●What type of work do you do here in Japan?
Levi：I set up a music company in the US in 1993 and ran that for about 10 years while also playing in a band as a pro drummer. During that time, I visited Japan in ‘97, ‘98 & 2000 and really could see myself moving here to live. So I moved and after working for a while teaching English, I moved to Kansai and decided to restart my company., Shalestone Music.
●Why Kansai, why not Tokyo?
Levi：There are too many people in Tokyo. (laugh) Osaka is perfect for me. Also, personality-wise, I feel like I’m a Kansai native. (laugh)
●(laugh) So, Shalestone Music works with musicians from all over the world, right?
Levi：Yes. I soon found that the world of PA and recording in Japan is fairly hard to get into, so I decided to head in a different direction.
●Japan can be a difficult place to break ground, I suppose.
Levi：Exactly, and as the world’s second largest music market, that doesn’t make sense because lots of musicians from overseas want to see what the market here is all about.
●So, Shalestone Music isn’t really a production company but something like a promoter?
Levi：Actually more like a booking agency. There are tons of booking companies in the US, but in my case, we make money representing artists, booking their tours and charging either the artist or venue for our services. We do artist promotion using printed flyers, internet sites, etc. as well as complete tour management.
●How do you get in contact with artists from overseas?
Levi：I get mail from at least 20 artists per month interested in performing in Japan. My company is set up to work with artists, regardless of musical genre, who either live here, have never been to Japan before or have no music for sale to the Japanese market. No other company in Japan is doing this.
●Something like the only door to the Japanese music scene.
Levi：There are other companies that do something close, but often they work only with rock bands, or jazz artists, or musicians from Australia, etc. There aren’t any around that can cover all genres.
●So now, moving on, what is the main purpose of Kansai Music Conference (KMC)?
Levi：First, to support independent musicians and promote international exchange. Supporting the many artists out there, looking to become professional musicians that aren’t interested in getting a “record deal” is one goal. The second is to introduce the Japanese music scene to indie musicians from overseas. But first, the term “indie” needs to be clearly defined for the Japanese market.
As a word coined in the west “indie” means “independent artist,” not “amateur artist” or “non-professional artist” as it has come to be defined in Japan. For example, a few years ago, Paul McCartney left his contract with his long time label and decided to sign a deal with Starbuck’s label to release his CD with them. Of course he’s a professional musician, but he did this as an independent artist. This is what needs to be understood in Japan.
●This year makes year number 2. How was the first one?
Levi：Overall it was a success, but there were a whole lot of mistakes made. (laugh). The biggest being the use of 16 live venues around the city of Osaka. Many of those venues charged a rental fee which ended up coming out of the KMC budget. So because of that, the key word for this year is “cooperation.” In order to get everything done in a manner that will benefit everyone involved, there must be cooperation.
●So it will be held at the Osaka Museum of History this year, right?
Levi：Yes. Conveniently located across the street from the historic Osaka Castle as well as being an exhibition center for the many historic artifacts of the city, the museum was a great choice for the conference. We were not able to have much live music in the venue we used last year, so we had to use 16 venues around the city. But this year the museum has a 300 capacity concert hall as well as 2 conference rooms all on the 4th floor that will be used simultaneously for live performances, workshops and presentations.
●What’s the total capacity of the areas you’ll be using at the museum?
Levi：We’ll be using all the rooms on the 4th floor: concert hall seats 300, room 1 seats 60, and room 2 seats 30. So about 400. But we will also be setting up a stage in the Atrium on the first floor of the main building that can fit a few hundred.
●…And you’ve set all this up by yourself?
Levi：Well when I came up with the idea of KMC in Dec. 2008, from that point until late July, 2009, I was doing almost everything on my own. Then in July, after seeing that the event was actually going to happen, people started volunteering to help out. Now we have a fully functioning KMC Executive Committee with 2 reps in Tokyo, an Osaka native who represents KMC in Toronto as well as members volunteering to design flyers and posters. They’ve really been a big help.
●To see a foreigner come to Japan and undertake such an enormous endeavor is quite impressive.
