From Japan's aging scene, to the recent growth in South Korea and Taiwan, electronic music in East Asia is in flux. Tobias Burgers reports on both the challenges and exciting developments that have gripped the region.
One could think that the global popularity of Berlin and Berghain drove these Taiwanese people to Korner, making this a one-off experience. But in fact it was yet another weekend with yet another packed dance floor, one in a long list of events throughout recent years that have marked the steady rise of electronic music not only in Taipei, but throughout East Asia. This rise has challenged existing local traditions and social norms. It has developed distinctive sounds, given rise to new labels, new record shops, new parties and new clubs. All these efforts have contributed to a thriving regional music culture that has begun to receive global attention.
For decades East Asia's underground scene was mostly found in Japan: well-known festivals such as Rainbow Disco Club, Labyrinth and Rural, and clubs such as Contact, Unit and the now closed Air and Yellow. And, of course, its world class record shops and audiophile bars such as SHeLTeR and Forestlimit, illustrating the quality of Tokyo's music scene. Indeed, as Chris SSG, of the now defunct but influential mnml ssgs blog, and now one of Tokyo's leading ambient DJs and music critics, told me, Tokyo and Japan remain high on the wish list for touring DJs and producers. At the same time, a wave of Japanese artists is breaking through in Europe. DJ Nobu, Wata Igarashi, Haruka, Powder, Sapphire Slows, Chee Shimuzu and Takaaki Itoh are gaining recognition among both European and North American crowds. As these artists break through in Europe and the US, a growing interest has developed for the East Asian music scene.
This year's Labyrinth festival featured a few special highlights. On day two, DJ Nobu guided the audience through a typhoon that hit the festival in full force. Nobu's hypnotic sound perfectly matched the wind, rain and dark skies. Yet my personal highlight came the next day, during Peter Van Hoesen's set. Early on, the weather cleared and a watery sun broke through, after two days of near non-stop rain. A cart passed by with two little kids, colorfully dressed, who were drawing and painting in paper books.
Children are not a novel sight at Japanese festivals. During ASC's set at Rural festival last year, four kids, led by their father, waded through the audience in a lighted caravan with glow sticks. Children are a common presence at Rainbow Disco Club, too. Japanese festivals are among the world's most family-friendly. Each has a special kids' area, and parents dancing with their kids is a common sight. This shows the inclusivity of the Japanese music scene. But it also illustrates one of the larger problems it faces: ageing.
The people who make up Japan's music scene are growing older, and the new generation of dancers seems to be staying at home. As Chris SSG said, it might be the notorious dance law that attracts the most attention, yet the ageing population seems to a be larger and more pressing issue. "Japan is getting older," said Yuko Asanuma, a Japanese journalist based in Berlin. The country is thought to have the highest proportion of elderly citizens in the world. This raises the question of what the future of Japan's club scene will be. At festivals, parents bring their kids, as most festivals end early in the evening. Yet clubs face a serious problem. As the crowd grows older and older, more and more people will skip the Saturday night for an early Sunday morning brunch.
This hasn't always been the case. Japan has been a regional center of electronic music for the last two or three decades. DJs from South Korea, Taiwan and China would travel to Tokyo to attend parties, discover new music and go record shopping. When foreign DJs toured Asia their schedule was often Friday in Osaka, Saturday in Tokyo, Sunday in Narita and then home. These days, Osaka and other Japanese cities are often replaced by Taipei, Seoul or another Asian city. And those Taiwanese and South Korean DJs who travelled to Tokyo and Osaka now invite DJs from these cities to their clubs. The regional dynamics have changed, and the musical landscape of East Asia is shifting.
The entry of young people into underground music culture has been complicated in recent years by other factors. The two decades of economic stagnation, also known as the lost decades or lost score, have changed the mood among Japan's younger generation. Wages have remained stagnant, meaning it's often too expensive for students to go out. Clubs are also seen as radical, part of alternative society, and remain unknown to most of Japan's youth. "Being secure is kind of the entire mood covering Japan right now," Shimpei Kaiho, a promoter behind the Melting Bot parties, told me. "It can be said that Japan is being lost in nostalgia, not seeking radical ideas and new things, because the past was good. This is sadly a disadvantage for underground clubs."
It is in this conservative zeitgeist (Japan's conservative party has large support among first generation voters) that a new generation of potential dancers shy away from underground music culture. As Asanuma noted, these days Japanese youth prefer the safety of their homes and engage socially in the digital world through social media, rather than hitting the dance floor—a new version of the famed otaku culture, a term used for people with obsessive interests.
