How do visual kei bands gain money?

Our writer shares about what she knows about how visual kei bands gain money and stay in the scene.

Back when I was living in Japan, I got the opportunity not only to be a bangya, but also attend concerts as a reporter/a guest and work backstage a couple of times. From there, I learnt a little about the business. Of course, the industry’s far more complicated than what I know, and I don’t pretend that I know all, or even much. What I want to underline here is to show how your financial support to the bands you love is crucial to keep them going. This might sound very clear-cut, but in this age when it’s very easy for us to feel that we’ve done much for our favourite artists just by pressing the ‘like’ button, we often fail to see that what’s keeping bands afloat (and hopefully advancing) is…. Money.

As a note, this writing was made over two years ago for a class I took in university, and what you see here is only parts of it. Maybe there have been changes in the industry, and I believe there must be exceptions and probably new models of doing business in the scene. If you have updated knowledge or experience about this, do share with us! Corrections are also welcome.

Tickets and the lion’s share of livehouses

Now, let’s start with some terms first. Some terms to describe lives or gigs in Japan derive from English, although in English-speaking countries themselves these terms are not used – including the term live itself. A taiban (対バン) or sometimes called an event (イベント) is a live where many bands perform. A one-man (ワンマン) is a live in which only one band or artiste performs. There are also two-mans, three-mans, and four-mans.

As for tickets, in Japan people buy tickets not for the whole taiban event, but for a particular band, even though they want to watch the event from start to finish. The staff at the door who checks attendees’ tickets will rip a part of the ticket, ask for which band each attendee comes, and put the ticket stub that he takes into a box with the name of said band. The number of ticket stubs in each box will be counted after the event finishes. This does not apply only in live houses and in VK shows, but also in bigger venues (like Zepp live halls, STUDIO COAST, and the now-demolished Shibuya AX) and non-VK shows.

Bands do not get paid by live houses or event organizers; instead, they must pay to the live house to be able to perform there and can only take home some money after all the dues are paid[1]. This is where the ticket stubs have a role. The first thing a band should pay is an amount of money to participate in an event that is equivalent to the total price of a certain number of tickets. Let’s say that for an event, the minimum requirement is equivalent to the price of 7 tickets. The staff will then count the ticket stubs that a band managed to collect. Suppose that there are 20 ticket stubs for band ‘XYZ’. The live house will declare that the band has paid their duty – the money from 7 tickets will wholly go to the live house. It means there is money from 13 tickets left. The live house and the band (i.e. their management) will split the money from these 13 tickets, usually in 50:50. What if a band is still very new and/or not popular and fails to have enough fans coming? Suppose at the end of the show there are only 5 ticket stubs in their box. This means that they have to pay the live house using their own money a sum equivalent to the price of (7 – 5 =) 2 tickets that they are short of. Oftentimes, band loses more money than they are able to generate in a live.

Not only the participation money, but bands also have to pay some more fees. For instance, they have to pay more if they want to have smoke effects during performance, or want to have their performance recorded in a CD or a DVD. Before performing, during the rehearsal for the day, the band is asked to fill a form in which they must indicate the facilities/service they want to use or have. On the form, the fee for each facility/service is stated clearly. Maintaining a band thus requires a great deal of money, even just to ensure it gets a slot in an event. That is why bands are very eager to attract fans to come to the shows where they play.

Goods are good

Another important source of income for the band is merchandise sales. Not only the items needed for furitsuke such as light rings, hand fans, muffler towel etc, bands also sell their photosets, mirrors, badges, and others, including what is probably a type of merchandise that is unique to VK: cheki, or polaroid pictures. (The term cheki is apparently only for the 54×86 mm polaroid pictures; I’ve seen bigger polaroid pictures referred to as pora. Outside VK, though, cheki are also called pora, but usually are only given as special presents during special occasions.) Because there is only one of each cheki in the world, and because usually purchasers must draw the cheki randomly from a box, cheki-collecting has become a hobby for many fans. To attract fans to buy more cheki, some of the cheki are usually signed by the band members, or come as atari-cheki, in which case the purchaser will win some goods or get a chance to have their picture taken with the band members. Some fans can buy somewhere between 20 and 30 cheki (or even more!) in one swoop, and with one cheki usually sold at 500 yen, we can imagine how much money they spend in one event only.

