Music

Tokyo DJs and owners say closing clubs to curb virus is easier said than done

by Chris Russell

Staff writer

With increasing focus on the need for social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic, attention is falling on venues turning customers away — or rather, those that aren’t.

As the outbreak worsened globally, Tokyo’s nightclubs, for the most part, continued with business as usual, creating a fissure within a dance music scene trying to balance social responsibilities with the precarious financial situation faced by artists and the venues they play at. Many venues remain open, or have simply closed on a short-term basis.

The debate began in earnest after Mindgames, the organizers of the Labyrinth techno festival, published an impassioned blog post on March 16 highlighting the dangers posed by COVID-19 and saying that all of Tokyo’s clubs should close their doors.

“Tricked into complacency, almost all the major Tokyo clubs are still running like normal, causing a huge public risk for every person in this city,” the statement said.

Subsequent tweets by techno scene figurehead DJ Nobu on the need for social distancing further highlighted the issue and increased the pressure on venues hesitant to make a change.

Clubs in particular are potential hotspots for the spread of the virus, as they typically have poor ventilation, shared toilets and limited personal space. And in order to talk to anyone, club-goers must violate all social distancing rules by leaning in close to each other in order to be heard. Add a few drinks into the equation and things can get messy.

Following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s call on Feb. 26. for large-scale cultural events to be canceled, WWW was one of the first music venues to take the step of axing or postponing events. Vent made a similar move March 23 when it announced it would close from March 27 through April 10. Clubs and bars including Contact and Azumaya, both in Shibuya Ward, also announced temporary closures in the wake of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s request last week that residents of the capital refrain from nonessential trips outside over the past weekend.

On Feb. 28, Global Hearts, owner of clubs such as Contact and Vision, instituted a new policy of checking temperatures and having attendees sterilize their hands before and after entering the venue. Since the policy came into effect, Contact continued to host eye-catching events including a set by the U.K.’s Jamie XX and a party by livestreaming platform Boiler Room.

Vent and Contact were in “full panic mode” following the Mindgames statement and DJ Nobu’s tweets, said a DJ and promoter who frequently performs at both venues, speaking on condition of anonymity. Turnout at a recent Vent party was about half of what the event usually attracts, they said, a sign that at least some were going through with social distancing even before Koike’s appeal.

Some Japanese dance music institutions have taken more drastic action. The organizers of the Rainbow Disco Club festival, for example, canceled this year’s edition, instead opting to host a livestream concert on April 18 featuring some of the DJs that were meant to perform. A factor behind the decision to cancel the festival was the risk of critical financial damage, with costs already having reached ¥20 million and any addition to that figure threatening the festival’s long-term future.

“We will suffer all of the loss (from the cancellation) this time,” festival founder Masahiro Tsuchiya told The Japan Times. “It can be said the loss is extremely large.”

Such financial woes speak to other threats from the spread of the new coronavirus — loss of bookings, ticket and drink sales and other sources of income for clubs and artists. Smaller venues in particular do not necessarily have the financial clout of a large company behind them to bail them out if things get really bad. Fees for many DJs, meanwhile, are low to nonexistent. Nonetheless, some have consequently found themselves in a real bind.

“Currently, I’m just about getting by financially with my DJ fee as my main income. If this is cut off, I won’t even be able to pay next month’s rent because I have no savings,” wrote Yousuke Yukimatsu on March 18 in a widely circulated Twitter thread, in which he called for government support for those in similarly precarious positions.

Tsuchiya, whose festival hasn’t received any assistance from the government, makes a similar point, saying not just the music industry but all sectors suffering amid the pandemic need government support.

“Maybe it’s necessary to immediately stop business, but there are a lot of business people, artists and so on that can’t… I think they can’t because financial assistance hasn’t been provided,” he says.

The party's over: Nightclubs such as WWW in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, which are mainstay venues for the capital's dance music scene, have struggled with having to cancel or postpone events due to the coronavirus pandemic. | CHRIS RUSSELL
The party’s over: Nightclubs such as WWW in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, which are mainstay venues for the capital’s dance music scene, have struggled with having to cancel or postpone events due to the coronavirus pandemic. | CHRIS RUSSELL

For his part, DJ Nobu has been lobbying lawmakers, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, over the issue, and a #SaveOurSpace petition was also launched, attracting 90,000 signatures by Sunday night, with a goal of reaching 100,000 by Monday evening.

For those who still feel the need to go ahead with their events despite knowing the risks, it’s not an easy choice.

“I was mentally affected on a couple of occasions where I couldn’t cancel events,” says Yasuyuki Shinohara, who performs under the name of DJ Poipoi. “I had to put the health of customers and the artists in jeopardy … (and) not to sound arrogant, but (canceling) … may be an example for others to follow.”

The negative effects from the coronavirus can also manifest in lost opportunities. DJ and producer Noboru Okuda, who goes by the artist name Wrack, has been hit by the virus twice over: first after he had to cancel an anticipated performance in Tokyo by up-and-coming Chinese artist Dirty K, and subsequently when his tour of Mexico as part of the 10th anniversary celebrations of the acclaimed Mexican label Naafi was postponed.

“For myself, it’s regrettable and annoying that the party and tour didn’t turn out well. But now, as an artist, it’s switched over to a feeling of it being a time to elevate my production and skill at home,” says Okuda.

Clubs and the scenes that grow around them are also not just places of entertainment but of community as well. Shinohara says that while people still go out and many events proceed as planned in Shinjuku Ni-chome, a gay-friendly district where he often DJs, the outbreak has “devastated” the mood there, particularly among the staff who work in the area.

“I’m very worried because Ni-chome is highly dependent on nightlife and the outbreak will have an impact on our community and the city’s history,” he says.

As with so many other areas of society, the pandemic has confronted fans and people in the music industry with a need — and possibly a chance — to recalibrate the way the sector works. However, the effects stemming from the club scene’s precariousness will be felt first.

“An extremely big scar has already been left,” says Tsuchiya. “As it is, the number of people that can’t wait for the next chance may increase a lot, and I’m anxious about the possibility that even the form of artistic activity known as music will change.”

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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