This time last year, the world started to become aware of a new virus spreading in one region of China, which was already taking steps to contain it. One of the first widely publicized iterations of measures to guard against the virus in the entertainment world was probably the late January cancellation of Cantopop star Andy Lau’s 12-show run of concerts in Hong Kong in February.

“Sorry about this,” Lau wrote on his website. “I wish that everyone will remain healthy, and that we get through this difficulty together.”

Other concerts in the region were promptly canceled as the burgeoning epidemic interfered with logistics: Freight and travel restrictions enacted in China made it impossible for tours to fulfill their production requirements. Two of Hong Kong’s biggest tourist attractions, Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park, closed, even though the number of infections in the territory was still modest. The virus was already having a significant effect on the region’s economies, which depended in part on large groups of people gathering in the same place at the same time.

In 2018, the Asia events industry was valued at $273.8 billion, with revenue predicted to more than double by 2026, especially in the concert and corporate events sectors. That prediction is now conditional on how the industry addresses the pandemic, and, though the response has been varied, for many businesses the changes implemented over the past 12 months may end up being permanent ones, regardless of how COVID-19 plays out.

Japan was relatively late in its response owing to various factors, including a desire to continue with preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which have since been postponed to 2021. The first major concert cancellation in Japan was an arena tour by the local pop punk trio Wanima after a fan at a Fukuoka show tested positive for the virus.

Overseas artists in rapid succession canceled Asian concert tours, which often included dates in Japan. Then, after employees of Arc, a small venue in Osaka, tested positive, concert halls started closing. Some smaller “live houses,” whose financial stability is by definition precarious, eventually made their closures permanent. The same pattern of response affected theater plays, classical music and other performance arts. Some tours moved their dates to the fall, by which point, promoters hoped, the pandemic would have run its course. Summer music festivals kept selling tickets before suddenly being called off, ostensibly because it didn’t look as if the virus would be under control, although the real reason was government restrictions on inbound visitors. The overseas artists who were the main draw for these festivals simply weren’t allowed into the country.

The situation remains static, according to Johnnie Moylett, who works for concert promoter Smash Inc. He says that while Smash is now gradually restarting live shows featuring domestic artists, they don’t see any overseas acts coming to Japan until May 2021 at the earliest.

“We will definitely hold Fuji Rock Festival next August,” he says, referring to one of Japan’s biggest summer music festivals. “What shape it will take, we still don’t know. There may be more domestic artists than usual. All we know is that we will do it.”

Even now, the live shows Smash is organizing have restrictions.

“Social distancing,” says Moylett, “maximum audience size is half the venue’s capacity, people have to be 2 meters apart and can’t move out of their space. They can clap but can’t shout.”

In order to maintain the Fuji Rock brand during the live music drought, Smash started showing live streams of past festival performances for free on a special YouTube channel, which proved to be popular but a lot of work. And, like most promoters, Smash also started doing paid streamed concerts, which makes more sense for domestic artists than for foreign ones. If you want to watch a live stream, you have to watch it at a certain time, when the link is open. For overseas acts, because of the time difference, most paid online content has been either pre-recorded or specially designed for Japan.

Hybrid events

The challenge for online content is monetization, especially in the live performance sector, where consumer preferences tend to be fixated on a certain model. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Tokyo tech startup Zaiko, whose mission is to customize ticketing solutions, has been offering clients a variety of online options.

“In February, we noticed a lot of our events were being canceled,” says Zaiko’s Lauren Rose Kocher. “So we started putting a video component on the ticketing page. You buy a ticket and put it up to your phone and it opens a video of a show. No one was doing that at the time — selling ticket access to a video stream.”

From there, Zaiko worked directly with artists to help them maintain contact with fans, often in innovative ways.

Lauren Rose Kocher of Tokyo tech startup Zaiko began offering ticketed video streams early on in the pandemic as a way of allowing people to still see the artists they love. | MASUNORI NARUSE
Lauren Rose Kocher of Tokyo tech startup Zaiko began offering ticketed video streams early on in the pandemic as a way of allowing people to still see the artists they love. | MASUNORI NARUSE

“We’re doing a lot of hybrid events now,” says Kocher. “You have a show at a venue, and then a week later you sell a ticket to an online viewing event that the artist is also watching, and joining in on the discussion — they’re watching their own performance with their fans. It’s not a replacement for a concert, but something different.”

Due to the experimental nature of these presentations, Zaiko has found that independent artists in Japan tend to be more open to the idea, although some major international acts, including the K-pop juggernaut BTS, are presenting relatively sophisticated paid online concerts that attract global audiences.

China’s Tencent Holdings recently purchased a minority share in U.S. startup Wave, which has developed special online concert technology incorporating avatars. Tencent will use the technology for its live performance brand TME Live.

“Things like tipping artists online,” Kocher says. “That’s a very Asian thing. I just feel as if Asia is leaping ahead of whatever America and Europe are doing at the moment.”

A full festival experience

This sudden reliance on digital technology could be said to have saved the 2020 edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival. Many major film festivals, including Cannes and Venice, were either canceled or downsized this year. The organizers of TIFF had more time to think of ways to address the pandemic, since the festival is held in the fall.