As a result, Japan's scene has grown smaller, and the median age is somewhere between 30 and 40. It is in this challenging environment those still involved in underground music culture have sought to develop new ideas to counter these issues, increasing the cohesion and sense of community in Tokyo's music scene. Each of the artists, bookers and promoters I spoke with said they see Tokyo's music scene as a big family, in which respect, consideration for others and understanding seems to be the norm. The group is committed to reviving the scene. As Masahiro Tsuchiya, organizer of Rainbow Disco Club, said, Tokyo's club scene is one of "unity."
Despite this gloomy outlook, the basis to revive Tokyo's music scene is in place. The ageing problem also means that the scene is now bestowed with decades of experience and quality, which could prove fundamental in reviving scenes in Tokyo and across the country. Japan has among the best soundsystems in the world and some of the best-run clubs. Indeed, from Asanuma to Chris SSG, to DJ Nobu and the Rural organizers, everyone argued that quality is one of the main assets of Japan and Tokyo's music scene.
To tackle the economic issue, promoters are seeking to give leeway to students and younger people. The organizers of Rural festival have tried to limit ticket prices, offering special student discounts. Contact has developed a policy that those under 23 pay just 50% of the entry fee, albeit with mixed results so far. One of the more successful experiments was a party organized by Chris SSG last summer. Held at a futuristic aquarium, he and Wata Igarashi played ambient sets surrounded by huge, colorful tanks, filled with exotic species of fish. The combination of this setting and the low entrance fee (¥1,000, or roughly $9) meant the party was well-attended.
More prominent is the idea to focus on local artists instead of foreign ones. As DJ Nobu and David Dicembre of Boiler Room told me, Japan generally focuses on foreign artists. It is the big foreign names who attract crowds. Japan has some incredible local acts, but the country's seniority culture has created a bottleneck that hinders the development of new artists. Nobu was well into his 30s before he became a recognized name. His party, Future Terror, held in his hometown of Chiba, was formed as a movement against this bottleneck. It is a party where "people can pursue their music more openly without a sense of seniority or stereotype," he said. Future Terror has since become a famous brand, and its parties have exposed a new generation of DJs, such as Haruka.
This year's Rural festival lineup, while having foreign names, consisted largely of Japanese acts, who delivered some of the best sets of the festival. A similar vibe was found at Tokyo Techno Society. Organized by DJ So, it featured an "all-star" lineup of Tokyo's techno scene, with So, Nobu, Wata Igarashi, Iori and Haruka all playing. DJ Nobu recently built on the success of Future Terror with a new party called Gong, featuring artists such as Sapphire Slows, Chee Shimizu and Asyl Cahier. Combined with a ticket price 30 to 40% cheaper than other parties with foreign acts, the turnout out of the younger generation was significant. Circus Tokyo is another party promoting local artists. Its booker, Mari Yamanaka, said it's her job "to find and pick up young DJs." The thinking is that a generation of new DJs will bring their friends to clubs.
"We've entered into the phase of being asked what is originality and authenticity more than ever," Shimpei Kaiho said. It seems that this focus on local acts could be the thing that Tokyo's underground music needs to attract a new generation. An increasing openness in the music scene seems present. For a long time, the format, setting and environment of underground parties has remained the same. Yet in a nation in which digital culture is the dominant space for social interaction, the format of underground parties could seem outdated. Indeed, the success of Tokyo's Boiler Room events with Dommune illustrates this. As Dicembre said, the streaming format, combined with a low entry fee, resonated extremely well with Tokyo's youth. At the same time, these parties allowed a newer, younger generation of DJs to break through, reaching crowds beyond the physical dance floor.
The music in Tokyo's scene has also started to shift. Newer styles such as grime, trap and bass music have become increasingly popular. Shimpei's parties, held in the WWWβ, go beyond the traditional spectrum, booking a wider range of artists. As Nobu argued, in a city where there is so much to choose from, it's important that Tokyo's underground club culture broadens its perspective. People in Tokyo's music scene seem to realize that it's time to look forward. The scene's character might have changed over the years but it has remained strong, its values still intact. It's now essential to attract a new generation to its dance floors.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, dance music's global popularity reached Taiwan. Tzusing, a Taiwan-based artist, who was the focus of a recent Breaking Through feature, described those days as "wild, crazy, with electronic music being popular, mainstream even." Fueled by a local ecstasy wave, clubs would go until the early morning. Another long-term resident of Taiwan, Al Burro, the first resident DJ at Korner, told me how the progressive, trancey sound was popular in Taipei, and would draw large crowds. The music scene was booming, but once ecstasy disappeared after a police crackdown, the wild days were quickly over.
