Live music needs structural change to survive COVID-19

Shibuya’s Club Asia suspended operations as the COVID-19 outbreak ramped up, leading the venue, an entertainment staple since 1996, to launch an online fundraiser on April 30.

Within hours, the Tokyo nightclub breezed past its initial goal of ¥5 million. More than 4,800 contributors (myself included, full disclosure) helped push the venue past 500 percent of its target on fundraising site Campfire. At a time when businesses in the capital are struggling due to the ongoing state of emergency, the idea of fans coming together to save something dear to them is uplifting. Well, kind of.

The same day the Club Asia funding project launched, the company behind the venue also announced it would shutter three smaller clubs in the area — Glad, Lounge Neo and Vuenos — because of the continued impact of the pandemic. That trio of spaces provided room for young artists from all genres to hone their skills and build their own community. Starting from there, they could move up to Club Asia … and beyond.

The case of the Club Asia family is potentially a microcosm of how the fate of music and nightlife venues across Japan will play out during the pandemic. While dozens of them are running crowdfunding campaigns to help them stay open, not all of them will last through what is shaping up to be a cataclysmic year for the industry. Big names might make it, but a whole middle class of spaces face vanishing altogether.

International English media, such as first-hand reports in the New York Times, have focused on how seemingly normal life in Tokyo and other Japanese cities has been so far. It’s understandable to demonstrate Japan’s approach to the outbreak compared to those in the United States or Europe — while offering up the kind of scene-setting readers crave — but it also ignores just how badly COVID-19 has impacted every industry in Japan. Restaurants, movie theaters and small shops have had to quickly pivot to new business approaches, and many probably won’t be around when life starts to get back to how it was before.

Live houses and clubs face an especially difficult path forward. No shows means no business at all, and over the past month it seems like every venue in the country has launched some kind of crowdfunding campaign. Sites such as IndieGrab have compiled long lists of spaces running online campaigns that range from selling drink tickets and T-shirts to livestreaming gigs to which fans can donate digitally. Fundraisers like the one Club Asia is running are also popular. Campfire reports that it has seen a huge increase in money raised in April.

It’s inspiring to see so many people come together to donate to their favorite live venues, but it’s not sustainable. Almost every day a new fundraiser pops up — on top of Bandcamp campaigns aimed at supporting artists and drives by nonmusic entities, plus individual financial concerns (including artists themselves, who according to surveys have lost the majority of their work). A handful of well-known spaces, like Club Asia, can make this work for them, but smaller venues that play a vital role in a city’s music ecosystem might not. How the government approaches providing money to this industry remains to be seen, but officials haven’t seemed all that eager to help out the venues that were among the first places to be targeted by stay-at-home campaigns.

What this reminds me of is a reverse fueih? (adult entertainment business law) situation, when the government pushed laws referred to as anti-dancing measures. Now, politicians might not provide the stimulus needed to keep many spaces around, despite cries from those in the music community.

Something similar to what happened in Osaka in the mid-2010s as a result of fueih? could conceivably play out again in Japan — established spaces that either successfully crowdfunded through the pandemic or have big-time backing in place will survive, while extremely small venues will either get through this or pop up afterward, providing room for niche audiences.

It’s the middle — represented by the trio of recently closed clubs in Shibuya — that appears set to be hurt most. These venues play a vital role as connective tissue between the underground and the mainstream, allowing artists and scenes to develop and reach new people in the process. Without them, a live community becomes two extreme ends that rarely ever meet. Crowdfunded support is great, but structural change and more significant help from the government are needed to make sure this ecosystem — made of legitimate pockets of Japanese culture — isn’t destroyed.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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