Are summer festivals killing Japan’s live-music market?

Weird question, right? Hundreds of thousands of people shell out gobs of yen every summer to see an amazing array of domestic and international acts rock out at festivals up and down the Japanese archipelago. (Organizers say last year’s Fuji Rock Festival drew 140,000 attendees, while Summer Sonic’s team say 200,000 were at their Tokyo and Osaka shows.) Promoters, merchandisers, local businesses and the musicians make money. Artists gain valuable exposure to a potential new fan base, and the fans come away with happy musical memories.

So it’s music, sunshine and good vibes, yeah?

Not so, according to Massy Hayashi, president of Tokyo-based concert promotion company Hayashi International Promotion (H.I.P.).

“After the festival season, the live-music market is very empty in September and October,” Hayashi says. “The kids have spent all their money on tickets and merchandise. It’s killing the market.

“It’s like a big fishing boat coming into Tokyo Bay with a big net and taking away all the fish. What will the smaller fishermen do?”

Hayashi prefers to cast his net for punters through events like Ozzfest Japan, the heavy metal weekend that H.I.P. held in May. Festivals in the summer are a bummer for Hayashi — “There are too many competitors.”

You might put that down to sour grapes on Hayashi’s part. But he’s not alone in thinking the plethora of summer festivals is hurting the overall music business. They may be too much of a good thing.

“Because festival promoters compete in booking, most major foreign acts appear at festivals,” says Kaz Hori, CEO of music publisher Taiyo Music. “As a result, regular tours have gotten much smaller or, with some artists, nonexistent. It’s my opinion that the downfall of regular tours is really hurting promotion of foreign acts. I think the Japanese festival market is definitely oversaturated.”

I understand where Hayashi and Hori are coming from, but summer music festivals have a special atmosphere you just don’t get at other live-music events. And they help break down barriers between the Japanese and international music scenes.

“Inserting a couple of foreign acts in a predominantly Japanese festival helps bring these acts to the attention of Japanese-repertoire fans, thereby developing new fans,” notes Giles Duke, general manager, corporate strategy, at Universal Music Japan.

Sebastian Mair, president of Tokyo-based consulting company Music Solutions, takes a similar line: “Many of the (foreign) acts you see in Japan will only appear at festivals, since it has become much more difficult to promote stand-alone gigs, especially for lesser-known artists.”

Festivals are also a cash cow for promoters such as Smash Japan (Fuji Rock) and Creativeman (Summer Sonic). Frank Takeshita, Creativeman’s executive general manager, says big festivals such as Summer Sonic, Fuji Rock and Rock in Japan are “definitely great business.”

But the weaker yen is starting to hurt promoters’ bottom lines by making it more costly to book international acts. To make up for that, Creativeman has introduced a ¥30,000 Summer Sonic “Platinum Ticket” that includes a “good view” of the stage, use of “special” lounges and cloakrooms, a “fast lane” for merchandise and a welcome drink. The ticket is only ¥2,000 more than the regular two-day pass, and at the time of publication had already sold out. For that amount of money, though, I’d at least expect them to throw in a backstage pass.

Some new trends could have a healthy impact on Japan’s festival business and take it to the next stage. One such trend could be more foreign festivals like Ozzfest being transplanted to Japan. Another is an increase in genre-specific or branded festivals such as the Hacienda at Oiso Beach.

“Who knows, we might see a Coachella or Bonnaroo festival here one day,” says Universal’s Duke.

You hear lots of people in the Japanese music biz go on about the limited window available for summer festivals — roughly from late July until the Bon holidays in mid-August. Summer vacations and the weather are big factors here. So why not schedule more festivals in spring and fall to avoid overfishing the summer-festival market, to extend Hayashi’s maritime metaphor? That could work to everybody’s net gain.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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