differentiated you from other people who didn’t like or engage with anime and thus were not ‘anime fans’. Into something which everyone swims through and responds to.

Billie Eilish’s you should see me in a crown

Here we have to differentiate, we’re not talking about the rise in popularity of anime per se through sites like Crunchyroll and YouTube. Though they’ve definitely grown in popularity over the decade. Not necessarily the stories, or even specific characters. But anime as a malleable visual style. Stylised anime avatars confront everyone across the internet, games the world over trade in anime styles, the use of anime designs on merch, albums, videos and single covers. In this context it doesn’t matter if Eilish knew that the character she was appropriating was Nozomi from Love Live. It doesn’t matter if she’s even watched the show or not. What matters to her, and to most of the rest of the internet, is that it is anime. Fresh, modern and cool.

Many of the most successful artists of the last decade, from the underground to the mainstream, have pulled anime images into their brand. Pharrell Williams’ kaleidoscope video for It Girl, Porter Robinson’s anime mini-epic Shelter, XXXTentacion’s watercolour SAUCE!, Grimes’ twisted Art Angels, Kanye West’s Stronger tribute to Akira, Lil Uzi Vert’s Futsal Shuffle. What makes the use of anime by these artists so smart is that it isn’t a barrier- it’s a boost. If you’re an anime fan you get the ego-pump of seeing a popular artist moving the medium you love forward. But if you’re not an anime fan it can equally work as a cool, eye catching visual style.

Or look to the entire genre of Future Funk. The sounds draw on 80s J-Pop, City Pop and retro music, and its images draw from their parallels in 80s and 90s anime. Looping clips of anime girls, either from legacy series like Urusei Yatsura , or their modern counterparts , are a cornerstone of the genre. What’s the purpose of these loops? To inject the kind of colour and vim which anime is so perfect at. A combination of cuteness and energy which is able to attract the eye and the ear. You don’t need to be an ‘anime’ fan to enjoy them, you just need to vibe with it.

watch Idolm@ster

I remember back in the 00s, when I was first getting into anime, the idea that a celebrity was even aware of anime, let alone liked it, was truly wild. I used to pour over esoteric images of Blink 182 members wearing anime shirts with amazement. Magazines used to draw up rumor lists of celebrities who liked anime: the Wachowskis , Keanu Reeves, Rivers Cuomo? Definitely dude.

In retrospect this was all symptom of the slowness of pre-internet culture. Cross-pollination took a long time. Anime was wrapped up in physical media: boxes,CDs and tapes. You had to work to even interact with it. Now the internet has unchained it to run wild and free in video and image format across almost every website possible. Now Kim Kardashian can post a picture of Two Zero on her twitter, declaring her, “my hair inspo”, and the most notable thing people have to say is that she should have credited the original artist.

So anime sits alongside Spongebob Memes, Lofi Hip Hop to study and relax to and Synthwave sunsets as part of the common language of the internet. It’s a paradox that as much as the internet thrives on weird, niche communities, it still cherishes shared images and familiar touchstones. There’s a kind of magnetic pull that as much as we all branch out into different sites and communities- we end up responding to and reproducing the same images. The doors that once separated our hobbies into neat little rooms have been blown wide open and now we’re all rolling around in the computer room posting Lum .gifs.

Great Anime Vibes: Winter 2020

Credit: Otaku USA Magazine

Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na!

The must-watch anime of the season by almost everyone’s account. It’s rare that an anime comes along with the full package: concept, visuals and execution. We’re lucky if we get a handful a year, but so far Keep Your Hands off Eizouken! is zooming along with flying colours.

Eizouken tells the story of three school girls founding an anime-creation club. Capitalising on the popular anime trend of showing the creative processes of the anime and gaming industries. However, unlike its more realistic counterparts Eizouken focuses squarely on the imagination and passion that drives its girls to create. How they create is less important than why.

It also has a strong, highly stylised visual aesthetic. Allowing the world to crumble and rise alongside the girls’ inspiration. It’s telling that all three anime I’ve responded to this season focus on making their visuals charming and memorable, rather than just shiny. Ultimately the show is just so darn sincere. Any creative, of any stripe or type, will likely see a bit of themselves in Eizouken.

