I think I was destined to end up in the music industry, one way or another. My mother being the owner of a big dancing institution, and dad once owning a pretty big music hall in Melbourne home to various events (including bands like The Cat Empire in their early days!) all of my childhood memories consist of watching dance performances, musicals, and gigs.
My older brother is a musician too, he formed six-piece gypsy/rock band Martin Martini and the Bone Palace Orchestra. I had won a scholarship to study in Japan and had landed my first job in a Japanese company back home in Melbourne.
I soon realised that the 9 to 5 daily grind wasn’t for me, and I remember the only thing really to look forward to each and every week was my brother’s band playing at the Rainbow Hotel in Fitzroy every Thursday night. They had a residency for over a year there, and I didn’t miss a gig.
After a year of all of that, I remember sitting with my brother for pasta at Tiamos in Carlton, when I found myself firing questions at him – “Brother, why are you happy just packing out the Rainbow every week? It only holds 60 people.” And, “Why not go to Sydney and play?”, “and you should release a proper studio-recorded album.”
To which he quickly replied: “Who are you, you sound like my manager, Vaughan.” And I was like, “Well, maybe I could be your manager”.
And that was pretty much it. I quit my full-time job, and started managing my brother’s band and learned the ropes through trial and error. Two studio albums followed, four Australia-wide tours and a visit to London!
After two years of that, we found ourselves in an impossible position to get the band financially profitable. The members, understandably, came to their senses and decided to disband. And it was at their last show that they put on, that fortunes have it, I met a Japanese girl, who six months later imported me to Japan! As they say, one door closed and another door opened.
I moved to Tokyo to begin a new chapter in 2009. I fell in love with the Japanese architect who I met at the band’s last show (we’ve been married for seven years and have a child now!) and fell equally in love with the city of Tokyo.
The Tokyo connection
Musicians who I’d worked closely with in Melbourne started visiting Tokyo for fun, and while chatting about plans – the question came out of the mouth: “Want me to get a gig for you?”. So I was to find some music venues in Tokyo for them.
Soon after that, I was to help book shows in Tokyo for Oliver Mann, The Harpoons, The Twoks, and for bands under the Eastmint label.
I was an anomaly in Japan for any Aussie band coming over, I would book gigs not only at music venues, but also intimate semi-acoustic gigs at coffee shops, furniture shops, bars and restaurants, and was easily able to round up an audience with little to no advertising at all.
Working in coffee and fashion seemed like it’d taken me on a wide detour at the time, but the friends I’d made became instrumental in getting the Australia bands into the “music industry” in Japan.
Educational failures, part of the process
Before developing a sustainable way to tour bands in Japan, there were a lot of failures. That first gig I booked in Japan for Phia and Josh The Cat was at a small live house in Shibuya Tokyo, and it was one I’ll never forget.
I had got them a listing in the local music mag, listed in between Green Day and someone else to that degree, and was pretty confident that I’d done enough to pull a half decent crowd. I remember arriving at the venue only to hear from the owner that only two tickets had been sold.
In those early days, I’d quickly forgotten how hard it was to pull a crowd.
I got to know those two customers, and funnily enough, it turned out one of them was a musician. He told me he played bass in a band and invited me to his show the following week.
I went along, not expecting much, but was stopped in my tracks when I stumbled across a line that went as far as I could see. I was at my first 1000+ venue in Japan at Akasaka Blitz – and I was on the guest list! I lined up in the guest list line, and witnessed Riddum Saunter playing their last gig before heading off to Fuji Rock that summer.
The Lagerphones success story
In 2014, I remember catching up with James Macaulay, a trombonist in my brother’s band back in the day. James said: “Vaughan, I’m in this trad-jazz band called The Lagerphones. It’s a six-piece. And I reckon’ we’d go pretty well in Japan. We’re all coming over in the summer – are you into booking us a show?”. Many Japanese live houses implement a “noruma” (quota) system where bands need to sell a minimum of around 30 tickets (higher depending on the venue) and must sell that amount before any money can be handed over from ticket sales from venues. In the case that those seats aren’t sold, musicians end up having to buy tickets to your own show themselves.
