Sho Suzuki saw what lay ahead for Tokyo’s live music community well before the government issued any state of emergency over COVID-19. All he had to do was look at Club Asia and three other venues operated by parent company Culture of Asia, at which he works as Space Division Director.
“Organizers were getting in touch with us from early March to postpone or cancel events,” says Suzuki. “The audiences for the parties that went on that month decreased by about half.”
By the end of that month, the Culture of Asia family of clubs — which also includes Glad, Lounge Neo and Vuenos — had closed, following the country’s state of emergency going into effect. As May arrived, Suzuki and his team had some tough choices to make.
“We had to continue paying fixed costs, such as rent. It was really hard maintaining four clubs when you don’t know when this will all end,” says Suzuki. In the end, the decision was taken to close the three smaller venues and focus on saving Club Asia via crowdfunding.
The company turned to crowdfunding via Campfire. Owing to how vital it has been to the community, the venue’s campaign breezed by its target in just a few hours, putting it more than 600 percent over its initial goal. Suzuki says this made everyone involved feel so grateful.
“But … we can’t rely on crowdfunding anymore, and we need to come up with new ways of making profits,” he says. So far, Suzuki says the club has received some government assistance alongside a special loan, but he wishes it could get more support toward rent, the biggest cost for any Shibuya venue. “That’s our biggest issue, and that’s something not just clubs are dealing with.”
The case of the Culture of Asia group offers a microcosm of how Tokyo and Japan’s music community is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Clubs and live houses across the country have closed down for the time being, and many aren’t sure when they’ll be holding events again. Club Asia and its family of spaces show how the whole industry is coping, while also offering a glance at what everything might look like when a new normal is established.
Club Asia opened in the Dogenzaka neighborhood of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward in 1996, and has been a hub for the city’s local dance community ever since.
“When I was 19 … underage … I tried to get into Goth-Trad’s ‘Back To Chill’ monthly dubstep night, maybe back in 2012. The security guy said, ‘No way.’ I was super sad,” Seimei Kawai, co-founder of electronic label Trekkie Trax, says of his first attempt at entering the venue.
In the years to come, Kawai and his label grew, in part thanks to the Culture of Asia venues. He says Trekkie Trax held its first anniversary party at Lounge Neo in 2013, and by the time it reached its seventh anniversary, it had graduated to Club Asia.
“Those venues support local musicians and DJs,” he says, adding that getting to play the main Club Asia venue stood as a massive achievement for his crew. That’s a sentiment many Japanese artists have felt as they moved up the ranks of the city’s live community. “We feel like Club Asia and the other clubs are like moms and dads. They helped us grow.”
But the health of the wider club community is starting to feel cloudy. There’s no timetable for venues opening up, and recent viral flare-ups at nightclubs in South Korea show how fraught the idea of starting up again actually is. Suzuki says the industry as a whole won’t get back to normal immediately, and that “it will shrink to half the size of what it was before.”
He thinks clubs will have to start doing day and night events to recoup, and that online streams — which have proliferated since the outbreak started — should also still be broadcast for those not comfortable going out.
Kawai sees another potential change, this time actually connecting directly to what makes Club Asia important in the first place.
“Clubs that depend on visitors from other countries … or artists from abroad … are going to have to rebrand their clubs to support more local acts,” he says.
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