Credit: Viz

Dorohedoro

Dorohedoro is really weird. A gritty, grimy, and often frankly disgusting series tracking the adventures of an amnesiac reptile-headed hunter and his gyouza-shop owning partner. If the world of Eizouken is inviting the world of Dorohedoro is repelling. Cyberpunk horror; everything has an organic, meaty pulse, with a layer of grime smeared over it. Weird half-formed monsters and human body-horror. The kind of nightmare fuel which brings to mind the ’90s Japanese underground.

So naturally the tone of the series is a jolt of action slap-stick, with our main duo being totally loveable. Bumbling do-gooders in a world of ultraviolence. The show’s animation uses a kind of uncanny valley CGI for a lot of the action scenes, but in these murky surroundings it almost works. If you’re looking for an edgy seinen kick this season Dorohedoro is definitely going someplace strange.

Credit: Otakukart

Jibaku Shounen Hanako-kun

I’m a sucker for high school comedies. When done right they’ve produced some of my favourite anime ever. And Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun has proven itself to be a fizzy treat. I was always going to check out this anime due to how solid the manga is. Weaving the story of a mysterious ghost haunting the lady’s toilets, and the lonely girl who befriends him. The anime smooths out some of the manga’s jagged visual edges, while leaving the bejewelled, colourful palette. Lush backgrounds take full advantage of the Japanese-Gothic vibe of the series.

And it’s funny! And the characters are likeable! With strong designs and a nice blend of dumb anime jokes mixed with subtle personality. The series also draws on Japan’s extensive supernatural folklore for some interesting cultural elements. I’m pretty chuffed that the series is being as well received as it is, but that’s the power of a great anime adaption: building up something classic while giving it a fresh lick of paint. New fans, old fans, we’re all Hanako-kun fans.

Surfing With the Alien: Hatsune Miku Live in London

Hatsune Miku is a singing synthesiser. Born in 2007 as a cutting-edge piece of technology, she combines a voice synthesiser program with an anime girl shell. Allowing anyone, be they a budding songwriter or a big-name producer, to collaborate with their very own virtual pop star. The strategy is genius. A character with enough edges to make her solid, but enough mystery for infinite exploration.

Since her creation Miku has gone on to become a cultural phenomenon in both her home of Japan and the world at large. Propelled through the Internet, her brand now spans a countless and constantly growing number of albums, EPs and singles. With genres ranging from Rock and Pop, to Dance, Metal and beyond. Branding endorsements, figures, anime, clothes, leeks, everything can be Miku. Her stable of collaborators has also grown, with the Vocaloid range now boasting numerous official and bootleg partners for Miku. Each one catering to a different vocal range and visual style. Evolving ever more niche, in the way that anime culture is so expert at.

Photo taken by Amerei

Miku also performs live shows, and I was able to catch her most recent stop in the UK . The gig was part of Miku Expo, a string of New Year’s concerts throughout Europe, taking in Spain, France, Germany, The Netherlands and the UK. I’d also been to see her during her 2019 London show, with her yearly visits becoming something of a tradition.

The Miku Expo structure, wherein Miku performs a select number of shows across the globe each year, is a great example of artful artificial scarcity. Highlighting some of the contradictions that come from her virtual pop-stardom. Miku is present on stage in hologram form- singing, dancing, switching costumes and even thanking the crowd in their native language. Backed by a well-drilled live band and a simple but effective stage rig. Which leaves it to be noted that, bar this specific lineup of live band, Miku could be performing live on an almost constant basis. She could be on tour in Japan every month, with different band members tag-teaming in and out across different cities. Then take the show on the road and have her performing in different parts of the world simultaneously, from Hong Kong to Moscow to Brazil. Do to her live show what the internet has done to her music. She’s a hologram, there’s literally nothing to stop her.

But Miku doesn’t tour like this. She tours like a traditional pop star. Yearly tours across the globe taking in the largest countries and cities, and an annual Magical Mirai event in her home country of Japan. Because the truth is that Miku, for all her virtual nature, is a an existent character to her fans. Through the endless kaleidoscope of videos, fanart and songs, her character has been built up by thousands of different creatives. The divergent visual and musical styles enhancing, rather than shattering her realness. The Miku that appears in the iconic World is Mine video is the same as the one fading away in the tragic Disappearance video, or her collab with Anamanaguchi or the meme machine Po Pi Po. In order to tie all these Mikus together, to conjure her into a single essence at a particular place and time. To pull her from the internet into the real world, her appearances have to be limited, special. They to have grandeur.

