The coronavirus outbreak in Japan from around the latter half of February 2020 greatly impacted various industries, including food and beverage, leisure, and entertainment. While the outlook remains uncertain for the live music industry in the country a year and a half into the pandemic, some hope had returned in the form of in-person concerts that had resumed from August last year, which took place by adhering to strict protocols including mandatory masks, no cheers or conversations allowed, and the capacity being reduced to less than half to maintain social distance.
However, even with such measures in place, completely dispelling the public’s concerns regarding live concerts has proved to be impossible, and some of Japan’s leading large-scale music festivals have been criticized for resuming in-person events. This has led to widespread backlash against the live music industry in general despite its efforts to hold concerts and music events safely for over a year, and the controversy is still ongoing in the country.
Meanwhile, the Brit Awards took place in May in the U.K. with no social distancing and no masks, as part of the government’s scientific event research program. Although it was necessary to comply with governmental guidelines and rules set by the event organizers, the positive steps taken by the government and organizers to revive music events attracted interest in Japan as well. The spectacle of densely packed audiences, moshing and sing-alongs at events such as Rolling Loud in Miami and Reading & Leeds Festival in the U.K. is still unthinkable in Japan today.
In the midst of the dispute surrounding in-person live shows, many say that since music by major artists is selling well, they probably don’t need or intend to play in front of a live audience anyway. But artists depend on not only the income from their recorded works, but also from ticket and merchandise sales from concerts to release their next works. These same artists are also aware that they can’t put on those concerts without their crew — who have lost their jobs and are suffering because of the pandemic — and probably couldn’t imagine continuing a career in music without performing live.
As music lovers and the population in general grow increasingly dissatisfied with and exhausted from the various restrictions being imposed due to the pandemic with no way out in sight, J-pop newcomer Fujii Kaze has been gaining popularity as a source of hope and support since last year. His debut album HELP EVER HURT NEVER — released in May 2020 in the midst of the pandemic — is based on his philosophy on life: “Always help and never hurt.” Since debuting at No. 1 on Billboard Japan’s Hot Albums chart, it has become a long-running hit that has remained in the top 70 to date (it charted at No. 26 on the latest chart dated Sept. 22).
The 24-year-old artist who rarely appears in the media livestreamed a free virtual concert on Sept. 4 entitled Fujii Kaze “Free” Live 2021 on YouTube. The show took place at Nissan Stadium — one of the largest stadiums in Japan with a capacity of 72,000 people — which only a handful of A-listers have performed at in the past. It was unprecedented for a new singer in his second year who debuted during the pandemic to perform solo and free of charge at the venue, but Kaze more than likely has the ability to fill this stadium considering that the 7,000 tickets for his first Nippon Budokan concert at the end of October last year sold out immediately, and the number of tickets sold to watch the livestream of the show was enough to fill dome-sized venues. The Nissan Stadium concert is currently archived on Kaze’s YouTube channel.
This free show recorded nearly 180,000 simultaneous viewers and became the world’s No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, making it a successful example of a virtual concert during the pandemic. For artists, the key is to be able to monetize it somehow. Free livestreams draw in viewers other than the artist’s usual fan base and connect them to streaming and downloads. Archiving the show for posterity also provides a gateway for viewers. While it may not be possible to immediate recover the full amount it took to produce the show, free virtual concerts could be considered a form of seed-planting, an upfront investment towards global expansion. Governmental aid is always a welcome support. In fact, HELP EVER HURT NEVER sold 777% more CDs in Japan that week than the week before and downloads increased by 249%, indicating the impact of the livestream on music sales.
“We’ve been restricted in many ways, put up with many things, and been tied down by many things this summer. But human beings… we should be freer,” says the tagline for the livestream, which aimed to bring some cheer to viewers. True to the word “Free” in the title — while also referring to the “no admission” aspect of the show — the concert enabled viewers around the world to spend some time being liberated from various constraints in life.
The “Kirari” artist elaborated in an interview with Billboard Japan that his intent was to provide some quality relaxation for his fans. “Like the theme of the show suggests, I’ll be happy if this live performance makes people feel relaxed and provides some leeway in their minds if they feel cramped from daily life,” he says. “I want people to feel the liberating vibes. I want them to kick back and relax.”
Fujii Kaze — his name is stylized in Japanese order, surname first — has quickly gained popularity for his distinctive melodies and vocals blending new and nostalgic qualities, with influences from both Japanese and Western genres. The tall, lanky young man is also known for his charismatic onstage presence and the natural, sincere way he carries himself offstage. He has been posting videos of himself playing the piano on YouTube since elementary school, which eventually led to his major label debut. He has a good command of English and explains some of his songs in the language in his YouTube videos, which have English subtitles. He’s a rising J-pop singer-songwriter with the potential and awareness of expanding his reach outside of his home country in the future, and notes that he also had non-Japanese-speaking viewers in mind as the audience for his recent livestream.
“When I perform in Japan, I always speak in Japanese between the songs, which are also in Japanese. A part of me thought that it’d be fine to do that this time around [with the livestream], but part of me didn’t,” he explains. “Then I was told [by my team] to speak in English along with Japanese because the show was going to be streamed globally on YouTube and archived later on. That made up my mind that I had to do my best. The lyrics are in Japanese, so some the nuances might not come across, but I think I was able to deliver a concert that transcends language and borders, with the support of the people around me.”
The breakout star, who sees himself as a tool to convey messages through music, elaborated on this philosophy: “I try to be conscious of conveying messages that are a bit too serious or heavy in a loose, light, cool, and casual way,” he shares. “As long as I can continue being a good tool, I’ll do my best to be a good tool. I’ll take care of this tool so that it doesn’t get rusty. I want to keep working hard as long as I can update myself and keep being a good instrument.”
This article by Mariko Ikitake originally appeared on Billboard Japan.