Summer music festivals will happen in Japan this year, even if they look nothing like they did just two years ago.

“We have lots of rules this year,” Creativeman President Naoki Shimizu tells The Japan Times about his production company’s Supersonic gathering, a post-Olympics version of its trademark Summer Sonic event held simultaneously in Chiba and Osaka prefectures. “We will have to check everyone’s temperature, first. Capacity will be limited. And alcohol … we probably can’t have alcohol at the festival.”

Supersonic won’t be the only party to lengthen its list of prohibitions. Fuji Rock Festival, for example, plans to curb cheering at its summer event. Hit hard over the past year by the COVID-19 pandemic, Shimizu says requirements like these are necessary if the live music industry is ever going to stage a comeback.

“This year, we’re trying to bring 30 artists,” Shimizu says of Creativeman’s own Supersonic effort, in which 10 acts will be spread out over three days. At the time of interview, he says around 80 percent of the lineup has been confirmed, though he’s staying silent on who until the roster is officially announced.

Like many live music promoters, Creativeman had a terrible 2020. Heading into the year, the company was on a bit of a roll as Summer Sonic’s 20th anniversary edition in 2019 had been a huge success, drawing in 300,000 people over three days. In January 2020, it saw a four-night tour from Queen and Adam Lambert sell out, getting Shimizu even more pumped about what would be possible in the coming months.

It was around this time last year, however, that the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan went from being a China story to an Asia one — and then to a global crisis. Overseas acts began postponing their Japan shows in February, and as the situation continued to escalate the cancelations only increased. Creativeman primarily organizes concerts featuring international artists, so this slow descent into a modern-day sakoku (closed-door) Japan that more closely resembled a time when the country was closed to foreign influence, Shimizu says jokingly, put them in a tough spot.

On top of that, nobody knew how long the pandemic would last. For months, Creativeman moved ahead as if Supersonic 2020 would be happening, and even released a poster with a full lineup of international acts such as The 1975 and Black Eyed Peas. But behind the scenes, it became clear that as borders remained closed, the Olympics were postponed and infection rates rose, none of the performers were going to be able to get out of their own countries, much less get into Japan.

Creativeman wasn’t alone. Festivals — music, film and even traditional — all took a year off, plunging many companies, clubs and artists into precarious financial situations. Many — including Creativeman — turned to crowdfunding sites such as Campfire as a way to supplement losses. Others, such as the artists themselves, received assistance from the government.

“Domestic artists could receive government assistance, but international promoters couldn’t,” Shimizu says. Creativeman, along with nine other prominent international promoters such as Smash, Live Nation Japan and Avex Live Creative, wouldn’t receive support despite being responsible for some of the biggest music gatherings of the year.

“Normally, we are fighting with one another as rivals, but we had to unite,” Shimizu says.

New rules: Among the regulations summer festivalgoers are likely to encounter are temperature checks, mask requests and little to no alcohol sales.  | ELLE HARRIS
New rules: Among the regulations summer festivalgoers are likely to encounter are temperature checks, mask requests and little to no alcohol sales. | ELLE HARRIS

Since late last year, Creativeman and other promoters came together to push the government to change its stance on supporting them. Besides direct appeals, Shimizu says they blitzed the media — reaching out to TV stations and publishers, while also highlighting the issue on Twitter and on the audio platform Clubhouse — in order to make music fans aware of their plight and get the public on their side.

Mission accomplished. After getting attention, with Shimizu himself handling the bulk of interviews for domestic press, the government reversed course and began offering up support to international promoters in late March. It was a massive development for companies putting on some of the nation’s biggest events.

Now Shimizu and the rest of Japan’s festival organizers will get the chance to see if a mass-music gathering is possible in a country where cases have recently been spiking and a vaccine rollout still hasn’t hit its stride. Late April and early May offered up early test cases to see how the return of these events would fare, and the results have been mixed.

The Arabaki Rock Fest., planned to be held near Sendai from April 30 to May 2, was canceled for the second straight year after the government introduced a new state of emergency in response to a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases. Japan Jam in Chiba, meanwhile, took place from May 2 through 5, offering a potential preview of how larger summer festivals might play out via temperature checks and reduced capacity. While the situation at the outdoor venue seemed fine, media reports focused on crowding at nearby train stations and complaints from nearby residents.

Shimizu’s Creativeman assisted with Japan Jam, though the main promoter in charge was Rockin’ On Holdings, which is behind the nation’s largest overall summer festival, Rockin’On Japan.

“I think they lost a huge amount of money from this, but they decided they had to do it. They had to get summer festivals started again,” he says.

While the focus for the next few months will be on making sure festivals happen safely while still delivering familiar seasonal vibes to punters, Shimizu says the pandemic has changed the way live music will move forward in Japan. For Creativeman, it has forced a reassessment of the idea of large-scale events centered on overseas acts. The company has dabbled in digital spaces, such as concert livestreams, and recently launched an artist management company working toward cultivating domestic acts. Part of this is for practical reasons envisioned for a post-pandemic world — Creativeman owns a venue, Space Odd in Daikanyama, and it needs acts to play there.

It’s also a result, however, of another revelation underlined by the past year.

“If you look at the Spotify Japan chart, 95 percent of it is domestic,” Shimizu says. “Before, it used to be closer to 70 percent, but since there are no shows, it has shifted.”

Shimizu sees the benefit of leaning into this, and believes that, moving forward, trying to take acts abroad could be more viable.

That’s a lot of change for Creativeman and live music in Japan at large, but summer festivals remain vital for the industry. Shimizu’s goal is to pull off a successful Supersonic and then turn to bringing its marquee Summer Sonic event back for 2022. International and domestic artists, after all, are going to want to shine on the biggest stage possible in the “new normal.”

For more information on Supersonic, visit Creativeman’s website.

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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