Photo taken by Sam L Barker

That’s reflected by the feeling in the room. This was a crowd who had waited fervently for this event, this once-a-year chance to glorify their idol.

Miku delivered in full force at Brixton. Her lightshow was excellent. The live band were beyond reproach, adding a little frisson of organic energy into the otherwise digital proceedings. Miku’s support squad of Vocaloids (Len and Rin being the most impressive consorts) added a mix of varied colours to the proceedings. Quite literally in fact, as the obligatory glowsticks wielded by the crowd can turn into their respective colours depending on the Vocaloid singing. Blended green for Miku, red for Meiko, purple for Luka and so on. Unified waving of these coloured sticks, in time to the beats and waves of the songs, allows the crowd to become part of the live show. Huge seas of synchronised light being reflected back at their hologram star. An interesting half-contrast to the moshing, dancing, singing and lighters-in-the-air seen at a rock concert. Miku crowds like to project energy as a unified whole, which both empowers each member, but also surrenders them to the group…Woe to the person waving a blue glowstick during the yellow and orange twins’ duet.

I remember once having an argument at University with some friends who claimed that synthetic Vocaloid-style musicians would one day take over the world. They claimed that within a decade all music would be made by algorithm and sung by machine. That the technology which powered Miku was going to improve exponentially, and nothing could stop it. The objective pleasure and perfection of the software was going to drive humans out of the arena. As of 2020 they were clearly overly optimistic in their predictions, but I’m sure they’ll be proven right eventually. While English-language voice synthesisers haven’t caught on massively (and indeed due to the more haphazard structure of the language, simply don’t work as well as Japanese counterparts) the clock is ticking.

Yet I don’t think it’ll ever be a rout. There’ll always be space for a Tom Waits or an Iron & Wine in music, people are too messy, and their emotions too needy to leave behind warbling human imperfection. In the same way that her fans reflect light back at Miku, sometimes we need raw human empathy reacted back to us. But while the old pillars will still stand, they’ll be buttressed by some of the most amazing light, smoke and Electro performances you’ve ever seen.

Photo taken by Sam L Barker

Unlimited Sin

Far Side Virtual 8: The Rise and Fall of the Music Download

I remember the first time I heard about Limewire it genuinely shocked me. What was this weird computer program everyone was talking about…It could give you all the music you ever wanted, completely for free? How was that fair? Having grown up on the tail-end of the CD era (my first ever album was Good Charlotte’s The Young and Hopeless, followed by The Killer’s Hot Fuss) I’d been instilled with a sense that the physical product you bought, and the music contained within it, were linked. So to rip these two apart- and chuck musical tracks onto the internet for free- just seemed wrong. Almost disrespectful.

This was back when I was still in High School, around 2007 or so. And since then we’ve witnessed the steady rise, and cooling down, of the ‘music download’. After 20 years of being at the heart of the musical zeitgeist, it looks like the concept is fizzling out. Apple recently announced that its flagship platform for music downloads, iTunes, is to be broken up. The Music Industry’s IFPI 2019 Report confirms this trajectory. Musical downloads start tracking in 2004 at $400 Million in revenue, rising to its peak of $4.4 Billion in 2014, before shrinking to $2.3 Billion in 2018. By contrast, Streaming has ballooned from $100 Million in 2005 to a gargantuan $8.9 Billion in 2018. Streaming now makes up almost half the music industry’s revenue, nearly equalling physical sales, digital downloads and performance rights combined.

Music Industry Revenue Table Downloads

Table & Data Source: IFPI Report 2019

While the IFPI only tracks legal downloads, if these trends continue digital downloads will be increasingly squeezed out- while streaming continues to dominate as the most popular method of music consumption.

But while downloads may be fading – they inarguably changed the way we think about music- possibly forever.

The People vs Lars Ulrich

The story of popular music downloads starts with something decidedly guerrilla. Napster. Back in 1999, when the service launched, the idea of using the internet to fileshare was still in its infancy. Part of the reason was the clunky dial-up internet most users had access to, another was the fact that the idea simply hadn’t entered public consciousness yet. 1999 was CD Country- with bands able to shift millions upon millions of units- ironclad by the MTV Industrial Complex.

