Music

Forget clubbing: Outdoor festivals offer a natural alternative

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

When the revised adult entertainment business law comes into effect on June 23, bringing an end to Japan’s archaic ban on all-night dance parties, it will mark the end of what has been a challenging period for the nation’s nightclubs. But beyond the major metropolises, at campsites and off-season ski resorts, a parallel dance scene has been quietly thriving, untroubled by the so-called fueihō law.

This year’s Rainbow Disco Club, which decamped from central Tokyo to a verdant site in Shizuoka Prefecture in 2015, drew over 2,000 people during the recent Golden Week holiday. Some of the same crowd will likely be heading to Nagano Prefecture this weekend for the larger Taicoclub, an all-nighter that balances leftfield electronic acts with more crowd-pleasing domestic fare, and which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.

2015 also marked the 15th anniversary of The Labyrinth, a three-day party held in Niigata Prefecture, which peddles some of the most hypnotic techno imaginable. And it was a solid year for Rural, a peripatetic techno bash that started in 2009 but has only recently begun to draw wider attention.

While domestic media obsesses over Japan’s belated embrace of EDM, including the local versions of Ultra Music Festival and Electric Zoo, there’s clearly robust demand for outdoor parties that cater to a more, dare I say it, discerning listener.

Taicoclub’s founder, Taro Yasuzawa, says there weren’t many precedents for his event — either in scale or programming — when it first launched in 2006.

“There are far more festivals now,” he says, recalling the difficulties he had persuading urban music fans to journey to the foothills of the Japan Alps for the weekend. “It’s become totally normal.”

Although they host many of the same DJs and artists who play at nightclubs in Tokyo and Osaka, outdoor dance parties are beholden to a different logic. A natural setting can take the edge off even the most aggressive techno; a DJ playing a daytime set can explore musical territory that would kill the buzz of a peak-time crowd.

At The Labyrinth, there’s only one stage, and the artists are programmed to form a coherent arc spanning the entire three days. Some of them, like Donato Dozzy and Peter Van Hoesen, are annual fixtures; others were virtual unknowns in Japan when they first played the event.

“The lineup is always a response to the previous lineup,” explains organizer Russell M., who asked to only be identified by his first name for privacy reasons. “We’re lucky with the reputation of the event that people now basically just trust (it) on its own terms.”

At Rural, where the music runs continuously throughout the weekend, there’s space to accommodate more experimental sounds that get shut out of the club scene altogether.

“There are artists we wouldn’t be able to invite if it wasn’t for Rural,” says Atsushi Maeda, one of the event’s four organizers, who also works as a promoter at the newly opened Contact club in Tokyo. “If we put them on at a club, hardly anyone would come.”

Taicoclub sets itself a different, and perhaps more challenging, task: to reconcile the worlds of underground techno and Warp Records-style electronica with the commercial realities of the Japanese music scene. It must be the only event in Japan that can book edgy overseas producers such as Arca and Oneohtrix Point Never alongside local chart-toppers Sakanaction yet seem equally sincere in its commitment to all of them.

“We want to create a place where various kinds of people can mix … people from inside and outside particular scenes, non-Japanese, Japanese,” Yasuzawa says. By picking Japanese acts that are established names, Taicoclub is able to take bigger risks with its international bookings.

“A lot of the overseas artists are kind of avant-garde,” Yasuzawa continues. “If we chose domestic artists who were in a similar vein, there wouldn’t be anything for people who don’t listen to that kind of music.”

Sure enough, Taicoclub attracts plenty of fans who’d never normally set foot in a nightclub — and, judging from the patchy crowds during some of the DJ sets last year, its clubber contingent seems to be shrinking. Rural has stronger ties to the club world in comparison, but at The Labyrinth, Russell estimates that half of the attendees come from outside that scene.

This is partly down to demographics — people getting older, starting families and moving out of the city — but it’s also a question of taste. Dance music isn’t necessarily club music. For some, the appeal of listening to four-on-the-floor rhythms al fresco would be impossible to replicate in a nightclub.

In the case of The Labyrinth, the sound itself is also a major draw. The festival’s Funktion One speaker system is meticulously tuned, and Russell and his sound man keep tweaking the EQ throughout the event, playing what he calls “mind games” with the audience.

“People don’t know most of the artists we book — and it doesn’t matter,” he says. “We don’t do any marketing — and it doesn’t matter. It’s (because) these people have an experience which is profound, and a key component of that is we have the best sound system in the world, probably.”

Outdoor parties like this don’t explicitly shut the door on EDM fans. Still, there probably weren’t many people who were torn between catching Swedish superstar Avicii’s Japan debut this weekend or going to Taicoclub instead.

“The fact that EDM is popular at the moment doesn’t have much impact on us,” concurs Atsushi Okuda, one of Rural’s organizers. “There aren’t many people from Ultra at the kinds of (parties) we go to.”

And speaking of Ultra Japan: it clashes with The Labyrinth again this year, and Russell couldn’t be more delighted.

“It’s like a vacuum cleaner that sucked up most of the troublemakers,” he says of the 2015 event. “So I was so happy this year: Ultra’s going to vacuum up all the douchebags again. It’s the same weekend. That’s perfect.”

Taicoclub takes place at Kodama no Mori in Nagano Prefecture on June 4 and 5 (taicoclub.com/16) Rural is held at Yunomaru Highland in Nagano Prefecture July 16-18 (www.rural-jp.com). The Labyrinth is held at Naeba Greenland in Niigata Prefecture Sept. 17-19 (www.mindgames.jp).