Here’s an example of cheki: of the same person (here of LIPHLICH’s singer, Kuga Shingo) but from different events, in which he sported different outfits and even different hairdos.

Selling relationships (not like what you might think)

Compared to non-VK indie bands, VK bands usually keep the distance between them and the fans, more like pop idols or bigger bands. As well as keeping a certain image shown to the fans, I think it also serves in creating enough distance between fans and stars that make fans eager to create a (perceived) closeness and intimacy through attending events and buying merchandise. This might remind us a bit of how Japanese female aidoru groups are handled by their companies. Aidoru groups, according to Martin[2], are not just selling music, but also a fantasy narrative. These idols must appear so pure and inexperienced, both romantically and sexually, with regards to their private lives, yet on stage, pictorials, and videos, these girls appear in oversexualized images to satiate their fans’ imagination. Fans can meet and interact with their idols only in ‘handshake events’, in which only handshakes are allowed[3]. Fans can attend the events only when they get the tickets that come with the CDs sold by the idol groups. Usually for each turn, a fan can only have a couple of seconds to talk to the idol(s)[4]. This can also spur fans to buy more CDs to get more tickets, and thus gain more time, to interact with the idols.

In the case of VK musicians, there is also a reason to draw a sharp distinction between their persona as VK ‘bandmen’ and their real selves outside: in real life, without their make-up and their outfits, they might look very different, very ordinary compared to their persona onstage. Some of them might have other jobs, go to school, have girlfriends, or are married (thus might destroy the fans’ imagination of still-single musicians that might become interested in having relationships with them). Some VK musicians will totally avoid fans when they accidentally meet on the streets, or even during irimachi (when the band arrives at the live house for the rehearsal before a live) or demachi (when the band leaves the live house after a live). This has made some fans complain that these indie VK musicians already act like ‘rockstars’ when they’re actually still ‘nothing’. I compare this with non-VK indie bands, the lives of which I also have attended. The musicians, after finishing performing, will join and mingle with the audience. We are free to talk with them, perhaps share some drinks, hug, handshake, or take pictures together. There are no clear-cut boundaries such as those that exist between VK band members and their fans.

Even though sometimes fans can talk to them if the VK band members appear at the buppan (merchandise counters), or during irimachi and demachi[5], band members generally won’t allow physical contacts like handshake or hug, and won’t give autographs or let fans take pictures of them[6]. If fans want to do these activities, they have to attend instore events (インストアイベント, often shortened simply into インスト), and they may only participate in such events after buying CDs or DVDs released by the band. (Unlike aidoru groups, some VK bands allow fans to hug, hold hands, or do other poses with them during instore events; but only in such arranged occasions.)

Instore events are actually not limited to only visual kei, nor only to Japan. In big record stores like the 8-storey Tower Records Shibuya, artistes of all genres (including foreign artistes) hold instore events, basically every day. Visual kei bands may also hold instore events in such record stores, but most of their instores are held in indie stores that specialize in visual kei records and merchandise. In Tokyo, some of the stores are ZEAL LINK (with one branch in Shibuya and one in Takadanobaba), Brand X in Ikebukuro, Like An Edison (one branch in Harajuku and another in Shinjuku), littleHEARTS. in Shinjuku, and Jishuban Indies Club in Shinjuku. New CDs are released every Wednesday, but instore events can be held even before a CD is released (in such case, fans must pre-order and pay the CD fully in advance). Weekends can be really busy for the stores, since they might hold up to three instores in one day.

Fans often buy multiple CDs in more than one store because each instore event promises different activities. And eventhough they might be branches of the same store, each branch does not offer instores held in the other branches. So, for instance, if a fan wants to attend an instore in Like An Edison Harajuku, she cannot make an order or a purchase through Like An Edison Shinjuku, although she lives next to the latter branch.

As an example, let’s take a look at of some of the instore events that the band Chanty are holding in promoting their latest single, Otonari-san. These screencaps were made from their official home page (http://www.chanty.jp) on January 14, 2015.