Levi：It takes enthusiasm and drive, without which a project like this can’t be sustained. The first time I visited Japan in ’97, I stayed at a Japanese inn in Fukushima Prefecture and after a lady who worked there found out that I played in a band, she wanted an autographed cd. At that point I realized that the Japanese culture had little exposure or knowledge of what was really happening in other countries and that realization has had a strong influence on me ever since. So much so, that I decided to create something to help improve international communication and cultural understanding for those that are interested. KMC has become my way of fulfilling my own dream in Japan. There’s no way I won’t see it through.
●But is this what you envisioned when you came to Japan 10 years ago?
Levi：No, not at all. But seeing that music can be a bridge across all cultures, I intended to do something music related.
●So for the conference, what kind of people are you expecting to show up?
Levi：I can’t say. For Japanese people, the term “music conference” is basically unknown. The participants last year were approximately 80% non-Japanese. Mostly, musicians visiting from overseas and foreign residents.
●What is the entrance fee?
Levi：Last year we charged 3,000yen for the conference, but this year admission to KMC events at the museum will be free. So for a free event you never know how many people will show up.(smile) The 19th will be a day full of workshops and events for the general public to learn about music from different cultures and the 20th is more specialized for musicians and people in the industry with panel discussions and presentations. I’d like to have as many people join as possible, so dividing it this way seems to be a good way for everyone to better understand the general concept of the event.
●With no admission fee, where is your financing coming from?
Levi：Music conferences overseas typically have the “conference in the daytime/live showcases in the evening” format which is what I did last year. But with the cost of venue rental so high in Japan, doing that style using a lot of venues is really difficult to do. I’d like to run the current model of using a “main venue” with a few others in the evening for about 5 years and by then KMC should have enough financial support to run itself. Until then my company will have to provide the main support. But actually, funding from last year to this year has increased about 300%.
●What type of advertising are you doing in the Osaka area?
Levi：From this past February we have been doing monthly promotional events. Mainly, a 3 hour “open mic night” where anyone can come and play a few songs or do a performance. Things have really grown. We started in a venue that fit 40 people and from June we moved to a bar that can fit about 200.
In different cities in Japan many musicians are busking in parks and train stations often with the police on the prowl, so it has become difficult for musicians to play in public and expand their audience. But open mic night provides an opportunity for musicians to showcase in front of industry reps who could very well say to them, “I’ve got an event coming up next month that I’d like to have you play in. Are you interested?”
●There are also presentations and showcases at the conference. Are you advertising on radio, etc.
Levi：Last year I took that approach, but for a difficult to explain concept like KMC, I’ve found that explaining person to person has been the most effective.
●Wow, explaining the same thing hundreds of times must be tiring.(smile)
Levi：When I first started explaining about KMC, I wasn’t doing a very good job.(laugh) But this year I’ve learned how to put everything in an easily understandable package.
Something like this for example, “Different industries have trade shows and exhibitions: electronics’ shows, anime conventions, car shows, bicycle trade shows, etc. Trade shows are how industries grow. The music industry also has a trade show called a music conference: an opportunity for parts of the music industry to showcase the next generation of music to the rest of the industry and to the general public. But music conferences don’t exist in Japan.” This is how I explain what KMC is about.
●What types of artists will be performing this year?
Levi：This year’s special guest will be coming from India. Deobrat Mishra will be doing a 75 min. workshop at the conference on the 19th as well as concerts in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, all set up by KMC Executive Committee.
There’s also Prema Yin & Mon9 who are well established in their home country of Malaysia. KMC 2009 showcase artist Dale Campbell who just loves Japanese culture, is back again this time doing a guitar workshop on the 19th. Also, Canadian band Random Order is here to tour and play for Japanese ska/punk fans.
●How were the showcase artists selected?
Levi：Basically KMC Executive Committee members ranked the artists based on their music, bios, and application forms with answers to various questions. I then collected everything and made the final decisions.
●Were there Japanese artists that applied?
Levi：Of course, but very few. Out of the total 100 applications received, about 80 were artists from overseas.
●Only 20% were Japanese?
