Tatsuya Nomura of Japan Music Producers Group Says Music Cross Aid 'Serves a Common Good': Interview

Tatsuya Nomura
Courtesy of Billboard Japan

Tatsuya Nomura

The live entertainment industry in Japan had been growing at an uninterrupted pace since the year 2000, supporting the Japanese music scene as CD sales continue to plummet. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic put that growth to a halt, with most concerts being cancelled or postponed since the end of February. Many people working in the music industry found themselves out of jobs, and numerous smaller concert venues have been forced to shut down permanently.

Although a new governmental guideline for restarting concerts was announced June 12, problems remain in terms of revenue, and it will take a long time before the live music sector can return to pre-pandemic levels.

Faced with this dire prospect, three Japanese music organizations -- Japan Association of Music Enterprises, Federation of Music Producers Japan (FMPJ), and the All Japan Concert & Live Entertainment Promoters Conference -- collectively launched the Music Cross Aid foundation on June 11 to support music businesses and workers who have been severely impacted by the pandemic.

Billboard Japan spoke with FMPJ President Tatsuya Nomura, who elaborated on how the foundation got started and shared his thoughts on the current state of the Japanese pop music industry.

Why was Music Cross Aid launched?

Around the end of March, shortly before the government declared a state of emergency, I felt that there was no way live music could be restarted in the foreseeable future. We (the live music industry) voluntarily shut down operations before any other industry. Considering that approximately 1,550 concerts were cancelled by March, that amounts to nearly 50 million people we prevented from moving about, so we think we did our part in slowing down the pandemic.

But this resulted in a massive loss of revenue, so we spoke with the government to explain that Japanese music culture will be lost if this current situation lasts, but it took a long time before the industry was able to receive any kind of financial aid. We felt that it was necessary to construct a system within the private sector to support one another, so that everyone will be able to fully recover when we're able to hold concerts again someday.

What are some of the obstacles you faced during the process of starting the foundation?

Whenever natural disasters struck in the past, we've been involved in all kinds of relief efforts, including donating money and going directly to the stricken areas. But this time, the system is completely different in that we're raising money to redistribute within the industry. It's something we've never done before, so it took a lot of time to figure out the right way to launch a fund that we don't profit from, that serves a common good.

It is very different in nature from previous relief programs.

We live in a disaster-prone country, so we have experience giving aid to affected areas, like organizing concerts in those places and supporting people through music. But this COVID-19 pandemic doesn't just focus on certain areas.

Of course, I truly understand how medical workers are having a rough time, but the entertainment industry has been on self-imposed lockdown of sorts since Feb. 26 and will be the last to reopen, so we're the industry that hasn't been operating the longest.

Artists based in Japan and elsewhere have performed from home to encourage fans to stay at home, raising money through virtual concerts to donate to medical workers, but I sensed their pain of having to take action while they were suffering damages themselves. "How do we give aid to ourselves?" was a concept that we never had to consider before, and that led to the launch of Music Cross Aid.

Artists themselves have voiced their concerns and taken action such as starting crowdfunding projects to help small venues.

One of the first places in Japan that a COVID-19 cluster occurred was at a small concert venue -- called "live house" in Japanese -- so some of the first private aid efforts to kick off were to save these venues, because their profit-making structures meant that they would go under after a short span of time.

I don't intend to criticize such efforts, but small venues aren't the only things that make live shows possible: Musicians, event promoters, stage production companies, sound engineers, lighting professionals, and many other people in the industry are facing similar dilemmas. Because the initial aid efforts focused on small venues only, I kept thinking there needed to be a way to protect these other people as well.

The glamorous aspect of entertainment is just the tip of the iceberg; many people are involved in creating live entertainment. And all the people involved who aren't musicians are also creatives. These aren't jobs that can be done by just anybody. I felt that these people should be protected.

While various crowdfunding efforts were started by artists in Japan, expressing political opinions is still frowned upon and often becomes the target of criticism. In the U.S., it's quite normal for artists to raise their voices, such as the recent Black Lives Matter movement. Why do you think it's difficult to express an opinion in Japan?

