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Music festivals are better when the customer isn’t always right

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

In an industry that devotes itself with ever more granular precision to the art of serving you what its research says you want, music and events that demand you meet them halfway are ever more precious.

With that in mind, it became clear to me this summer that the Fuji Rock Festival in Niigata Prefecture is the best music festival in the country because it has something that none (Hokkaido’s Rising Sun a possible exception) of the other major festivals has: an ethos.

We might roll our eyes at the way Fuji Rock clings to hoary old hippy cliches (perennial opening act Route 17 Rock’n’Roll Orchestra don’t need a drummer anymore — roadies can just mic up the creaking joints of its members), but the event brings with it a cheerful sort of inclusiveness that doesn’t compromise its own sense of identity.

More than that, though, this ethos extends to its audience. While the festival itself is a thoroughly comfortable experience, it also places limits on how far it will go in order to please us, treating us less as customer and more as citizens of its own temporary micronation.

The most obvious way Fuji Rock does this is by dragging you out to an isolated mountain enclave for three days (something it shares with smaller festivals such as The Labyrinth, Taicoclub and its own smaller sibling Asagiri Jam). Shut off from the real world and all the insistent ways it imposes its idea of normality on us, bands are booked in an eclectic way and often according to no visible commercial logic. Away from the hierarchies and divisions of the music scene, their value is conferred simply by virtue of their presence.

Importing relatively mainstream rock acts such as One OK Rock and [Alexandros] this year may have boosted attendance, but it also created a curious sense of dislocation. Even Sheena Ringo, a performer on the fringes of the J-pop mainstream with artistic credibility to spare, felt diminished and parochial. Her Showa Era jazz-pop felt frivolous and unambitious in the shadow of FKA Twigs’ brutal and transcendent post-everything R&B, and the waving Japanese flags that greeted Ringo’s song “Nippon” flew starkly at odds with the rest of the festival’s vigorously cosmopolitan atmosphere.

The fact that such comfortably mainstream acts could create such dissonance, however, is testament to the strength and effectiveness of Fuji Rock’s own identity as something more than the sum total of its individual acts.

The deliberate schedule clashes refuse to spoon-feed your musical prejudices back to you, forcing you to make decisions and sacrifices, as well as prodding you into seeing artists from outside your comfort zone in the lulls.

The long walks between stages take you through beautiful forest paths hung with lights and scattered with small decorations that peep out at you from behind bushes, forcing you to experience peace and space, not just a constant barrage of sound. All this feeds into a sense of the place as something more than simply a forum for the music industry to display its wares.

Indeed, returning to Tokyo after four nights in the mountains, the contrast between the way Fuji Rock’s carefully curated temporary alternate state subtly works at you and the sudden, aggressive assault of sounds and images from the city’s advertising hoardings is striking and not a little disorienting.

Fuji Rock has its faults, and it’s clearly suffering in the competition for big-name overseas acts — with local rival Summer Sonic of course, but also with European festivals that are easier for acts to slot into a tour. However, even a bad Fuji Rock line-up is better than anything else on the domestic festival circuit — not for what it gives you, but for what it asks of you in return.