Levi：It’s not possible to explain the concept of KMC on a small flyer and have Japanese people applying to join, especially without big names like Sony Records or Avex Records endorsing it. Had those types of big names been on the flyers, there may have been more Japanese applying.
●Yeah, many Japanese musicians want to see big names before getting involved.
Levi：True, but that’s not what KMC is about. KMC is not designed for those musicians, so they won’t be missed as far as I’m concerned.
●And if that type of musician does apply, what then?
Levi：Yeah, well if they apply because there’s a big name attached to the event, there’s not much hope for them. The logic is “I can become famous if I join this event because there’s a famous company involved.”
●The panel discussion titled "CD Sales Are Still Big in Japan, But Why?" seems interesting. What will this panel be about?
Levi：This panel is aimed at non-Japanese musicians. Overseas, Tower Records has closed, CD manufacturing companies and recording studios have closed and CD related business has dropped. All due to the popularity of downloadable music. But in Japan, the download craze is still approaching, so CD sales comparatively are still big. Westerners, especially Americans, tend to wonder why technologically advanced Japan is so slow. The reasons will be discussed at this panel.
●Well of course a big reason is CD rental shops. People rent CDs and copy them all for a cheap price.
Levi：Right. You’ll never find a music CD rental shop in the US. What’s the main purpose of renting a CD?
●Yeah, only in Japan can you find such an established, completely legal custom.
Levi：Outside of Asia, CD rental shops don’t exist. Not in the US, not in Europe…never.
●Also, the presentation “A New Type of Promotion.” What’s that about?
Levi：Temple University Japan Campus assistant professor J.J. Aucouturier teaches a computer class that deals with the internet site, Second Life. It’s a world on the net where a person can create an avatar of themselves to do whatever they want to do, including promote their music in the form of a live show. This is the “new type” of promotion. He is returning this year to talk about the success of a project initiated from KMC last year, “Legrand In Second Life.”
●Do you plan to use USTREAM or other video streaming sites?
Levi：Not much more than videos on Youtube. I learned a lot from a panel discussion last year. The main thing was that flyers alone do very little in Japan as far as promotion. For promotion, especially in Japan, person to person style word of mouth is how people decide if something is interesting or not. If someone finds something to be interesting, then they will tell a friend, and that friend will tell another. That is consistent with Japanese culture and therefore a very effective way to promote.
●Incidentally, what do you see as the biggest issue facing the Japanese music scene.
Levi：The biggest is the “pay to play” quota system for live shows. I played as a pro drummer for about 15 years playing concerts and touring and had plans to come to Japan and be a session or studio drummer. Then I encountered the “pay to play” system and quit playing. One of the goals of a pro musician is to make money, so they shouldn’t be asked to pay money to play in their own market.
●Is Japan the only place with the “pay to play” system?
Levi：No, digital technology has put a squeeze on venues in various cities overseas such that they’ve adopted the system as well. I think musicians understand why, but they neither like it nor accept it.
●By creating KMC what are you hoping to affect in the Japanese music industry?
Levi：What does the phrase “music industry,” mean? Most people think of the major labels and big companies, but for me, musicians are a big part of the industry as well. Simply put, without musicians, all the music related companies wouldn’t exist. So the purpose of KMC is to represent the indie artists that are looking to become career musicians. This year I’ve had several Japanese contact me wanting to get involved with what KMC is doing. People offering the use of their venue at no charge or filming a promotion video at a reduced rate for KMC artists, etc. With that type of response this year, I can easily see a KMC network expanding both domestically and internationally.
●Before saying goodbye, any final words to musicians or industry that may be interested in KMC?
Levi：KMC is for people interested in “Building Bridges With Music” by creating an international network of musicians, music companies and music fans with the goal of providing opportunities for artists from overseas to perform in Japan and Japanese artists to perform abroad. KMC aims to provide opportunity for musicians to get exposure on both national and international stages and we can use all the help we can get.
For this interview, we were no doubt moved by the friendly attitude and passion of Mr. Levi, who moved to Japan on his own 10 years ago and has now created this event, Kansai Music Conference, not just for the purpose of helping indie musicians expand their careers, but also by using music to foster international exchange through the development of a music conference.