Music

Live-house culture won't cede the stage to COVID-19

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

On March 5, Seiichi Yamamoto shut the doors at Bears, a music venue in Osaka’s Namba district that he’s run for the past 34 years, and played to an empty room.

The 61-year-old musician, a veteran of bands such as Rovo, Boredoms, Omoide Hatoba and Most, posted an announcement for the “no-audience gig” on Twitter, accompanied by a photo of himself in a face mask with a bottle of hand sanitizer: “5pm start, no live stream! The doors to Bears will be closed, so nobody can come in.”

At the time, COVID-19 was only just beginning to exert its influence over Japan’s live music scene. By the end of the month, almost the entire industry was in shutdown, mirroring trends seen in many other countries.

Osaka got off to a head start, after a large cluster of infections was traced to some music venues in the city during February. The story drew extensive media coverage, creating an indelible link in the public’s mind between the coronavirus and Japan’s smaller live music venues, known as raibu hausu (“live houses”).

“It made people wary of Osaka live houses, in particular,” says Yamamoto. “They had the strongest association with infection, so they were the first places that people started to stay away from.”

The effect, he says, was instantaneous. Though Bears tried to continue as usual for the next few weeks, “the place was virtually empty.”

Yamamoto’s closed-door show came after a planned gig by a touring artist from South Korea was canceled at the last minute. He declines to reveal what he actually played on the night.

“The idea was to let people who saw the gig announcement imagine it for themselves,” he says. Some of his pals on the music scene were sufficiently intrigued to ask if they could buy tickets after the fact, so he started selling them via the Bears website, as a way of raising donations to support the venue.

As crowdfunding campaigns go, it was unorthodox. By all accounts, it’s gone pretty well.

“It would be boring if we did the same things as everyone else,” Yamamoto says.

That’s been the guiding principle for Bears since it first opened in 1986. At the time, Yamamoto was playing guitar with Boredoms, a chaotic noise-punk outfit that would soon acquire an international following.

Though it got off to a shaky start, over the space of a few years, Bears carved out a reputation as a bastion for underground music in Osaka.

As the mainstream industry went through one of its periodic “band booms,” Bears became a haven for acts too wild or weird to get booked anywhere else. It was a natural home for representatives of Japan’s burgeoning noise and psychedelic rock scenes, and a testing ground for new projects that often flamed out as soon as they’d started.

“The concept for Bears has always been to provide a place where you can hear music that doesn’t sound like anyone else,” says Yamamoto. “I don’t think that’s changed over the years.”

“Our friends in bands overseas thought of Bears as this kind of sacred spot run by one of the members of Boredoms, and everyone would talk about how they wanted to play there,” says YoshimiO, another veteran of the band. “I thought that if they actually came, they’d be in for a shock.”

Like many fabled live venues, the reality of Bears is more humdrum: just a single, scuffed-up basement room with a low stage and space for about 80 people.

“If you squeeze 100 in there, the air gets thin and cigarette lighters stop working,” says Yamamoto.

Yet at the peak of its popularity in the 1990s, it was a crucial hub for anyone with a taste for the unorthodox. While most of the performers were local, Bears drew touring acts from around Japan, as well as regular visitors from alternative music scenes in the United States.

Desperate measures: Seiichi Yamamoto has employed some unusual methods of crowdfunding in his bid to help keep Namba Bears afloat. | SEIICHI YAMAMOTO (COURTESY OF SEIICHI YAMAMOTO)
Desperate measures: Seiichi Yamamoto has employed some unusual methods of crowdfunding in his bid to help keep Namba Bears afloat. | SEIICHI YAMAMOTO (COURTESY OF SEIICHI YAMAMOTO)

Yamamoto says money is a lot tighter these days, due to increased competition and demographic trends. With three regular staff and five part-timers, plus rent and utilities, he says the venue’s monthly costs are typically around ¥1 million (“and that’s cutting it fine,” he adds).

“Most months, we don’t even make that much,” he says. “The artists who play at Bears are all real oddballs ― they’re too underground ― so we don’t get many customers.”

Since shuttering the venue, its income has dropped to zero, but many of the overheads remain. Yamamoto says Bears is able to receive a ¥1 million subsidy from the government, as well as ¥500,000 in financial support from Osaka Prefecture, given to businesses that have complied with requests to temporarily close.

“It’s only enough to keep us going for about a month, but it’s better than nothing,” he says.

June sees the release of a benefit compilation, titled “Nihon Kaiho” (“Free Japan”), featuring artists from the extended Bears family, including Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O, Masonna and YoshimiO’s OOIOO. It was put together by Mahito The People, the frontman for alternative rock group Gezan, which played some of its earliest shows at the venue.

Yamamoto says it has been 20 years since he took an active role in running Bears, describing his involvement now as “more like a consultant.” With his own gig itinerary also on hold, he’s been meeting more frequently with the venue’s staff, who are currently working other part-time jobs.

“I’m constantly thinking about how this is going to change things for live houses, and what kind of form they may be able to continue in,” he says.

He says that Bears plans to reopen in July, with masks and disinfectant at the ready. Avoiding the so-called “Three Cs” — closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded conditions, and conversations in close proximity — is going to be harder.

“If live houses try to strictly observe the ‘Three Cs,’ it will be impossible for them to do business,” Yamamoto says. “We’d probably only be able to have about 10 people on the floor.”

For live houses, the new normal may mean accepting a measure of risk, or going out of business.

“The coronavirus won’t disappear, and that means our only option is to learn how to live with it,” Yamamoto says. “Rather than imposing excessive restrictions, I think live houses have to carry on doing what they’ve always done.”

For more information, visit http://namba-bears.main.jp.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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