Napster demolished this paradigm incredibly quickly: giving users a simple, easy to use and (most importantly) free system to download as many songs as they wanted. The ballad of Napster, climaxing in Lars Ulrich standing outside a Californian court, waving a page of usernames he intended to sue, is the stuff of legend. But while the program lived and died in a relatively short period of time- shutting down in 2001, it set the stage both for the culture of mass downloading, and the music industry’s response to it.

Steve Jobs, a figure often able to see the wave before it hit the beach, launched iTunes in 2003, as a direct riposte to this challenge. Apple already dominated with their iPod MP3 player- and now iTunes would complete the loop, allowing Apple to both play, and provide, your music. During the iTunes launch event Jobs positioned himself as directly in combat. Starting his speech by waxing on the “phenomenon called Napster,” and admitting that despite the site being defunct, “it demonstrated that the internet was made for music delivery.” Jobs naturally condemns illegal downloads as “stealing”, but his candidness and the almost respectful, impressed tone he takes towards the internet upstarts is notable. He wants iTunes to defeat the idea of Napster and Kazaa in direct, honourable combat.

You couldn’t convince a generation of kids to buy your album for that one hit single anymore. So iTunes moved with the times. Competing on more consistent technology, guaranteed quality, song previews, album cover art and legitimacy. Jobs, being Jobs, also brings up the idea of Karma as yet another reason to support legitimate releases.

“I cannot overemphasize that because of the previews, browsing, etc. you fall in love with music again—and you find the hits you’ve heard before and the gems you’ve never heard before—and it’s really wonderful.  It’s so cool.”

Steve Jobs – April 23rd 2003

While the era of torrents continued with gusto, the industry’s attempts at creating an alternative system met with decent success. iTunes became the banner pilot for legal downloads. Purchases grew and the iTunes store became part of the industry landscape. The front page was the place to be seen for up-and-coming artists. Whose on top? Whose rising up?

iTunes was also able to offer suggestions to the user for new music, based on the media they previously purchased. While clunky, it held enough algorithmic input to be able to imitate a record store clerk- inviting us to try new, or slightly different, music. To be fair, as impersonal as it sounds, I did find quite a number of bands I now love through the iTunes system. And while the ‘suggested’ music algorithm has now been perfected by the likes of YouTube, there’s room to respect iTunes’ early trailblazing.

All in all, iTunes was a solid response, to a gargantuan problem. 

Yet, downloads were always lacking something. The sense that you were basically paying for nothing lingered. With a CD or vinyl, you got a physical object. With Napster or Limewire you paid nothing and got a file (almost nothing). But legal downloads required a kind of pious respect for the artist to justify themselves. As Jobs remarked in his presentation, there’s an element of consciously playing by the rules involved. Yes, you can go and listen to the song you want on a grotty streaming site, okay maybe you can get it off Limewire, but think twice, and choose to play by the rules.

When viewed alongside the current popularity of streaming, music downloads start to look like a stopgap. I grew up with CDs, I still have many from my teenage years, but today’s teenagers have grown up entirely in the era of detached files. It’s all they’ve ever known. SoundCloud, YouTube, Last.fm. The jump from physical mediums to cloud-based freeform music starts to look like the real movement of consequence. That’s the historic, technological leap from the carriage to the car. Downloads being a kind of methadone to help nervous consumers, and a worried industry, manage the transition.

Modern Shakes

During the iTunes launch event Jobs derisively mentions a type of legal music service which has been lost to history now. One that, at the time, he was attempting to better with iTunes. In response to the Napster menace, PressPlay was founded jointly by Universal Music and Sony Music in 2001. It was a kind of proto-streaming service. For $15 a month PressPlay offered 500 audio streams, 50 song downloads and 10 songs burnt to CD. Rhapsody was a similar, independent service, which also started in 2001. (Rhapsody has now, incredibly weirdly, purchased the rebooted Napster- and has decided to start wearing its skin- discarding the Rhapsody name entirely.)

The rise of streaming services like Spotify, YouTube Red and Tidal almost look like a return to that early “music as a subscription service” idea. Except now, with fast free-flowing internet, the proliferation of smartphones, and the instant expectation of gratification- the industry has made it work.

