Of all the cultural sacrifices we’ve had to make in the pandemic — movie theaters, stand-up comedy, music festivals — one of the most unfortunate has been the existence of Japan’s storied live houses.

Logging on to a streaming platform to watch an edition of Korona Nights may not feel the same as attending an underground music event in person — standing drink in hand and preparing your ears for the sonic onslaught — but with quality sound mixing and creative videography, it definitely has more bite than your average YouTube session. Plus, you can mix the drinks from the comfort of your own home and not have to worry about your ears ringing afterward.

The Korona Nights concert series is produced by Kaala, a group of independent music promoters based in Tokyo who decided to harness the power of pandemic-fueled tech innovations to keep fans, artists and live venues connected in a time of isolation.

Taking advantage of the Zaiko e-ticketing platform to host concerts online, Kaala has taken its film crew to such notable underground music spots as Earthdom in Tokyo’s Okubo neighborhood and El Puente in Yokohama, and streamed performances that fans can watch for a small fee. The funds go to helping the struggling live house venues.

“I don’t know of anyone that is doing a more stoic job of shutting their businesses down,” says Kaala founder Matt Ketchum, referring to the live house owners he normally works with to promote shows. “The venues are empty and they are suffering, but it comes from a place that is supportive to the community. They want to do what’s responsible.”

Most of Tokyo’s live houses do not meet the government’s coronavirus prevention criteria, popularly known as the “Three C’s”: closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowds and close-contact. Because of this, Ketchum says, “as much as we would want to promote normal shows with our partner venues, we just can’t.”

The hundreds of small live houses that make up the Japanese music scene are crucial to the industry, and particularly for up-and-coming artists. With these venues closed and bands losing their cherished outlets for community and expression, Ketchum felt that it was the duty of the promoters to do something to keep the scene alive. In late April, he hit on a practical solution.

“Technically the venues are still open for business and they are basically built like a studio,” he explains. “We figured we can do a safe audience-less concert and just film it, edit it and host it on Zaiko for fans.”

Kaala’s filming setup consists of a simple roll of duct tape and some popsicle sticks, with Ketchum filming it all on an iPhone 11 Pro Max, a GoPro Hero8 and an Osmo Mobile 3 gimbal for tracking shots. Ketchum then sends the raw footage off for editing to filmmaker and Kaala member Jorge Pacheco before the pre-filmed concert is uploaded to the Zaiko platform. Most shows also get professional sound mixing from Studio Chaosk Inc., the owner of which, Takanori Kubo, is a big name in sound capture for sumo events as well as being the bassist in death metal band Butcher ABC.

The final product is an interesting mixture of the raw, do-it-yourself ethos of Tokyo’s underground music scene, and the polished production value that millennials have grown up on — all made readily available by Zaiko’s streaming abilities.

Kaala’s concert series is still in its early phase, with Kaala having hosted five Zaiko streams since May 15, with the most recent concert being uploaded on Sept. 22 — available for viewing until Sept. 29. The e-concerts have been averaging an online audience of 30 plus viewers, which seems small until you consider that the typical underground gig in Tokyo tends to draw an average of 40 to 50 patrons on a good night.

E-tickets for Korona Nights go for ¥1,000 per viewer. Kaala originally planned to split the proceeds with the venues and bands, but decided to donate almost 100 percent of the profits to the venues in the end.

“The bands in the scene have day jobs, as do Kaala members, but the venues need the cash,” Ketchum explains, noting that venue owners usually have no other means of income. And it’s not like many of them were raking in the dough before the pandemic, either.

Indie spirit: Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kaala helped promote shows such as Nepenthes at Earthdom in Tokyo’s Okubo neighborhood. The group of independent music promoters is now taking its efforts to streaming platforms. | MICHAEL HOLMES
Indie spirit: Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kaala helped promote shows such as Nepenthes at Earthdom in Tokyo’s Okubo neighborhood. The group of independent music promoters is now taking its efforts to streaming platforms. | MICHAEL HOLMES

In its early efforts, Kaala has raised roughly ¥150,000 in support of the scene. According to Ketchum, however, this “is not even a drop in the bucket for the venues,” which make a lot of their profits off of drink sales. If the current situation continues, which some experts believe it will until a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available sometime next year, then Ketchum hopes that this alternate way of raising revenues could expand and possibly become a sustainable alternative to traditional models. Part of the dedication to a venue in the past meant fans had to actually get there, but could this new model collect smaller pockets of fans from across the country? Or even from overseas?

Ketchum himself is a prime example of the kind of music fan that small Japanese venues might be able to win over. A self-made promoter in the indie music scene, the 34-year-old, originally from Pittsburgh, has for the past five years been curating his own database of more than 3,000 bands and 850 venues in order to, in his words, “more easily pair bands with venues, and venues with audiences by using data, which removes the scattershot way that booking usually works.”

Having seen the wide range of talent in Japan, Ketchum says, “If you follow metal media, it is 99 percent U.S. and Western Europe (acts that are covered). It is super white and super Western. But with the database we’ve curated, it is clear that we have a huge scene and yet, despite that activity, it still receives next to no recognition from the international metal media.”

Ryo Yamada, singer of the band Guevnna and Ketchum’s long-time buddy, says his friend’s efforts are much-appreciated by acts who are normally shunned by specialist overseas media and mainstream music media in Japan.

“Most of Kaala is non-Japanese but still they try to support our scene. It means a lot to independent musicians in Japan,” Yamada says. “We often have language barriers when it comes to global promotion, but with people like Matt who have creative and persistent ideas about how to keep the scene active even during (the pandemic), it is something I really appreciate.”

Pacheco explains that “fans of a particular scene, often chat with each other saying, ‘You know, I love this band and that band,’ but we also say the same thing about ‘this venue or that venue.’ So, it is not only Kaala featuring artists that we and other fans enjoy, but, and this may sound corny, the romanticism of the venue itself also becomes important for fans who follow the scene. In that way, I think what we are doing is really meaningful.”

Ketchum sums up by noting that even if the streaming numbers aren’t breaking records, it keeps the scene moving, because if it stops moving “it’s going to stagnate and die.”

“We’ve seen the amazing things that people involved in this scene are capable of,” he says. “Not just musical performances, but gathering great people together who do a lot for each other, be that finding someone a job or just having a shoulder to cry on. This is a scene that provides so much for so many people. This scene has offered me so much that I can’t let it die.”

For more information about Kaala and Korona Nights, visit kaalamusic.com.

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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