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A postmortem on how promoters let a Blur gig in Japan slip away

by Ian Martin

The Tokyo Rocks festival, which had been scheduled for May 11 and 12, was an ambitious attempt to bring big-name overseas artists such as Blur, Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine together with a range of Japanese acts. On March 31, it was announced it had been canceled.

Unlike major commercial festivals such as Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic, which are organized by tour agencies with a good track record in promoting overseas artists here, Tokyo Rocks’ background is rooted in the local scene. Its sudden cancellation just six weeks before it was due to take place is unfortunate then, and demands a postmortem.

The initial announcement stated only “management problems,” which is strongly suggestive of internal political problems among the various groups organizing the event — something that subsequent announcements have stated more directly. The extent to which poor ticket sales may have been responsible is unclear, since no figures have been announced. The word from inside suggests that the festival’s (hopefully temporary) collapse was at least not directly related to sales.

The reaction of some music fans, however, provides a different sort of insight into the event’s troubles and suggests a number of ways in which the approach taken by the organizers may have rubbed people the wrong way.

The first is that by feeding the event’s official news primarily through Facebook, they may have been too modern for their own good. There’s a contemporary orthodoxy that suggests regular updates on social media, written in a casual, personable manner, are key to engaging customers with your product. The Tokyo Rocks account certainly followed that path, with event producer Takashi Yano making almost daily updates. He even did so when there was no fresh news to deliver, just to keep up a steady drumbeat of enthusiasm.

So far so good, you might think, but the use of a bog standard Facebook timeline along with a sparse official homepage conveyed an unprofessional image to many fans, who then sneered their displeasure on social networks such as Twitter. Facebook use in Japan is still far from universal (unlike the more popular Twitter), so the event came off as small-scale and somewhat exclusive. The casual tone of many posts, and Yano’s habit of frequently dropping in English terms and phrases in katakana, added to the impression that the event was being run by fanboys instead of professionals.

There was also a sense that the organizers were doing more to raise awareness of the event in Britain than they were in Tokyo. March’s Tokyo Rocks event at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire may have gone off well, but its relevance to the planned stadium show in May was questionable and it added to a sense that organizers here were neglecting their responsibilities, leaving some people wondering if what they were really interested in was schmoozing with hip British rockers rather than doing a good job of the Tokyo stadium show.

A blogger by the name of DJ Homerun summed up the feelings of many fans in a widely-shared post on April 1 where he flatly criticized Yano’s hyping of the bands on Facebook, and dismissed as a joke the quality of the Japanese artists who had been booked to play alongside the heavy hitting U.K. bands. It’s a shame that so many people seemed to feel this way, but it points to a basic contradiction in the way Tokyo Rocks was put together.

On the one hand, its roots are in the local scene. It was held at the smaller setting of Wakasu Park in Tokyo’s Koto Ward for the first three years of its operation and it was strictly Japanese rock, with groups like Acidman, The Telephones, Andymori and Sakanaction forming the core of the lineups. The attitude expressed by Yano on Facebook exudes some of the chumminess and intimacy that bands with indie roots never quite let go of. This is the key to the appeal of much of the indie scene, but it’s also a barrier to being taken seriously above a certain level.

On the other hand, the way the lineup of the 2013 event was split between small acts and big-name U.K. acts such as Blur and My Bloody Valentine is an elementary booking error that no experienced small-scale indie promoter in Tokyo would make. Put simply, if you’re booking one kind of event, you book the whole thing as that kind of event. Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic are big enough that they can satisfy everyone, but the overseas bands at Tokyo Rocks looked like they’d been dropped into the lineup by aliens. As with our blogger friend Mr. Homerun, many Blur and My Bloody Valentine fans looked at groups like Andymori and asked themselves, “Who the hell is that? What is it that I’m paying all this money to sit through in order to get my dose of Britpop nostalgia?”

It’s unfair to blame the organizers entirely for this when clearly a lot of the problems come down to the conservatism and factionalism prevalent in music fandom: The way record stores insist on putting Japanese and overseas music in separate sections or even on totally different floors; the feeble, say-nothing, record company-funded media; the industry glass ceiling that cuts off most of the best indie and underground music from the oxygen of publicity — Yano and co. deserve praise for trying something so ambitious, and had it not been for those unspecified internal problems, it’s entirely possible that it might have been a success. However, without a shift in approach from either the organizational or the fans’ side, I suspect that further efforts of this type will still be fraught with friction.