Music

As COVID-19 cripples live music, hopeful promoters look ahead

Can’t stop the rock (but you can postpone it)

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

This year’s edition of the Japan Nite event at the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW) was going to be special. It would have marked the event’s 25th anniversary of showcasing Japanese artists to fans in Austin, Texas, with a North American tour to follow.

Co-founder Audrey Kimura, however, began having doubts about the situation in mid-February as the COVID-19 outbreak started spreading globally. While SXSW officials remained optimistic that the gathering would happen, Kimura worried about travel restrictions that could put the visiting performers in a bind.

“I contacted the representatives of each city’s venue on the Japan Nite tour in early March, but they were not worried at all,” Kimura tells The Japan Times.

On March 7, she learned via local Austin TV station KVUE’s internet livestream that SXSW would be canceled. She quickly organized a meeting for the participating bands to determine what to do about the tour.

“On March 10, all the bands involved agreed to cancel the tour,” she says. “The main reason was concern over the safety of members and staff.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the global live music industry, resulting in canceled and postponed events in nearly every country. For Japan, this has primarily meant all large-scale shows shutting down, both from domestic acts and international ones. Yet the current environment has also impacted Japanese acts that had planned to play overseas this spring, from DJs on club tours to pop acts set for festival stages.

Hideaki Ishi, better known as DJ Krush, was on tour in Europe for the first half of March.

“I felt a different kind of tension as we traveled,” he says. “It was very risky. The venues are enclosed spaces as well. It affected the sales.”

Still, his gigs went on up until a March 12 performance in Prague. That event was canceled, and soon worries over attendance prompted subsequent dates in France and Russia to go the same way.

“I flew back from Paris via Moscow,” he says. “In the transit hall in Russia, staff in protective suits were taking every passenger’s temperature.”

Ishi says he’s been considering calling a counseling center related to COVID-19 since getting back.

The suddenness of everything surprised many acts planning international treks. Tokyo artist Haru Nemuri had planned to hold her first North American tour this March (including a set at Japan Nite), and her manager told The Japan Times on March 8 that her team was still leaning toward going. That changed days later, with all her dates having now been postponed until September.

This spring also saw plans for two prominent Japanese artists — Hatsune Miku and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu — to perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California over two weekends in April. That event, however, was postponed until October. (Aside from this, the latter act backed out of the Vive Latino festival in Mexico City — one of the few major music events to go ahead in March. Members of Kyary’s talent agency, Asobisystem, declined to comment to The Japan Times.)

“We found out the day before the official announcement via our booking agent,” says Riki Tsuji, a staff member at Crypton Future Media, the creators of virtual pop act Miku. By that point, the company had already canceled a domestic show, and had to turn its attention to the North American Miku Expo tour.

“We immediately began looking at potential new dates for each city, and fortunately we were able to reschedule the entire tour without having to cut any stops,” Tsuji says, adding that the event is now set to take place this fall. “(But) we have definitely incurred direct financial losses through various cancellation fees and some sunk costs that could not be recovered for the rescheduled dates.”

The financial hit is something all artists and behind-the-scenes individuals have felt. Kimura says artists involved in the Japan Nite tour had already paid for U.S. P-1 performance visas, and all transportation, lodging and promotion had already been arranged. The event insurance, meanwhile, didn’t cover infectious disease outbreaks (a problem acts all over the world — including SXSW — have encountered).

Still, as tough as canceling would be financially, Kimura says it was the right move, considering health concerns, fears of international transit being stopped or even the prospect of everyone being quarantined for 14 days.

Affected artists have already started to find new ways to reach fans abroad in the wake of their cancellations. Haru Nemuri held an “Unused VISA” YouTube livestream on March 23, while Kyoto quartet Otoboke Beaver — which was planning to play SXSW — released a T-shirt directing ire at this strain of coronavirus.

“Although Coachella has not yet announced the full lineup for the new dates (in October), we have received confirmation from Coachella that Hatsune Miku will be performing at the October dates and have announced as such,” Tsuji says.

Kimura, meanwhile, is set on Japan Nite coming back.

“Let’s reschedule for 2021,” she says.

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