Music | Sound Off

The summer of our discontent

With major music festivals canceling across Japan, it's a chance to rethink the live experience

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing writer

With the news that this year’s Fuji Rock Festival would be postponed until 2021, summer 2020 became the season of no music in Japan.

Organizer Smash Japan’s decision to not hold the annual gathering at the Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata over COVID-19 concerns officially cleared this year’s once-crowded summer festival calendar. Rock In Japan Festival in Ibaraki Prefecture and Rising Sun Rock Festival in Hokkaido, two of the other cornerstones of the festival circuit, canceled earlier. Summer Sonic, typically held every August simultaneously in Osaka and Tokyo by event company Creativeman, had previously bowed out due to the Olympics, though it was — and still is — planning a slightly rebranded event called Supersonic scheduled for late September.

It’s not just the marquee festivals taking 2020 off, though. Dozens of smaller music gatherings across Japan that offered large-scale live experiences to those in places that don’t often get major music events are also off for the summer. Coupled with the majority of the country’s clubs and live music venues remaining closed, music fans should expect to spend a lot more time at home glued to the small screen, with air conditioning on full blast.

All corners of entertainment and leisure have been blindsided by the global pandemic. Movie theaters recently started to open again, but with far fewer summer blockbusters to screen. Professional sports leagues will recommence without fans in attendance, while beaches are being impacted, too. I hope you like terrestrial TV and streaming video — though, even those industries can’t create nearly as much new content due to safety concerns shutting down production.

However, live music and club culture face the hardest road to a “new normal.” Novel coronavirus clusters have been linked to live houses, clubs and other nightlife staples, which has led to people in the industry feeling demonized by those outside of it. Nevermind that artists and organizers — top level or underground — were among the first to adjust their behavior to the realities of COVID-19 back in late February. This corner of Japanese entertainment remains under scrutiny, with hotspots continuing to pop up and only adding to the attention.

Even as COVID-19 cases decrease and restrictions ease, the next three months will be about preserving venues that once flourished, and figuring out how to enjoy live music amid a global pandemic. In the past few weeks, Tokyo clubs such as Studio Coast/Ageha, Contact and Sound Museum Vision launched crowdfunding campaigns to ensure they could operate in the future (the first two met their goals, while Shibuya’s Vision is at 88 percent at time of writing). Yet plenty more, big and small, are still facing financial hurdles, and will have to find new ways to produce money in the months to come.

Re-opening is an option, and the Kansai region looks set to be the testing ground for live music. Already, mainstream clubs such as Pure and Giraffe Japan in Osaka’s Shinsaibashi neighborhood have started operating again, while a few shows have taken place as well, though these look like novelty solutions rather than anything that could be long-lasting. More venues will give it a go in the coming weeks, but it’s going to be trial and error.

Summer 2020, then, isn’t going to feel remotely normal for music fans. Rather, it’s a moment for the industry and community to rethink how everything works — from immediate safety concerns to bigger-picture questions about the importance non-Japanese artists play for clubs and festivals, and how to sustain local scenes when big foreign names aren’t available. Not quite as fun as catching Tame Impala on the Green Stage, but an important chance to chart a new way forward.

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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