The music scene in Japan has evolved over the last 30 years into a scene where moving on to the next level requires the assistance of a major company or sponsor. The reason for this is mainly due to "pay to play." This is a system that requires performers to guarantee a minimum quota of people will come to their show (usually 10 - 15), after which the venue will give them a percentage of the door.
This system is sustained by artists who have regular jobs and only play a couple of times a month. Since their financial resources are not devoted to recording, touring and marketing their music, the only chance to get out of this system is to receive help from a company or sponsor that can support and expose them to a larger more profitable market.
However, not all venues are pay to play. Most venues fall into one of these categories: clubs (called live houses), dance clubs, concert halls, churches, restaurants and cafe, bars, festivals and hotels.
(See this round table talk about the music industry)
Clubs always have amps, drums and basic backline available. Bands usually perform on a pay to play basis on a bill with 3 - 5 other acts each night. Some clubs don't use this system and just give a percentage of ticket sales.
Touring acts are usually exempt from the quota system and play for exposure. If they can draw, they can get a percentage after they have sold 10 - 15 tickets and they can also sell their CDs. The bottom line for booking managers is "How many people can an act draw?"
On weekends, many venues are rented out for parties or special events..
Big name artists and gospel groups usually perform at churches, big clubs, concert halls and auditoriums. Gospel is popular with singers doing workshops and church performances year round.
As for concerts, unlike most western countries that have acts opening for headliners, venues and promoters in Japan commonly have artists at the same levels performing together. The Japanese culture stresses equality, so the idea of a headliner doesn?t fit in very well. Generally, performances are either acts playing by themselves or a bunch of acts at the same level playing together.
RESTAURANTS AND CAFES
Jazz, gospel, blues and R&B artists have a good chance to make money by playing at restaurants, cafes or small venues of 50 people or less. These places usually don't operate on a pay to play system and pay either a flat percentage of the door or a guaranteed amount. The performances are usually 1 act playing 2 -3 sets each night.
Some bigger name restaurants have periodic events featuring jazz or acoustic artists often times singing standards, oldies or cover songs done by western singers and musicians. These types of gigs are simple and pay well, but require a contract with a company based in Japan.
Foreign owned bars can be found in big cities and they are common hangouts for expats and Japanese people who like western culture and English conversation. Live music by bands composed of local musicians can be found on weekends, but occasionally out of town acts play as well. These gigs pay a guaranteed amount to acts that can draw customers other than the regulars.
Festivals, beach parties, etc. are usually organized at least 3 - 6 months in advance and require contacts with agents, city organizations or promoters.
The large summer festivals like Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic are booked by major companies that focus on big name acts.
There are annual jazz festivals in every region of the country from spring to fall that accept most styles of music other than rock.
Music conferences are still very much unknown with Kansai Music Conference being the only western style international music conference. Other similar events focus more on the live music aspect than a "conference" experience.
Artists that perform R&B, gospel, and jazz, can find good work at hotels, wedding ceremonies and theme parks. However, these artists almost always reside in Japan and have a contract with an agency. It's fairly difficult for anyone who is not residing in Japan to get these types of gigs.
For a more detailed look at the scene, check out "Performing in Japan: The KMC Guide to the World's Largest Music Market" This is a just quick view of the scene and by no means an absolute explanation.
Please contact us if you have any questions about performing in Japan not answered here.