The difference now is that the convenience offered by legal streaming sites is almost (almost) unbeatable. Sure it’s easy to download an album off BitTorrent, but why bother when I can just load it up on YouTube. I want to listen to music on my phone while I’m out, and have the flexibility to change my taste at a moments notice. I also want to spread my playlists across my Android, MacBook, Windows desktop, Firefox browser and BMW car, well Spotify lets me do that instantly.

Now you don’t even need to download the track you wanted to listen to. You don’t even have to wait 3 seconds for the bits to finish moving, and then deal with the file location afterwards. Press play and go. It’s already fast now, and with 5G on the horizon streaming speeds will only get faster. Just surf through, riding the internet.

Streaming also represents a counterattack by the record industry. Spotify is completely legal and above board entity. You either pay for it through a subscription or by listening to periodic adverts. Spotify is well known for paying artists a pittance per download, but from the industry perspective, this is at least a tangible revenue stream. YouTube, while awash with ad-hoc user uploads, also wields an aggressive Content ID system for taking down copyrighted material. The ultimate goal being to funnel users onto legitimate industry channels, where they can see adverts, sponsorships and merch. While these systems are imprecise and are unlikely to be able to plug the hole fully- they do represent a massive increase in industry control. It was hard for record companies to take files off Napster- or off a downloader’s computer. They can easily take your rip of Midtown’s first album off YouTube.

In the midst of this, it would be unfair not to mention some groups who still stalwartly stand by downloads: music collectors and audiophiles. Vaporwave especially trends towards fans who love to collect, categorise and organise sounds. The appeal of downloading, that you can create your own personal library of music, is still important to many hardcore fans. Arguably it’s one of the trends that keeps niche subgenres alive. With a cadre of committed collectors making sure all the important releases are catalogued for posterity. Bandcamp has done yeoman’s work in fostering a cottage industry of music creators- with paid downloads being an important part of rewarding artists for their work. Downloads may even prove to be necessary to keep underappreciated releases alive for future generations. Streaming services can falter, shut down, or delete libraries. An issue I’ve written about before in this column.

Audiophiles too appreciate the control downloads offer- allowing access to a plethora of specific (often very big) file types. If you’re listening through a $15,000 audio setup, Spotify streaming through 3G internet probably won’t cut it.

Despite streaming’s dominance, it’s unlikely downloads will ever truly disappear. Much like Vinyl’s recent revival- if there’s demand for a type of medium, the market can provide for it. I like to imagine that one day there’ll be a nostalgic revival for music downloads. For sure, it’s harder to imagine than that of Vinyl or CDs- simply because there’s no physical object to attach the emotion too. But maybe, as a reaction to the endless buffet of music the internet offers, fans might start to limit themselves to a certain number of music downloads a week. Numerical restrictions, hermetically sealing themselves off from choice. Downloading something and committing to it. Maybe slotting downloads into the rest of their lo-fi setup. Listen to vinyl at home and MP3s on their phone. Stranger things have happened. And if the internet is good at something other than music delivery, it’s creating surprises.

This piece was originally published at ae2.online, additional photo from Pixabay.com

Half Hour of Power: Vaporwave’s Live Era

Far Side Virtual 7: What happens when a genre forged on the Internet enters the real world? 

The Vaporwave-sphere has been buzzing with excitement over two huge announcements. 100% ElectroniCON, a New York festival created by George Clanton, to be held in August, and the Groove Horizons club-night, happening in London in July. 100% ElectroniCON promises to bring together a host of artists from the 100% Electronica label; including genre titans Saint Pepsi, Vaperror and Dan Mason. Groove Horizons likewise boasts the cream of UK Future Funk , from Strawberry Station to ev.exi and beyond. Both events are proving hot hot tickets, with hype moving upwards through the roof.

Mélonade, one of the artists performing at Groove Horizons, expands on the idea,

“Groove Horizons is really the first Future Funk show in the UK (at least that we know of). We wanted to give people in both the UK and Europe the chance to see some great UK artists live, and to meet them and chat about the scene. If it’s a success we will be able to build on it and do future shows.”

“It was me and Strawberry Station’s idea, but Alexander Hall is the main organiser. We’re really grateful to him. So if you’re in Europe come along if you can make it.”