“We started worrying about it in March,” TIFF Chairman Hiroyasu Ando says. “And then the situation got continuously worse. It wasn’t until August that we decided to proceed.”

Due to the coronavirus, many sponsors, which normally cover 50% of the budget, pulled out. Fortunately, public institutions maintained or increased their contributions. Still, the budget was significantly smaller.

One thing was for sure: They couldn’t invite foreign filmmakers and press due to inbound restrictions. But, as Ando explains, they still wanted a full festival experience.

“After July, theaters started opening again, now with strict safety measures, but people still stayed away,” Ando says. “TIFF’s mission was to show that people could return and enjoy movies in real theaters.”

That meant working closely with local authorities to safeguard attendees.

“We canceled the parties and receptions, and used online streaming services for the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as for the talk shows and symposiums,” he says.

Film director Hirokazu Kore-eda was one of the many people to participate in the 2020 Tokyo International Film Festival's program of online events. | © 2020 TIFF
Film director Hirokazu Kore-eda was one of the many people to participate in the 2020 Tokyo International Film Festival’s program of online events. | © 2020 TIFF

The online component of TIFF, which was free, proved to be surprisingly successful. Almost 1 million people logged in to TIFF content, thus expanding the reach of the festival beyond those who attended screenings.

In contrast, the larger Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, which took place a week earlier and also centered on theatrical screenings, remained a relatively closed affair, with online content mostly available to festival attendees only.

Schmooze factor

Online access, however, is more problematic when it comes to business transactions, and the exhibition and conference industry, which relies on large groups of people converging on one place, is still adjusting to the new normal, according to Takeshi Tanaka, president of Reed Exhibitions Japan, the largest exhibition organizer in Japan.

“After April, when the government made an emergency declaration, we were unable to rent venues for exhibitions for almost half a year,” says Tanaka. “In August, we started doing some exhibitions, and we usually count on 3,000 to 6,000 foreign visitors per show. Now, it was impossible for them to attend.”

Reed, which has held more than 100 exhibitions since September throughout Japan, devised a “hybrid platform” combining a physical edition and an online edition.

“We set up the booths for the exhibitors, with their brochures, posters and products that they sent to us,” Tanaka says. “If buyers had specific questions, we connected them via the online platform with the help of interpreters so they could do business. Most of our business is in professional trade shows, meaning the products require specialized consultation, so it’s difficult.”

Lily Ono, Tokyo representative of Reed Midem, which organizes international conferences, including MIPCOM, the worldwide TV content market, and MIPIM, a real estate and property event, both held in Cannes, France, says the lack of face-to-face interaction is making business challenging.

“Our business is more intimate,” Ono says. “People are buying and selling, and that’s hard to do online. If they know exactly what they want, they don’t have to be there. They can just exchange emails, but it’s difficult to expand their business and find new clients. That’s the real value of in-person meetings.”

Conferences and exhibitions, often attracting thousands of attendees, have been hit hard by the pandemic, with the need to avoid crowded areas becoming ever more apparent. | REED EXHIBITIONS JAPAN
Conferences and exhibitions, often attracting thousands of attendees, have been hit hard by the pandemic, with the need to avoid crowded areas becoming ever more apparent. | REED EXHIBITIONS JAPAN

Conferences also inherently incorporate what can only be termed a schmooze factor — the idea of businesspeople getting together just for the sake of getting together.

“Creating those kinds of relationships is hard online,” says Ono, and while her company also created an online environment, it required adherence to strict regulations governing digital conferences that, in turn, necessitated hiring specialists to manage it all.

Reed Midem trusts that MIPCOM will return to Cannes next October, but Ono realizes that the situation has already changed.

“This pandemic presents a very specific set of challenges,” she says. “You have to make decisions more precisely and more quickly.

Scarcity value

TIFF’s Ando believes the virus has altered the festival’s outlook, and for the better.

“Nothing can replace real in-person interaction, but we definitely want to make use of these online services again next year, even if the COVID-19 crisis is over,” he says. “The pandemic was a big problem, but it made us think about the future of film festivals.”

For the concert industry, matters might be trickier.

“I look at archive shows and gasp at how close people are to each other,” Moylett says. “I’m not sure if everyone will go for that anymore.”

Even after the pandemic, concerts will likely continue with the dual online-offline style.

“The big festivals will come back, but probably in a different way,” Moylett says. “The emphasis could be more along the lines of a special form of entertainment rather than the festival experience itself.”

Nevertheless, he insists that Fuji Rock Festival’s perennial fans still look forward to that experience.

Kocher thinks the future is already here.

“We’ve got a ton of hybrid events on the Zaiko page,” she says. “Everything depends on how consumer behavior changes. A lot of customers have young children or they live far from cities. Some are older and don’t feel like going out. Some are differently abled.”

In other words, not everyone who wants to watch concerts necessarily wants to go to them. By trying to stay afloat during a catastrophe that compelled people to avoid one another, the events industry has realized that certain users may prefer such options.

“But in order for it to be worth paying for, it has to have a scarcity value,” Kocher says. “On the internet everything is infinitely reproducible, so you have to force that scarcity.”

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