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Tilt toward domestic acts risks watering down uniqueness of Japan’s big music fests

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Japan’s 2017 summer music festival landscape has mostly settled into place. The Fuji Rock Festival, after an upbeat 20th anniversary last year, kicked up excitement thanks to a top-heavy bill headlined by Gorillaz, Aphex Twin and Bjork, along with the promise of more left-field fare down in the smaller font. Summer Sonic, meanwhile, has placed Calvin Harris and Foo Fighters up front, followed by an array of Western acts.

It’s business as usual for the top two gatherings centered around international acts — Fuji Rock leans toward eclectic bookings, while Summer Sonic errs on the side of the mainstream, down to pretending the Black Eyed Peas warrant a main stage appearance (insert your own “so 2000 and late” joke).

A closer examination of the line-ups, however, reveals a striking fact: Both events are stacked with domestic acts, from the biggest stages to the off-the-beaten-path spots. As Western music continues to recede in terms of sales and visibility in Japan, summer festivals are turning to homegrown groups. It’s a natural move set to continue, but it could backfire.

Japanese acts have long boosted ticket sales, but most have either been recognizable abroad or in line with the fest’s rock-centric vibe.

Summer Sonic, though, got creative in recent years by inviting idol outfits to play — bringing along their legions of hard-core fans and guaranteeing sell-outs.

The festival continued that strategy with domestic rock bands, and Fuji Rock followed suit. Both are employing this strategy for 2017 — Summer Sonic has AKB-adjacent idols Keyakizaka46, while “Your Name.”-soundtrackers Radwimps play Fuji Rock.

What’s new, though, is how many emerging Japanese names litter the lists. Before, both festivals would fill up early slots with young foreign units.

Now, however, that honor goes to domestic groups, with Fuji Rock boasting an assortment of just-breaking-through bands (never young beach, Yogee New Waves, yahyel) and Summer Sonic highlighting emerging acts of all styles (rock-popper Sayuri, metal idols PassCode).

In isolation, this is fine and financially smart — before, they just invited whatever Oasis-knockoff the NME hyped up that year. Yet zooming out, this pivot could result in Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic resembling the other big Japanese music festival a bit too much.

Many of the homegrown artists at these two events are also appearing at the Rock In Japan fest, an all-domestic affair technically drawing the biggest crowds of the season.

If there is too much overlap, fans of Japanese music who could care less about weirdo IDM and sunny EDM from abroad will just opt for Rock In Japan, defeating the purpose of the shift at Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic.

They’ll be fine in 2017, but moving forward — and as the market of Western headliners keeps shrinking — they need to strike a balance, or somehow guarantee their events remain special enough to justify the trip out, regardless of who plays.