Essentially, it’s “pay to play”, but it’s the only way, I guess, for venues to make sure they cover their overheads, and furthermore puts extra onus on the band to make sure they do all that they can to publicise their event. So we circumvented the regular way, and opted for galleries, cafes, restaurants and bars and I snagged 11 shows over nine days on their first visit. Our first ever show was at the live house UnderBar in Shibuya, a live house holding about 150 people. It was a double bill with local band Learners. We saved on accommodation – and played a party at a hostel, in exchange for board.
Since then, I’ve managed to fine-tune the tour to spaces that work best – a few live houses with popular local acts, but mainly small intimate spaces – and this recipe has enabled us to build a loyal fan base and created a sustainable way for the band to break into Japan.
The Lagerphones have now clocked 60 shows in Japan over four tours, and tour number five is in the works.
Biggest lessons learned along the way
I try to leave the music up to the bands as much as possible, but I always reiterate that at a customised set goes a long way. I recommend bands play at least one or two popular covers in their genre that have inspired them, so that there is a song or two that foreign audiences will know at least the melody of.
Also it’s great if bands cover a song from Japan when they’re on tour here. Audiences appreciate when foreign acts take the time to learn a song or two born in the country their touring, and bonus points if you can sing the song in the native language.
It’s important to do it sincerely and to understand the background of the song, the nuances, to make it earnest.
Networking is perhaps the most important lesson. I’m a people person and I love having coffee time with someone, so this comes very naturally to me and is something I enjoy.
But it’s important to remember that no matter who the person is today, you have no idea where and what they’ll be doing a year, five years, 10 years from now. Being respectful of everyone – regardless of their age, job, status – is something that I’ve learning after many years of living in Japan.
I’ve had bands play at weddings for friends over in Japan, we also play private house events – which only happens when you develop a trusting, personal relationship with people. Making it about the people as much as possible in an important part of my work.
Flipping the script and bringing Zahatorte to Australia
I never really intended to make this happen, there was no real business plan in place. For me, things just happen when they feel right. And, with the band Zahatorte, things just felt right.
It’s not all about the music though when we’re on tour. Having fun with the band on tour, and introducing the real Australia to them – is paramount to making the tour a success for me. Introducing Japanese people to the beauty of Australia nature and the happy go lucky vibe of Australian people is equally important to any turn out and financial success.
Why we need to bridge the Japan – Australia gap
Media in Japan, mainly cultural/trendy magazines, heavily focus content on the US and Europe. Australia, although recently getting some focus, is still very much untapped and underrated.
The number of Australian visitors and expats living over here in Japan is the highest it’s ever been – and despite Australians continuing to have a very deep appreciation and fascination for many things Japanese – language barriers exist, and it’s not easy for musicians to make touring in another country a reality.
More than anything else, making intimate events take place is the goal – to allow for friendships to be formed between the countries. It’s the greatest joy of all to see musicians from Australia and Japan play together, for language is no barrier when two people become close and develop a mutual interest and respect.
To create a café in Japan is on the cards. A place that serves good coffee, good breakfast and that can also transform to live music venue, allowing musicians to put on intimate shows is the dream.
In 2019, as well as kicking off Zahatorte’s adventures in Australia, The Lagerphones and The Twoks will return to Japan for bigger national tours.
The big dream is to create an annual Aussie music festival in Japan, and a Japanese musical festival Down Under – a bigger platform to allow more bands from both countries to show their stuff.
Vaughan is a music promoter and cafe denizen who moved from Melbourne to Tokyo over 10 years ago. He writes about Tokyo’s coffee culture at Good Coffee (instagram @goodcoffeeme/ @vja), lectures on fashion at Bunka Fashion College, and tours bands around the country in his free time.