Live Houses Face Hard Times, Pioneer Alternative Revenue Stream
Though the coronavirus emergency has adversely affected the whole concert industry in Japan, the “live house” circuit in particular has been the hardest hit.
Most are small clubs that essentially rent themselves out to musicians, who then sell tickets and merchandise to fans while the establishment itself makes money from alcohol sales.
Consequently, a lot of live house shows are attended by friends of the artist who is performing, and close contact between performer and audience is a given. That’s why live houses were indicated as being a prime source of infections early in the emergency and, consequently, most have closed for the time being.
The exception is larger, more established venues that tend to work with promoters rather than artists themselves. Many are called “live houses” for the sake of convenience, but the scale is often different.
Perhaps the most famous live house in Tokyo is Club Quattro, whose management told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that they are carrying on as usual, leaving it up to the promoters as to whether to hold concerts. To do their part, they offer hand sanitizers throughout the venue as well as thermography equipment at the entrance.
But for most live houses the situation means that both the venues and their customers (meaning the artists) are losing revenue while the emergency continues, and one string of live houses owned by the company Loft has hit on a method of keeping the revenue stream open. Called the Loft Project, the scheme involves 12 clubs under the company's management, all of which have suspended activities. On March 16, one of the clubs, Loft 9 in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, assembled a group of “celebrities” to discuss the current emergency and its meaning for Japan’s music community.
The discussion was broadcast on the Internet for a price of 2,000 yen ($19) per viewing device. The event was mostly an experiment to see if such a model could be successful, and according to the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, many venues, and not just live houses, are studying the same system to see how they can monetize it even after the emergency is lifted.
Live houses usually hold between 100 and 200 people, so an artist who can attract more than that number could theoretically make more money during a live performance even if they dropped per-view prices below that for normal tickets to a show.
Consequently, one popular artist, Junichiro Nakagawa, will be appearing at another Loft venue, Loft Plus One in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, where he will perform and also talk with other musicians and writers (Japanese concerts tend to include a lot more talking than their Western counterparts). There will be no charge to view the event on a local video platform, Nico Nico Doga, which launched a live streaming channel last April, but viewers are encouraged to donate any amount they can.
An industry group, the Japan Live House Association, told Tokyo Shimbun that their 1,000 members represent a wide range of audience capacities and music styles, and that the number of tickets sold to their venues had been decreasing in recent years even before the emergency, mainly due to a decades-long drop in the Japanese birthrate.
One association representative told the newspaper that live houses were the bedrock of the Japanese music scene, since they are the main breeding ground for new artists and have been since the 1980s. The new streaming system could keep them afloat for a time but is not the ultimate answer because you don't need a place built for an audience to host an online concert. Obviously, new models will eventually evolve, but this emergency could simply accelerate the end of the live house business in Japan.
Japanese Clubs Refuse To Close
In contrast, club scene in Japan, which hosts electronica artists and DJs both locally bred and internationally famous, has been thriving of late, and many clubs have not curtailed their activities on account of the coronavirus emergency. As a result, Mindgames, the organizer of one of Japan's biggest electronic music events, Labyrinth, sent out an email on March 16 to independent clubs asking them to essentially cease and desist.
The message in Japanese and English, titled "Plea to Clubs Across Japan," enumerated the numbers of infected persons and deaths from the virus in Europe and lauded efforts in Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and China to stop the spread of the disease. In this regard, Japan is an outlier since it is "not operating an aggressive testing and quarantine program," owing mainly to "a suicidal delusion that the Olympics can still happen."
“Tricked into complacency, almost all the major Tokyo clubs are still running like normal,” the message continued, “causing a huge public risk for every person in this city.” Given that the government is not blocking flights from North America and Europe, places where the virus is now spreading exponentially, clubgoers are still arriving in Tokyo ready to party, and likely bringing more danger to the city’s club scene. “All these factors combine to make Tokyo clubs and bars among the highest risk spaces in all of Japan,” said the message.
“They must all shut down. And clubs all across Japan should also follow.”
The message even went as far as to name some of the most prominent clubs in Tokyo. “The economics are brutal…but we are all in this together. And this is not the time to focus on short-term, local economic issues.”
Similarly, the famous Takarazuka Revue, an all-female stage musical troupe headquartered in western Japan, announced somewhat proudly that they would be going ahead with normal performances this spring. The announcement was met with a great deal of online criticism, even from longtime fans, who are notorious for their loyalty. Consequently, the troupe said they would be suspending activities for the time being.
It should be noted that it was live houses in western Japan where the virus seemed to spread most spectacularly in the early days of the crisis, and yet Osaka, the biggest city in western Japan, has been the most resistant to changing its business operations. Even the local government has said it plans to go ahead with public events, though many citizens are against the policy.
Bob Dylan, MCR Postpone Japanese Concerts
It was inevitable. Despite having announced – even after the coronavirus emergency started – that Bob Dylan was actually adding 14 shows in Tokyo and Osaka in April to his long Japan residency in Japan last week, the promoter of the shows, Udo Artists, announced that the tour was being cancelled.
Though Dylan’s advanced age could have been a factor in the cancellation, Udo itself admitted in its announcement that the promoter had asked Dylan to call off the shows.
“Our prime minister has requested that we cancel or postpone all forthcoming concerts or events in late March and beyond,” went the announcement, posted on the company's home page. “We are so sorry to cancel the shows, but in the interest of public health and safety, we are left with no alternative.” The message went on to say that the company hoped to “rebook the shows in the future.”
The announcement indicated a shift in ongoing development of calling off shows in Japan.
In February and early March, promoters were still leaving the matter up to the artists, even though the authorities were calling for greater discretion from organizers of events and concerts. If artists wanted to still play, the promoters would support them but would also offer to refund tickets to anyone who didn’t feel they wanted to attend the particular concert under the current circumstances.
Now, however, that has changed, and most major Japanese promoters are unilaterally cancelling concerts at the urging of the government.
Last week, My Chemical Romance, which was slated to bring their reunion tour to Japan in late March, when they were supposed to headline the Download Festival in Tokyo and play a stand-alone show in Osaka, announced they were postponing their visit at the “suggestion” of the promoters, Creativeman Productions and Live Nation Japan. “The promoter of our Japan shows suggested that we postpone the shows in Japan for the safety of the public, and we are heeding that advice,” went the band's official announcement. “We had very much hoped to have alternate dates confirmed before we announced the postponement, to make sure our fans knew we had every intention of coming back. Somehow, word got out before we could do that.” As it happens, however, the group also postponed its Australia and New Zealand concerts.