Two years ago I wrote about how the Fuji Rock Festival’s website saved me a two-hour trip to the festival. Early reports accurately painted a grim picture of chaos created by a freak typhoon, so I decided to stay in Tokyo.

That year, two people were in charge of putting together the festival’s home page. At this year’s festival — held July 30 to Aug. 1 in Niigata Prefecture — there were 12 web reporters; I was among them.

It was a motley crew, but this is precisely why it worked so well. We were foreigners and Japanese, specialists and generalists, journalists and nonjournalists (designers, web masters, music experts).

Our task was straightforward, yet fairly open-ended: Fuji promoter Smash, or more specifically, Koichi Hanafusa, the person Smash hired to oversee the festival website, wanted us to report on the vibe of the festival, not necessarily who played what song, but more of what was going on offstage — in the mosh pits, the fields, the campgrounds, the food stalls.

Armed with digital cameras and PowerBooks (courtesy of Kodak and Apple), we uploaded photos, interviews and other reports about once an hour (some averaged almost eight reports a day). To frontline photojournalists this is all in a day’s work, but there was a twist to our situation: no editors, and almost no lag-time. You could say our eyes and minds were wired directly into the web.

The routine went something like this: A stage reporter, for example, would photograph the first three songs of a performance; hustle to one of the report bases; transfer the photos to a PowerBook (sometimes we’d take up to 40 pictures for one session); select the good ones and Photoshop them (i.e., crop, resize and tweak them); write copy and then upload the package to Smash’s website. Thanks to a handy template that webmaster Yuki Okada set up, the uploading process was a breeze. Despite occasional glitches, everything proceeded smoothly.

Over three days, we took 4,000 photos (the number we uploaded was a good bit lower). In addition to reporting on artists and various activities, we recorded profiles of dozens of happy festivalgoers, hailing from all over the country (and overseas in the case of Phish phans).

Did we succeed in our mission? I’m biased, but browsing through the pages it’s hard to ignore the freedom and exuberance that was there. It is written on the smiling faces. In our reports you’ll also see crowded rush-hour-from-hell conditions, kids sleeping on hard gravel in the dance tent. Still, I heard little grumbling about the organization of the festival itself.

On the bus going up to Niigata, one of the Net reporters talked about watching the riots of Woodstock ’99 online. While marveling at the thought of being able to see such a sight online, we were all probably wondering if we’d witness similar events at Fuji. If Rage against the Machine and Limp Bizkit provided the perfect soundtrack for a festival rampage in Rome, N.Y., why couldn’t they do it again in Japan?

This didn’t come to pass at Fuji, even though Rage and Limp Bizkit stirred the fans to mosh like they’ve never moshed before. Our worries were unwarranted, not just because of the supposed orderly behavior of Japan’s youth, but because the festival organizers had done their homework (the PortaToilets were in working order) and, unlike the case at Woodstock, the prices were reasonable. Naturally, Smash wanted to make a profit, but they reportedly lost their shirts on this one. They could have found a more convenient venue in Tokyo and maybe ended up in the black, but they obviously wanted a location where the festival could become another world, and in that regard, they succeeded.

Other media were at Fuji, such as Space Shower TV and InterFM, but the only other cyberjournalists were from SonicNet Japan. Although it logged written reports and photos, SonicNet’s focus was on real-time cybercasts. Like the Fuji festival, this medium is still new, and they had a few technical difficulties.

According to the cybercast’s point man, Alain Bosshart, the biggest problems came from the unexpected numbers of Net users who accessed the SonicNet Japan site simultaneously. They logged about 60,000 people accessing their webcast streams (a number close to the actual number of festival visitors) and about 100,000 page views daily.

Another obstacle was getting clearances from all the labels and artists involved. Bosshart said not everyone is familiar with the medium and some labels were hesitant to allow their artists to appear on live webcasts (which, it should be noted, are almost impossible to reproduce).

Many of the SonicNet visitors were unaware of the artists’ demands and the heavy traffic, and posted their grumblings on the SonicNet bulletin board. What they needed to realize, Bosshart said, is that they were getting up-close access for free.

Despite the flak he caught, at the end of the day, Bosshart said, you have to take the good with the bad. The independent programming of new media is definitely liberating, but drawbacks are inevitable.

“The rest is really up to how we provide and use this new space: what we all will do individually with these new possibilities, and what we will do to constitute the new freedoms associated to this medium without losing its potential for each of us.”

If you look at the Woodstock site, which has a BBS and a huge gallery of user-contributed photos, you’ll notice the shocking lack of pictures depicting the fiery finale. (In an interesting sidelight, the New York State Police, in an attempt to track down the main perpetrators of the Woodstock mayhem, uploaded festival pictures on their own website. In turn, wire services objected to their festival pics being used as incriminating evidence.) Nevertheless, what you see at the site is the larger picture of a festival that didn’t make it onto the wires. I even saw a few smiling faces.

Whether it’s Richie Havens singing in ’69 or Rage Against the Machine in ’99 or web reporters plugged into PowerBooks, it’s all about freedom.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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