Rockin’On’s Yoichi Shibuya sits atop Japan’s last rock empire

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

When it comes to music journalism in Japan, monthly magazine Rockin’On is an institution. The man behind the mag, 64-year-old Yoichi Shibuya, has expanded it from a print publication to two massive festivals to a multimedia force that covers everything from music to food and art.

It has survived during a difficult time, too. Magazines have seen a general decline in sales in Japan, competitors like Snoozer and Crossbeat have had to downsize or bow out altogether. Rockin’On’s early diversification has helped it immensely. When I meet Shibuya on the 19th floor of a building in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, the space is clean, well-organized and quiet with about 65 employees. Many of them are going over final preparations for Rock in Japan Festival, which will take place over the course of two weekends at the beginning of August.

“Each time the audience comes to the event, I want them to feel that it was better than the previous year,” Shibuya says with a big smile. “We’ve made small but crucial changes regarding the traffic lines, decorations and positions of the power amps. These things are noticeable to repeat guests.”

It’s impressive to see Shibuya so involved in the minutiae of the event, but considering how large it has become, it’s not surprising. Monthly magazines Rockin’On and Rockin’On Japan, which focus on overseas and domestic acts, respectively, retail at ¥619 and ¥571 with circulations of 100,000 and 150,000. The summer festival sees 60,000 visitors per day, who pay ¥12,000 for single tickets or ¥41,000 for a four-day pass. Rockin’On presents another four-day event in December called Countdown Japan that yields similar numbers. Together with merchandise, the concerts undoubtedly bring in a lot of cash.

“We believe that the attendees are the stars of the event, it’s not all about the music,” Shibuya says. “The concept and the environment that we offer are the most essential parts.”

While Japan’s other major summer music festivals — Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic — mix local and overseas acts on their lineups, Rock in Japan has always focused solely on domestic artists. In fact, Rockin’On has been so supportive of local bands it has its own genre — Rockin’On-kei, which refers to guitar-centric alternative rock groups like Bump of Chicken, Asian Kung-Fu Generation and Radwimps.

Rockin’On-kei is a term that grew organically among music fans in the 1990s, and Shibuya says it is “simply incredible” for his magazine to have had this kind of impact on youth culture, even if it isn’t always seen as a positive label.

Launched in 1972, the magazine (it split into domestic and overseas editions in 1986) set itself apart from competitors by refusing genkō chekku (fact checks). That term refers to a system where sources are allowed to check their own interviews to make sure no “mistakes” get in the story before it’s published, but it is often used as a way to censor content. Rockin’On also broke with convention in insisting on original content. Prior to that it was typical for celebrities to hold group interviews, which resulted in the same material being printed in multiple publications.

“That made the articles seem more like advertisements. They lacked criticism and an original voice, nothing like a real magazine. Instead, those mags were more like free papers or fanzines,” Shibuya says. “We could be stricter and critical of the artists, and with Rockin’On magazine being the most influential publication on Western music, I knew it would be possible to treat Japanese acts in a similar way.”

Shibuya says the magazine’s writers initially faced a lot of difficulty from domestic acts and their managers with regard to their approach in covering music. But by landing interviews with such influential musicians as Motoharu Sano, Kiyoshiro Imawano (RC Succession) and Ryuichi Sakamoto in its first issue, it got harder and harder for people to turn them down.

Shibuya admits, though, that his publications are not as strictly critical as overseas music media, stating that Rockin’On’s level of criticism is adjusted to suit Japan’s noncombatitive culture.

“I believe that Japanese readers don’t appreciate harsh-sounding or cynical criticism,” Shibuya says. “There’s a Japanese way of criticism, and so far our interview offers have never been refused for not allowing fact checks.”

Magazine articles aren’t the only area where musicians have had to come around to Shibuya’s way of doing things. Compared to other music festivals, Rock in Japan is known for its strict regulations involving behavior, including a ban on moshing and stage-diving.

When Ken Yokoyama, guitarist of punk group Hi-Standard hit the stage with his solo band in 2009, he shouted, “Since when did rockers have to behave well?” In December of the same year, Yokoyama tweeted that “There shouldn’t be any rules where rock is playing.”

“I know some fans are used to moshing, but there are many who are not,” Shibuya says. “If more artists complain and it becomes impossible to keep the festival running, all we have to do is quit. But I know that in the end they will choose to perform for us.”

Shibuya stresses his priority for live music events is audience comfort. One challenge his team faced in achieving this were the long lines to get into the festival and to use the washrooms. Shibuya decided that concert attendees shouldn’t have to wait more than five minutes in a line. The planners he was working with said his goals were “simply insane.”

In the second year of Rock in Japan, planners suggested the festival should have seven or eight gates; Shibuya went with 35. Planners also recommended 70 to 80 portable toilets, but Shibuya went with 200. While these numbers came from the second year of the event, the lines were still short at last year’s edition.

“There won’t be anything new for Rock in Japan 2015,” Shibuya says. “However, it’ll definitely be more comfortable and fun than last year.”

While Rock in Japan may not be changing, the landscape of music journalism most certainly is. Rockin’On has seen more of its competition coming from music websites such as Natalie.mu and Cinra.net in the past few years. The magazine’s online version, RO69.jp, seems to be replicating Shibuya’s attitude toward his print publications. While other sites concentrate on official press releases, RO69.jp branches out into more in-depth interviews and includes a section called RO69 Jack for new bands to demo their material in a kind of battle of the bands format. Fans can vote for their favorites and the winner is given the opportunity to perform at the Rock in Japan Festival, and to release an EP from the company’s own imprint, Jackman Records.

“The number of applications has been rapidly increasing, RO69 Jack may have grown too big and we’re having difficulties keeping up,” Shibuya says. “The quality of the bands is also getting better and better, which leads to us deciding to have more winners and releases from our label.”

Shibuya doesn’t reveal too much of his personal tastes in the interview, repeatedly exhibiting the caution of the managers and PR agents his writers deal with. He is reputed to be a huge fan of Led Zeppelin, though, and with such huge exposure to new bands through his three music magazines and RO69 Jack, I ask him if there’s anything I should check out.

“I like Creephyp,” he replies. There you have it, simply put, that’s the next big thing.

Rock in Japan Festival 2015 takes place Aug. 1 and 2, and Aug. 8 and 9 at Hitachi Seaside Park in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture. One-day tickets cost ¥12,000 and go on sale July 12 from 10 a.m. For more information, visit rijfes.jp.