In Tower Records Shinjuku, each CD of Otonari-san purchased will entitle the purchaser a ticket for handshaking all the members and having an item signed by them. (Sometimes the autographs will be given only on the CD bought, in which case it will be stated in the information.)

In Brand X Ikebukuro, the event consists of a talkshow with the owner of the store (Yada) and fansigning, if we only buy one type of the single. (Singles and albums often come out in several different types, with different artwork and slightly different content.) If we buy two types, we will get another ticket that entitles us to have a picture taken with a band member of our choice (2-shot).

In littleHEARTS. Osaka, purchasing one type will entitle the purchaser to join the talkshow event and fansigning; purchasing two means we can also have a picture taken with all band members (because Chanty is a 5-piece, then it’s a 6-shot).

Stevens (2004) said, of all fan activities, concert attendance is most valued because it places the fan in closest physical proximity to the stars.[7] But instore events to me can do more than that, because we can meet, talk, and make physical contact with the artistes, more than we can in concerts. In concerts, fans might feel like a band member recognizing them, paying attention or throwing a meaningful glance or even blowing kisses at them, but most of the time these are only guesses or wishful thinking. Most likely those are just stage acts that the artistes do without really looking at or recognizing the fans in the direction where they seem to be doing the movements at. But in instore events, we can be sure that at least when the band members are talking face to face with us, at that moment their attention is really on the individual fan. Most fans do not and will not have true personal connection with the bands as in being their real life friends or lovers, but at least in instores they can spend some time not only in physical but also emotional and personal proximity with the bands. In time, band members can also truly recognize and remember fans whose face they often see in instores, and this brings their ‘closeness’ to a different level.

Instores are a means of creating both physical and emotional closeness with the artistes in a controlled way. The band (their management/company) benefits from the purchases fans make to attend instores, and fans in turn also get benefits in the form of such closeness. Record stores, especially the indie visual kei record stores, also certainly benefit from these instores, because they boost sales. Many bands, though, once they reach a certain level of popularity, no longer do instore events and move on to other strategies of keeping their exclusivity to drive fans to purchase concert tickets and merchandise as a mean to gain physical or emotional closeness to the bands.

What if…. A band fails to build a fanbase and collect enough money? Well, this is one answer why bands come and go so quickly. Sometimes a band’s disbandment is caused by nothing but failure to benefit, or even not to lose money than they generate. And if we still want to see our favourite bands go on, like it or not, we have to make financial contributions to them somehow.

(Tyas Palar)

[1] See this interview with Jimi Aoma: http://www.jame-world.com/us/articles-75869-globalizing-visual-kei-interview-with-jimi-aoma.html

[2] Martin, Ian. 2013. AKB48 member’s ‘penance’ shows flaws in idol culture. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2013/02/01/music/akb48-members-penance-shows-flaws-in-idol-culture/

[3] Wharfe, Chris. 2014. The twisted world of Japanese idol culture. http://www.the-newshub.com/stories/the-twisted-world-of-japanese-idol-culture

[4] Kono, Tommy. 2012. What you should know about AKB shake-hands event. http://www.akb48wrapup.com/2012/04/what-you-should-know-about-akb-shake-hands-event/

[5] Some live houses strictly ban irimachi or demachi though to prevent disturbance to the surrounding. They put on warning signs in and outside the live house, and usually there will also be a staff outside that asks attendees who have left the live house not to hang around the premises. But I recently went to a Nagoya live house called ELL fits all, and they provided a space at the sidewalk in front of the live house, with a barrier, where fans are allowed to wait for their favourite artists to leave the live house.

[6] Again Jimi Aoma offered an insider’s insight to VK fans’ behaviour in my interview with him here https://relawankonser.com/2013/06/03/intvw-aoma-may-2013/

[7] Stevens, C.S. 2004. Buying intimacy: proximity and exchange at a Japanese rock concert. In Fanning the flames: fans and consumer culture in contemporary Japan, ed. William W. Kelly, 59-78. Albany: State University of New York Press. Accessible online in https://www.academia.edu/7663407/Buying_Intimacy_Proximity_and_Exchange_at_a_Japanese_Rock_Concert

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