A small underground scene remained, which was beautifully illustrated in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's movie Millennium Mambo. Much of the scene was kept alive by DJs such as @llen, organizer of the Warehouse parties, A-Dao, the owner of Species Records, and Databass. Initials B.B., who's part of the local Bass Kitchen collective and formerly a resident DJ at Korner, said that if you wanted to dance in those days, your best chance would be at a local flea market called Campo in the Ximen area. A-Dao and Databass played techno and house on a big soundsystem in the middle of the afternoon, surrounded by vendors selling their oddities. At the weekend, you could try your luck at Texsound, one of the remaining techno clubs. Besides these smaller events every few months, a big artist, like LTJ Bukem, Technasia or Sasha and John Digweed, would touch down on the island, providing the occasional rave. Yet newer underground sounds were near impossible to find.
This all slowly changed around 2008. Disappointed by a lack of progression, Databass started the Earworm parties. Joined later by Initials B.B. and VJ Monkeysun, these parties were highly DIY affairs, often in venues that fit no more than 50 people, such as burger restaurants. The focus was on local artists, with an occasional big act like Robert Hood booked for a party at The Wall, a rock venue. These parties revived Taipei's placid music scene, bringing new energy into the city. The next year, a crew of techno enthusiasts started Smoke Machine, which was followed by the resurrection of the Bass Kitchen collective—originally formed by DJ MiniJay during his studies in Bristol, it was now reinforced with Initials B.B. and DJ Yoshi Nori. Whereas Smoke Machine focused more on darker techno, Bass Kitchen brought the house and disco vibe to Taipei.
Yet a solid infrastructure for throwing parties was lacking—venues, experienced staff, soundsystems. Both collectives hopped around the city, from venue to venue, legal and illegal. For all these difficulties the music scene slowly grew, with crowds increasing. Smoke Machine and Bass Kitchen brought artists such as CHIDA, Rrose and Sleeparchive to the island. The first wave of development was slowly advancing.
Driven by its initial success, Smoke Machine decided to make a giant leap forward in 2012, with the first edition of its now flagship Organik Festival. Located on Taiwan's beautiful east coast, with a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean, the first edition focused largely on local acts. And a few months after the festival, The Wall, the rock venue where Earworm parties were occasionally held, opened Korner. The first space at the club focused solely on underground electronic music. Smoke Machine made it their base, and Bass Kitchen moved its parties there. (But not before throwing a legendary party featuring Move D in an abandoned factory, with over 700 in attendance, bringing back memories of a decade earlier.)
Korner became highly important for the development of the electronic music scene in Taipei. It provided Smoke Machine and Bass Kitchen with a steady location with equipment and experienced staff. But most importantly it gave the growing numbers of those interested in electronic music a new, easy-to-access location. Previously, people had to hunt for information on parties, an often difficult task that limited crowds. In the ensuing years, Korner, Smoke Machine, Organik Festival and Bass Kitchen all grew. Foreign acts were invited more frequently, with names such as Levon Vincent, Eddie C, DJ Nobu, Kobosil and Konstantin Sibold, among many others, making appearances. Taipei had slowly become a viable destination for touring DJs.
This second wave of electronic music was the first to have developed in a fully democratic state. For dancers born after 1988, the dictatorship was a distant memory and liberal values were more and more the norm. This post 1988 generation was keen to express its willingness for change. Club culture was long considered a taboo. Yet with Taiwan increasingly becoming liberal (it will legalize gay marriage in the coming years, the first nation in East Asia to do so) suddenly the new generation felt a sense of freedom. There was a freedom to explore, to discover new things and to differ from the mainstream values established by their parents. Partying until 7 or 8 AM is still not generally accepted, yet it is not as frowned upon as before. Taipei's music scene moved from adolescence into maturity. Korner improved its soundsystem and explored new musical directions, among them, Uncover, a festival organized by Smoke Machine that focused on the more experimental and ambient side of electronic music, originating from the Uncover podcast series.
At the same time, a new generation of DJs emerged, bringing new, young audiences to Korner. Among them was Andy Chiu. After living in Berlin for a while, he returned to Taipei, visited Korner, started buying vinyl and playing there occasionally, until he recently became one of the club's resident DJs. Korner, Smoke Machine and Bass Kitchen function as platforms for those who want to explore electronic music, providing a new generation of music enthusiasts a place to learn DJing and to hone their skills. Yoshi Nori of Bass Kitchen emphasized the need to support and guide new local talents: "It is only then that Taipei's music scene could really grow and foster," he said.