It’s booming news for the scene- a real watershed moment for Vaporwave. But what does it mean for a supposed Internet-Genre to move so decisively into the real world? Vaporwave has always been at home in the virtual, but when it gets physical…it gets complicated.

Music genres traditionally have a specific location they can be traced back to: Hip Hop and Punk were born from the grime of ’70s New York. Metal forged in the molten furnaces of ’60s Birmingham. City Pop synonymous with the glitz of ’90s Shibuya. People meet up, get together and play music. Live shows and club-nights spring naturally from that. Yet Vaporwave was created by a music file on the internet. No one was ever meeting up in the first place. Chuck Person might be American, but Vaporwave only belongs to the web. This has been genre orthodoxy since its inception: as long as you have a computer, an internet connection and speakers- you can be part of the scene.

There’s not supposed to be an ‘in’ club. All the music is free and available at the click of a mouse. Zero cost, zero profit. The only limiting factor is knowing which websites to browse.

Live shows change that. You have to be in New York, San Diego, London to be able to go to live events. They’re clustered in big, traditionally music focused cities. You need the cash to shell out for hotel rooms, travel, tickets. Some people won’t even be able to get in the door if they missed out on snagging one. Suddenly Vaporwave starts to look a lot more like a regular music genre, one with physical limitations. Where it helps to know who is who, what’s hot- what’s not, and what’s happening downtown. An evolution, or a regression? 

I put this dilemma to George Clanton, author of the Vaporwave classic virtual.zip, and the man behind 100% ElectroniCON.

“Vaporwave has changed forever. And has already changed forever several times. And will change forever again. Vaporwave, in my opinion, seems like it’s more defined by the people who discover and digest it than the actual content and style. There are so many different styles that two “Vaporwave” artists may have nothing in common sonically.”

“Naturally people want to see their favourite artists in the flesh and celebrate the music they like as a group. On Vaporwave YouTube a frequent comment is “I wish I had friends who liked this too.”

“There aren’t a lot of people doing [live shows] right now, I think a big reason is so much Vaporwave is difficult to perform live, and/or un-danceable. Future Funk is popping off right now because it’s long established that you can put a bunch of people in a room, point them at the artist, and have the artist DJ their own music. Future Funk can and probably will go mainstream as a logical progression of EDM.”

The irony is that despite Vaporwave being so focused on individuals listening alone in their bedrooms, that desire for physical connection is still there. People really want to get together in one location to interact and connect. It’s very primal, and in that sense maybe Vaporwave, with its pretensions of being purely “for the Internet”, was just denying this basic impulse. Perhaps that contradiction is now breaking apart.

Which leads to ElectroniCON – and George’s ambitions for it:

“With ElectroniCON, there are a lot of strange, really vapory, really experimental artists. A lot of the artists have never performed live! And, their performance might not make sense in a typical bar or club where you are standing pointed at the artist. I think ElectroniCON is going to work so well because it’s going to have the feel of a convention, where a lot of likeminded people with a niche interest come together. Like Comic Con. And since we have 3 stages, we can showcase the diversity of Vaporwave without forcing someone who wants to dance to watch an ambient set or vice-versa.”

“I realize this article is about the recent explosion of live Vaporwave shows. But my perspective is there’s still a long way to go. Only a very small percentage of Vaporwave artists are giving it a shot, with a lot of the biggest acts only performing extremely rarely or not at all.”

“Clearly 100% ElectroniCON has shown that there is a huge demand for Vaporwave events, which we knew all along. With the music being born online, the artists are spread out diffusely. Someone might be the only established Vaporwave artist in their state for example. 100% ElectroniCON solves that by creating a destination event worthy of making a pilgrimage to. There’s no established path on how to be a Vaporwave artist live. We are going to figure it out together.”

George is pertinent with the Comic-Con comparison. It can’t be denied: Vaporwave is quite a nerdy genre. Most comfortable when speaking through Discord and Twitter. But with the rise of live shows maybe we can maintain the best of both worlds. Keeping the centre of gravity on the Internet which spawned it, with the same reach and accessibility as always. But also bringing in a more sophisticated aspect to the community. Giving people places to meet up, make friends and memories together. Memories which might inspire the next great Vaporwave album.

This piece was originally published at ae2.online, additional photo from Pixabay.com