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Live houses need to rethink their product if they want to attract customers

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

In these times of declining music sales it has become a truism that the live arena is where bands and artists can make their money. Certainly that seems to have factored into the decision by U2 and Apple to give the Irish band’s new album to iTunes users for free — whether they wanted it or not.

However, the soaring revenues that big-ticket stadium acts enjoy have not been repeated at the indie level. This is understandable — the draw of seeing U2 presumably lies in you already being a fan of the band, whereas the appeal of seeing an act you’ve never heard of is much riskier.

Tokyo live-music venues in particular are notorious for their impenetrability, so what could they do to make themselves more appealing? I took a quick poll of fans and musicians via social media and they agreed the first problem is cost.

The listed price, which is often in the region of ¥2,500 or more, is steep compared to many venues overseas. On top of that, however, is a compulsory drink order that’s usually an additional ¥500. A price of ¥3,000 ($28, £17) at the door is a massive barrier to entry for casual fans, and shuts out all but the most dedicated followers and friends of whoever’s playing.

The consensus seemed to be that ¥1,000 would be seen as reasonable, with no compulsory drink charge. Many of the people I spoke to suggested that if they paid less at the door they’d be more likely to buy drinks at the bar.

Atmosphere is another reason people say they don’t like going to live-house venues. Entrances are difficult to find, with venues often secreted away on upper floors or basements, so there’s little chance for casual listeners to be drawn by sounds filtering from within.

The interior of the venue is where atmosphere is really created though, and in Tokyo they’re generally designed as expressionless black-walled boxes that shun any hint of identity or frills, directing the audience’s entire attention toward the stage. Doing this accommodates all kinds of events without the venue’s own identity intruding on that of the eclectic range of musical acts who use the space, pushing responsibility for the atmosphere onto show organizers.

Linked to this is the random-seeming booking policy many venues practice, with around five (too many for a lot of gig-goers) bands lumped together in combinations behind which there appears to be no guiding logic. It’s no coincidence that the venues that have managed to establish some sort of identity — through interior design, coherent booking policy or ideally some combination of both — are usually the best known and regarded.

The deliberately anonymous nature of Tokyo’s venues suggests they see themselves in the very narrow role of facilitating the flow of music directly to the audience’s faces — by the most efficient means possible. The focus is on the bands (who are more often than not paying for the privilege) rather than the audience.

How should we remedy the situation? Popular suggestions online included having seated areas, more diverse bar selections and food — the last of these being of crucial importance given that evening shows generally last four or five hours. The lack of food in combination with early start times (6:30 p.m. is usual) force the potential customer to choose between music and dinner — the winner of which is always going to be Tokyo’s booming restaurant industry.

Smoking bans were suggested by a few people — an argument carried largely by the American respondents, but garnering sympathy from some Japanese as well.

In the end, an ideal venue based on my informal social media poll would cost ¥1,000 at the door and have no compulsory drink charge. It would have an attractively stocked and reasonably-priced bar, a seated section and serve food. More attention would be paid to the venue’s visual and musical identity, with more coherently curated bills, featuring no more than three bands per night. All of this would kick off closer to 8 p.m. to make attendance easier for those who work.

Pitched against that is the crippling cost of property, a youth culture that increasingly eschews alcohol and the inconsistent legal status of such venues, which are perceived by their neighbors and police as a nuisance at best and a socially destructive force at worst.

With that in mind, this wish list may be totally naive. However, if Apple can come up with a system to delete the U2 album for those who don’t want it, perhaps Tokyo’s venues can listen to their customers’ wishes, too.