More recently, Korner and Smoke Machine have both launched new festivals. Oddsound, from Korner, featured artists such as M.E.S.H., famed Japanese noise artist Merzbow and a strong base of local artists, while Spectrum Formosus from Smoke Machine, which took place in December, mixed acts like Tropic Of Cancer, Andrea, Rabih Beaini and Varg with a strong roster of emerging acts from the region. The desire to push beyond traditional boundaries is there too within the Rebels Of The Neon God collective. Hsu Chieh, the party's founder, told me that all the headlining artists at the party have been either women, queer people or people of color, acts such as Total Freedom, Lotic and Elysia Crampton among them. Hsu aims not only to offer novel musical directions, but to contribute to establishing an all-inclusive music scene in Taipei, one that allows emerging artists, with tastes beyond the more established genres, to get a foothold.
Beyond this, the Taipei scene aims to reach new audiences. Central in this has been Adult Game Club at Korner, a monthly party focused on the LGBTQ community. Taipei is considered the LGBTQ capital of East Asia, yet the overlap between both sides of the scene has been minimal. Much of Taipei's LGBTQ scene has focused on Korean and Japanese pop, with a near non-existent interest in dance music. Taipei's main gay venue, G-Star, played a mixture of EDM, Korean pop and Taiwanese ballads when I last visited. Adult Game Club has sought to change this: it focuses on local disco and house DJs, has liberal dress codes and each party has a theme. It's an effort that seems to have resonated. Adult Game Club recently managed to nearly sell out Korner, making the party among the most popular monthly nights. Taipei is improving on one of the most important functions of underground electronic music: providing safe spaces in which all are welcome.
South Korea: Growing
The music scene in Seoul seems to be exploding with energy. It's bustling with events, from experimental raves to parties at DJ bars where audiences sing along to '80s Korean disco. One that stood out for me recently was a party organized by the Constant Value crew. Held in a working paper mill in an eastern industrial zone of Seoul, the party was buzzing in a way that I have not seen in a long time. Audiences were going wild, making it feel more like a punk concert than a techno gig. Music was provided by local artists from the party's collective, Japanese noise artist Tomohiko Sagae and the highlight of the night was the Taiwanese DJ Katrina, who delivered a rough, industrial and noisy set, much to the delight of the audience. The crowd—from older heads, to the younger generation, to the odd worker from the paper mill—seemed completely engaged.
I also found this dazzling energy when I spoke with the collective behind the party. They provide Seoul's emerging music scene with unfiltered vitality, and give those attending the party a space in which gender, race and cultural background could be left at the factory's entrance. In a nation, and even a city, in which conservative values still dominate, the new electronic music scene seems to provide the younger generations (those born after the end of the dictatorship in 1987) with a new sense of freedom. I was reminded of Taiwan's political development. In both nations, young people are increasingly seeking their freedom to dance and to express themselves.
The sense of liberation was also there when I spoke with the owners of Clique Records. Situated in the Euljiro 3-ga, a blue-collar district, the sound of printing machines runs smoothly in the background, a recurring theme in this city.
Clique opened two years ago, and this year they added a small bar, which sometimes functions as a party space. Recently the Vancouver label Mood Hut held a small party there, the day after a Mood Hut showcase at Contra, one of a string of new venues for house and disco fanatics. The energy wasn't as raw as the Constant Value party—it was more smooth and subtle, but equally impressive. Antoine, one of the owners, attributed this to how younger generations in Seoul have moved away from their parents' generation. Indeed, as Magico, of the now sadly defunct Mystik club told me, his parents still view his DJ career as playing random records at wedding parties, an idea far removed from the reality on the cramped and sweaty dance floor of Mystik.
Yet everyone I spoke with in the city seemed concerned that the current electronic music boom could become overhyped. Indeed, at all of the venues I visited—Contra, Cakeshop, vurt.—there were large crowds. On a recent night in Seoul, three of the city's clubs—Constant Value, Contra and Faust—held separate events, each with large numbers of people. One could argue that is largely a positive development; just six years earlier Seoul had a very small music scene centered on Mystik. But it left me wondering whether people came to these parties because of the music or because of the hype.
The owners and directors of vurt. also brought up the idea of hype with me. They see it as their mission to ensure that Seoul's quickly growing music scene will mature in a sustainable way. Unjin Yeo, a local DJ with a long history in Seoul's music scene, said there was considerable risk that a situation akin to 15 years ago would develop, where suddenly numbers surged, everyone wanted to DJ and clubs saw some legendary nights—only for things to unravel a few years later when crowds moved on to the next musical trend.