It could be due to the insular climate of an island nation, and perhaps also because most people seem to believe that there's no need for artists to make political statements. From personal experience, expressing my opinion at the risk of being criticized usually meant that the risk was greater than the merit.

When the government requested on Feb. 26 that events and concerts be canceled voluntarily, musicians were the ones who were most responsive. Technically it was only a request, so we (in the music industry) could have chosen to "go ahead" or "cancel," considering the massive economic loss it would entail. Also, only large-scale events were asked to stop, so medium and small-scale events really didn't have to.

But artists have their own social media nowadays, and criticism reaches them directly. So the major reason why concerts were halted on such a wide scale was that if they had continued, the artists standing onstage would have found themselves in positions where they'd be bashed directly through social media. In that sense, I felt that the existence of social media has changed the music industry's structure itself.

That being said, the coronavirus crisis has begun to reveal how little the people running Japan care about entertainment. We were one of the first to halt operations to prevent the spread of the virus, and also contributed to the public good by urging fans to stay home. Yet despite the fact that the government hadn't come up with any economic aid measures for the culture and entertainment industries, PM Abe posted a blithe video using Gen Hoshino's "Dancing on the Inside," resulting in an uproar from artists, TV personalities, and the entire entertainment industry.

Ever since that video, many people in the industry started to realize that "the politics of this country can't be trusted," and the lid has come off, so to speak, an example of which is the recent Twitter protest involving many celebrities opposing the Abe administration's recent move to extend the retirement age for prosecutors to its benefit. So I think that voices in entertainment and its power to reach people will change society and politics from now on.

By proactively and also indirectly taking action regarding many social and political matters, awareness toward entertainment could improve, you mean.

The current political structure is set up so that politicians with the most votes have the most power, so if people involved in entertainment start getting directly involved in shifting those votes, than the impact of culture's presence might change.

I think the fact that people who used to not say anything about such things are now voicing their opinions is phenomenal. The Japanese entertainment market is relatively big in comparison to many other countries, but it's still not considered as important as other industries. Many people still consider Japan as being a country that excels in manufacturing products ("monozukuri"), although the concept of "kotozukuri (value creation)" is starting to catch on.

Many challenges still remain in terms of reopening live events in Japan, but new efforts such as online concerts are being started, which is a positive trend.

Back in May, a band called LITE live-streamed performances from the members' homes using Zoom a few times. The Wi-Fi environments in ordinary residences understandably result in time lags, but this problem was solved by using Yamaha's free software called NETDUETTO. By the time the band performed in May, KT (Chang) of (Taiwanese band) Elephant Gym participated in the stream from Taiwan, which was frankly moving. I hear it was pretty difficult to time things properly, but they were able to connect internationally to produce a solid musical expression.

The framework of releasing CDs and also generating income through streaming in-between releases is becoming prevalent. This concept can be applied to the live industry, too.

Using a single live performance in multiple ways will become even more common. Recording equipment had to be set up each time in the venue to make this possible before, but I think more and more venues will have such equipment pre-installed from now on.

The way artists choose to perform will be varied, too, in that some will recreate their usual performances for the live stream, while some will perform in a place that can only be possible in that format. That being said, though, I think the beauty of actually going to a real live performance will be rediscovered.

That's so true. While virtual performances can be moving, it does make me want to go experience a real live performance more than ever.

Take restaurants, for example: Even if you order the same delicious menu to go, it's not the same as eating in at all. I think people will have a new appreciation for real live music after virtually experiencing the beauty of the vividness of live performances.

I know it comes across as presumptuous to demand assistance for our industry, and it's difficult to gain understanding. But people can't live on just food, clothing, and shelter alone. Unless people feel emotion -- delight, anger, sorrow, pleasure -- the fun and joy of being alive won't exist. Entertainment is what makes that. So I intend to continue sending out the message so that we gain proper understanding.

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