Music | Sound Off

Musicians and DJs fight against COVID-19 closures and learn to live it up online

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

“We’re going to take a break for 15 minutes and ventilate the place,” says Natsuki Kido, guitarist for virtuosic prog-rock trio Korekyojinn. It’s a Wednesday evening in mid-April, and the band is playing to an empty room — and an online audience of a few hundred — at Club Goodman in Tokyo’s Akihabara district.

A well-trafficked stop on the underground rock circuit, Club Goodman was one of the first venues in the city to shut down in response to the current coronavirus outbreak. Like many small businesses that have seen their main source of income evaporate, it has been trying to adapt.

In the early days of the outbreak, clubs and live music venues were quickly singled out as places to avoid. Often cramped and poorly ventilated — which is to say nothing of the state of the toilets — they are ideal environments for viral transmission, as was demonstrated when a cluster of infections was traced to some venues in Osaka.

Show must go on: Soichi Terada managed to make an appearance at the Rainbow Disco Club event, despite the COVID-19 situation. | YUTARO TAGAWA
Show must go on: Soichi Terada managed to make an appearance at the Rainbow Disco Club event, despite the COVID-19 situation. | YUTARO TAGAWA

Although it feels foolish to make any predictions, it seems safe to say that clubbing and gig-going are unlikely to return anytime soon, at least not in a conventional format. For artists, promoters, venue staff, technical crew and everyone else whose livelihoods depend on the industry, this is dire news.

It also poses a more existential question: Is it possible to sustain a live scene when all the participants are physically dispersed? Can the intrinsic qualities of gigs and parties — the immediacy, the sense of connection fostered by experiencing something in the company of others — be replicated in the virtual realm?

Over the past few weeks, there have been a few glimmers of an answer. It doesn’t involve artists uploading old concert footage to YouTube, though there’s been plenty of that going on too, from Ryuichi Sakamoto to Wednesday Campanella.

Some big-name acts, like Sakanaction and One OK Rock, have tried to make an occasion out of it by releasing concert movies as one-off broadcasts, meaning fans are all watching at the same time. But it’s no substitute for being there — and anyway, who wants to be reminded of how much more fun everyone was having before COVID-19 came along?

A more valiant, if financially perilous, alternative is for artists to go ahead with scheduled shows without the audience. The grandest of these to date has been hip-hop crew Bad Hop, who performed to an empty Yokohama Arena on March 1, then held a crowdfunding campaign to recoup some of the costs. Other examples include pop group E-girls — which had to cut short a nationwide farewell tour — and metal band Dir En Grey.

There’s a surreal quality to these events, somewhere between dress rehearsal and meta commentary on the art of live performance. While the musicians sometimes sheepishly acknowledge the oddness of it all, or respond to online comments, the most heroic are those who carry on regardless. (The gold standard for this is veteran rock act X Japan, which pioneered the no-audience format in 2018 after a typhoon forced it to cancel an arena show.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the living room gig, beamed in directly from your favorite artist’s smartphone. Already familiar from the “Together At Home” series of virtual concerts, the format has begun to find adherents in Japan as well, even if none of them have an abode as fancy as John Legend.

The recent Block Festival, hosted by Japanese internet label Block.fm, enlisted performers including Chara and Sirup to perform sets at home, which were streamed via broadcast app Line Live. That it was rife with technical glitches somehow added to the charm, as did Chara and her son doing a cover of the Bill Withers staple “Lean on Me” (take that, Stevie Wonder!).

For DJs, livestreaming was already well-established before the age of lockdown, but creating something that feels like a party can require some creative thinking.

Outdoor dance party Rainbow Disco Club attempted it on April 18, staging a 12-hour streaming event filmed at its regular location on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The fact that the footage — available as a paid stream on e-ticketing platform Zaiko — was clearly pre-recorded took a bit of the excitement out of it, but being able to watch the online response in real time still made it feel like an event of sorts. And while an attempt to create a virtual dance floor on conferencing app Zoom didn’t really work, I counted about half a dozen people dancing in their living rooms during Soichi Terada’s joyous late-afternoon set, myself included.

In these constrained times, a little imagination goes a long way. A Twitter user named @akd_asr posted a video clip recently that recreates the experience of walking into a loud club, using nothing but a smartphone, a Bluetooth speaker and a fridge. Who said you can’t have fun at home?

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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