The owners of vurt., which opened in 2015, sought to offer Seoul a new space away from the larger, more popular clubs in the Itaewon or Gangnam districts. Minimally decorated and near pitch black, and housed in a nondescript building in the Hongdae district, it consists of a single room with most of the space taken up by the dance floor. Its design is focused entirely on the musical experience—a rarity in a city where table service and lounge areas are the norm. Both owners are resident DJs, and in particular Suna, a leading woman in Seoul's techno scene, had a strong motivation for opening a club to provide dancers, especially women, with a space in which only music mattered. The absence of security staff showed me that a sense of musical community exists in vurt., one in which the crowd seemed entirely focused on the music.
vurt. is also a place where a new generation of producers and DJs can hone their skills. This is also an effort supported by the techno and ambient label Oslated, which is closely affiliated with vurt. and the Constant Value collective. Started just over a year ago, it currently runs a digital label, soon to be complemented by vinyl releases, and puts out tracks and podcasts by East Asian producers, such as the Hong Kong DJ and producer Romi.
DJ Airbear and Jesse You also talked to me about the need to support younger generations and develop a sustainable music scene. Whereas vurt. and Constant Value focus on techno, both DJs play house and disco with a strong Korean element. When I saw DJ Airbear and Jesse You play, they smoothly moved between '80s Korean pop songs, reissued Rush Hour Japanese records and disco classics. Both DJs told me about the importance of politics in their music and highlighting Korean musical history, from more traditional records, to '80s disco and newer producers.
The same mentality can be found at smaller DJ bars like Disco Surf and Man-pyeong. Akin to the Tokyo-style listening bars, these places, with high-end soundsystems, focus on local house and disco. In particular, the Man-pyeong bar, located in a residential area away from the trendier Hongdae area, seems driven to foster a new generation of young DJs. Guests can bring their own vinyl, play them, and if the owners and crowd like it they're asked to play entire sets. The name of the bar, which translates as "equality for all," seems to reflect the spirit of Seoul's music scene in general.
Seoul Community Radio, an online station, is another leading example of this concept. Whereas other crews, collectives and clubs seem to push a more singular musical direction, SCR ensures that the broadest spectrum of local music and artists is promoted. And with great success: it was recently voted best online radio station in the Asia Pacific region, before other leading networks such as Block FM in Tokyo, after just over a year of existence. Located in the multicultural part of the Itaewon district, close to the only mosque in Seoul, the venue has a studio, a small shop and a live streaming room. The video and streaming format has been a major success, with an ever-growing number of listeners and visitors. SCR functions as an incubator, discovering and promoting new artists.
After leaving Seoul for Tokyo, I was left dazed by the weekend's events, reflecting on how all of these DJs, producers, club and record shop owners, promoters and dancers have, with so much energy, tried to transform the city's scene. It's a growing community that, although facing challenges, seems to have a bright future ahead.
From Seoul to Taipei to Tokyo, the East Asian musical landscape has shifted, with a regional landscape now in place. Japanese DJs are frequently seen in Taiwan and South Korea. At the same, Taiwanese and South Korean DJs are going beyond their borders more and more. This has benefited local DJs, but also regional promoters. Using flight shares, clubs in East Asia, from Faust to Korner, vurt. to Contact and Vent, can offer booking agencies and DJs longer tours in East Asia, opening its market for new DJs from Europe. Indeed, the East Asian market has grown to such an extent that now some artists spend considerable time in the region. A good example of this is Bézier of the Honey Soundsytem collective, who has Taiwanese roots. He is spending his winter in southern Taiwan, working on his new album while touring Asia almost weekly.
Promoters seem keen to increase collaboration. The Constant Value collective regularly throws parties in Tokyo and Taipei. Rainbow Disco ventured into China, with events in Shanghai. And audiences also seem keen to explore beyond borders. Fueled by a recent wave of LCCs in the region, audiences at festivals and clubs are becoming more international. At this year's Rural festival, for instance, the crowd was a regional microcosm of East Asia.
All these developments have intermingled. Taipei benefited from Tokyo's quality and expertise, Seoul learned from Taipei how to develop a sustainable electronic music scene, and Seoul and Taipei brought energy, new places, venues and people to the regional underground scene. "Clubbing scenes in Asia will be more and more exciting and intriguing when each scene can grow up individually, then encourage each other," said DJ Nobu. This type of regional collaboration should help secure the future of underground music in East Asia.