The Japanese music industry has been hit particularly hard by the global outbreak of COVID-19. Ever since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested on Feb. 26 that organizers of large public events consider postponing or canceling gatherings in order to curb the spread of the virus, the country’s music world has existed in limbo.
After speaking casually with some people working in the industry, it’s apparent that many of them currently have less to do. What has increased is uncertainty. Nobody knows when large-scale shows will resume, and plans for the year have been thrown off course by the pandemic. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s recent call for people to avoid live houses and nightclubs further underlines the difficult situation artists and music companies find themselves in.
One silver lining has emerged from all this, however. Due to disruption in the way the industry has operated for years, major Japanese music companies and artists have been forced to think of new ways to connect with fans at a time when physical distance is preferred.
The pandemic has nudged the industry toward embracing digital platforms, sparking innovation from a music market often allergic to the concept.
Japan’s concert market has been an area of growth over the past few years, providing an influx of money for both companies and artists at a time when CD sales have been in decline. It was, therefore, a considerable economic blow to J-pop acts who have had to take a break from live performances.
The music industry, though, proved to be among the first to get on board with nationwide virus-curbing efforts by canceling most major concerts. It was a financial sacrifice, but one that probably played a significant role in keeping Japan’s rate of contagion low in early March. Though a music fan with COVID-19 attended a show by pop-punk trio Wanima in Fukuoka in February, it appears this didn’t develop into a cluster of cases.
To make up for the lack of music events, companies have embraced platforms that were once shunned. In particular, they are turning to YouTube. Artists such as rap group Bad Hop, rocker Haru Nemuri and virtual idol Kaf held concerts in empty venues that were broadcast live on the video-streaming site, attracting thousands of viewers.
More established acts, meanwhile, uploaded entire concert performances from the past to YouTube to fill the void. They included bands such as Sakanaction, as well as acts on the punk-pop Pizza Of Death Records label and those with heavyweight agency Avex, with the latter premiering multiple shows from the likes of Ayumi Hamasaki, AAA and Ai Otsuka among others. All of the aforementioned participants have long been anxious about heading in a digital direction, but at a time when many customers are finding they have no choice but to turn to the web for entertainment, those providing the entertainment need to follow.
The biggest change of heart has come via Johnny & Associates, a talent agency once known for shunning the internet to the point that you couldn’t even see images of their bands’ album covers on Amazon. Recently, Johnny’s put on a series of live YouTube shows titled “Johnny’s World Happy LIVE With YOU,” that allowed fans staying in to watch their favorite pop groups (including Arashi) perform and deliver tips on how to wash their hands.
Elsewhere, rock trio Cero has teamed up with digital ticketing company Zaiko to create “Contemporary http Cruise,” a live set from the band that fans could watch by paying for access. It proved to be a success, bringing in several thousand live viewers and more afterward who watched an archived stream. Zaiko will do something similar with this year’s Rainbow Disco Club dance music festival in April.
The societal norms forced upon many as a result of COVID-19 are bound to linger even after a vaccine has been found. Perhaps we’ll also find an industry more open to new experiments once we get to the other side.
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