Never mind the lineup: Fuji Rock is more than music

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

It has only been three years since Fuji Rock Festival posted its highest-ever attendance figures, with a little help from Radiohead and The Stone Roses, but you wouldn’t have known it from the steady drumbeat of glumness that heralded this year’s edition. Following a lackluster showing in 2014, when Kanye West canceled, Jack Johnson fizzled and only 102,000 people bothered to show up (down from 140,000 in 2012), the festival badly needed a hit. Yet the signs weren’t promising.

As details of the 2015 lineup trickled out during the spring, longtime fans of the festival snorted, sighed and rolled their eyes. Though it boasted some solidly crowd-pleasing headliners in the form of Muse, Foo Fighters and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, the Fuji Rock bill otherwise seemed haphazard and a little desperate, whether embracing the kinds of mainstream Japanese rock bands that the event had once pointedly ignored ([Alexandros], One OK Rock), or attempting to lure younger listeners with commercial dance music (Deadmau5, Galantis).

Mustering the requisite excitement got even harder when organizers announced that they were axing the Orange Court, the most eclectic of Fuji Rock’s five main stages, and the source of some of its greatest delights. Where else could you hear Balkan brass, freeform improv and Tuvan throat singing in the course of a single day? Alas, the answer this year was: nowhere.

With the festival also trimming the number of acts appearing on the main Green Stage each day, from seven to six, and introducing a ¥500 levy for the shuttle-bus service from Echigo-Yuzawa station, it was like the age of austerity had descended on Naeba, the Niigata Prefecture ski resort that has hosted Fuji Rock since 1999.

When Koichi Hanafusa, head of the official fansite, got up to address the crowd at the opening party on Thursday evening, he acknowledged that there were rumors about this year’s festival being the last.

“Ever since Fuji Rock first started, it’s seemed like it might finish at any moment,” he said. And then came the inevitable pep talk: “I want you to understand that you’re the ones who make this festival.” (Subtext: If it gets canceled, it’s your fault.)

As it turned out, rumors of Fuji Rock’s imminent demise had been greatly overstated. Although the crowds were noticeably thin on Friday, by Saturday it was back to business as usual, which is to say that the queues for the toilets were frequently prodigious, and getting lunch at the most popular food stalls could take the best part of an hour. Combined attendance for the event clocked in at 115,000 people — still well short of the numbers seen in 2012, but a healthy improvement over last year, and generally in line with the figures for 2011 and 2013.

What was luring the crowds, though? It was hard to find anyone at the festival site who was actually impressed by this year’s lineup, a random hodgepodge that might as well have been compiled by rifling through the discount bins at Tower Records. But as Naeba basked in three days of uninterrupted fair weather — a rare occurrence in these parts — it was equally hard to find anyone who wasn’t having a ball.

Perhaps it was an example of what psychologists call justification of effort. You don’t merely attend Fuji Rock: you invest in it. A three-day ticket costs ¥39,800, and many people end up spending at least the same again on transport, food, booze and accommodation. (Unusually for an event of its nature, campers are in the minority here.) The pristine outdoor gear and camping chairs toted by festival-goers don’t come cheap, either. And yet, it’s an investment that people continue to make.

That’s all the more impressive when you consider how much the market has shifted since Fuji Rock first started in 1997. Today’s event has to contend with increasing competition from overseas festivals on one front and declining domestic interest in Western music on the other. Luring A-list international acts is a bigger challenge than it used to be; some might legitimately question if it’s even worth the effort.

The audience has become more diverse, too: In addition to attracting fresh blood, Fuji Rock needs to satisfy its older fans, an increasing number of whom now have kids in tow. One of the most striking changes in the crowd over the past decade (I first attended in 2005) has been the proliferation of pushchairs and baby backpacks. The festival has responded by expanding the range of facilities for children, but one parent I spoke to said that they could be doing more: offering a discount package for families, say, or adding a stage specifically for performances aimed at tots.

“I think encouraging parents to come with kids is what’s going to keep Fuji Rock alive,” he said.

The festival is certainly a less intimidating experience than it used to be. The costumed freaks, aging hippies and career alcoholics who used to frequent the event are thinning out. Many of the current generation of Fuji Rockers prefer to watch bands from the comfort of a camping chair, rather than the mosh pit.

But there’s still nothing else quite like it.

The quirks and idiosyncrasies that make Fuji Rock a target for criticism in some quarters — the cost, the inconvenience, the weather, the quixotic programming, the deliberate schedule clashes — might also be its biggest strengths. While Summer Sonic goes out of its way to pander to as many demographics as possible, and Rock in Japan prides itself on giving a carefully groomed audience exactly what it wants, Fuji demands more. It drags you away from your comfort zone, forces you to take time off work, and insists that you forget about your regular musical allegiances for the weekend.

The upshot is that there’s a sense of freedom that other Japanese music festivals struggle to replicate. For a few days, anything goes. You can even enjoy Deadmau5, the Noel Gallagher of the EDM (electronic dance music) scene, and not have to feel guilty about it afterward. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself for the past week.

Best of the bands

FKA Twigs: In a year dominated by retrograde acts, only Tahliah Debrett Barnett sounded like she was reaching — boldly, provocatively — for the future.

Belle and Sebastian: After Stuart Murdoch invited members of the crowd onstage, they responded by dressing him in their hats and sunglasses. Adorable.

Foo Fighters: Not so much for the songs as for Dave Grohl’s mid-set lecture about breaking his leg at a gig in Sweden a month earlier. He even played a video of the incident — twice.

One OK Rock: They sound like Hoobastank. The lead singer used to be in a boy band. And they were this year’s guiltiest pleasure.

Rafven: The de facto mascots of Fuji Rock ’15, these raucous, klezmer-loving Swedes played over half a dozen times during the weekend, and drew cheers whenever they walked around the site.

Charan-Po-Rantan: Few spectacles were as bizarre as hearing a voice like Marlene Dietrich’s emerge from a 22-year-old woman in a brightly colored costume clutching a stuffed toy pig.

For more coverage of this year’s Fuji Rock Festival, see our Tumblr blog.

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