DJ Van Paugam
Collecting Japan, pt.3 – City Pop with DJ Van Paugam
On a hunt for lesser known yet vibrant collecting niches,
MAG_BTM asked Far-Eastern music lover Freddie Berman to investigate. Third in our series of interviews to Japanese music collectors, here Berman speaks to Van Paugam, a DJ whose work helps promote the renewed interest in City Pop. Music Archive Gallery: Beyond The Music
What first attracted you to City Pop and what made you not only want to collect but perform it too?
“I’ve always had an obsession with nostalgia and also Japanese culture so it felt totally natural. When I first discovered the music it felt special because it was still relatively obscure, at least compared to today. I had this feeling of being at the frontier of something new and exciting like finding a secret hallway in the world music archives! I had an irresistible urge to hear these songs on vinyl, an experience you just don’t get through MP3’s or remixes. Once I had collected enough of the vinyl my next thought was to bring it all back to life by performing it on my set. I was pretty certain no one had done it before.”
How did you find the records? Were they hard to find?
“The records could only ever be found in one place. Ultimately I had to buy them in person in Japan or wait for Japanese record stores to start listing them online. At first it wasn’t so difficult as long as you knew what you were looking for, but back then only a few people were interested in the genre. Some of the records that I had first discovered and started using for mixes later on became some of the most highly sought after LPs to collect. When I started, these records were extremely cheap, sometimes less than 1000 yen, which is like less than 10 USD, but now some go for hundreds of dollars as many collectors are nowout there trying to buy them.”
What made you think there was an international audience that was passionate about this music?
“When in 2016 my first mix broke 100,000 listens within a few months, I knew something was up. Shortly after some Japanese labels started re-pressing some City Pop records, which seemed like phase two for me. I would constantly talk to people online from all over the world who wanted to hear more of this music as much of it wasn’t even on Spotify yet. The demand was undeniable if you looked at the number of views many songs were getting on YouTube. Later on, famous K-Pop artists would draw inspiration from my ‘City Pop YouTube’ mixes which was when it all came together for me. Once The Weeknd sampled Tomoko Aran’s song Midnight Pretenders I knew the music had taken root in popular culture.”
Given it’s not as well-known as other genres of music how did you go about promoting it and yourself?
I started calling my mixes ‘City Pop’,and using retro anime gifs to give it a very nostalgic touch. I think the music had a way to draw on a type of sentimentality that draws people into the fantasy of combined sound and aesthetics that City Pop was so good at. All I had to do to promote my live events was to say that it was Japanese music from the 70s & 80s on vinyl and peoples’ ears would usually perk up.”
When you first launched your YouTube channel, what was the response and why was it taken down eventually?
“At first it didn’t really seem like my mixes were going anywhere but I loved doing it and so I kept making them. Over the next few months people would share the mixes on Tumblr and other networks and interest started to bubble up. For a moment my channel became the internet’s main hub for this style of music that seemed so hard to find anywhere else. At the height of my channel in 2018 I had reached 100,000 subscriptions which seemed impossible just a year earlier.
When I was struck off I reached out to the association in charge of the channels but it was useless. The people who run such organizations in Japan are usually much older and they don’t quite understand how the internet can become a catalyst for cultural appreciation which would ultimately benefit them. Japan has a notorious reputation for taking copyright laws a bit too far and while I don’t claim that I should have been immune, I do think it was unjustly unfair. There are many City Pop mixes on YouTube right now that use the same songs I used, so I can’t help feel a bit betrayed.”
Are there any pieces of merchandise/memorabilia that are unique to City Pop fandom?
“Rare LPs are usually the most sought after items within this sphere. Some records have been sold for incredible prices on markets like Discogs, where previously the Junko Ohashi compilation Magical once sold for over $1000. Japanese record labels have since caught onto this trend though and records such as Magical have now been reissued a few times driving down the prices of those LPs. But there’s always someone wanting a mint-graded copy of a Tatsuro Yamashita LP, with an intact obi (Strip of paper attached to album with details about it in Japanese) and insert. Having an obi on the sleeve significantly boosts the desirability of any these LPs.”
Aside from you who else has been credited as one of the key figures in renewing interest in the genre?
“I know some artists like Ginger Root are really latching on the the City Pop aesthetic to produce some very contemporary interpretations. The real heroes of promoting City Pop are online places like the subreddit r/CityPop, who have been helping to spread information on the genre to new fans everywhere. Blogs like KayoKyokuPlus are also where information on a lot of these City Pop records tends to collect and help develop fandoms.”
What do you think will be the next phase in the revival of city pop?
“Ask any K-Pop fan if they think not knowing Korean is a detriment to enjoying their favourite music and you might incite a riot. I think the truly wonderful aspect of City Pop is that it speaks to so many people and has timeless element to it, even if you don’t know the language. The music will continue to spread and take its rightful place in the annals of world music history and we will see more vinyl reissues and its likely more major recording artists will sample the music.”
Do you worry that if it became more popular it could risk losing what makes it unique?
“Some of these City Pop songs have reached an iconic status which will make them unforgettable in the hearts of serious fans. For those who aren’t fans there is still an undeniable production level that merits praise. In the same way that What a Fool Believes or I Feel Love still captivate listeners to this day, so too will many of these City Pop songs and albums retain their charm for many generations to come.”