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Hit With Late Coronavirus Surges, Japan and Singapore Shut Down Music Sectors

Taken together, Japan and Singapore are underscoring that no major music market has been immune from the global reach of the virus.

TOKYO — Call it lockdown lite.

After weeks of downplaying the coronavirus pandemic, Japan is now under a nationwide state of emergency. The number of virus cases is steadily rising, and the country’s healthcare system faces collapse.

Yet the world’s second-largest music market is a study in contradiction. Some 60% of workers in greater Tokyo are still commuting. Many restaurants, bars and stores are still open, and calls for social distancing seem to be observed more in the breach than the observance — despite officials blaring warnings from loudspeakers every afternoon for people to stay inside.

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But in Japan’s live-music business it’s a different story. The cramped and smoky “live houses” where new acts hone their chops have shut their doors. The country’s $3 billion live entertainment industry is also on indefinite hold. And people are buying music online and using streaming services as they comply with the government’s request to stay at home and work remotely, if possible.

Unlike Taiwan and South Korea — which experienced severe virus outbreaks early but took sweeping actions to control the spread — Japan is only now raising alarm bells. Further south, Singapore, a country at the heart of major labels’ plans to expand in Southeast Asia, also only recently found itself dealing with a spike in virus cases. Taken together, Japan and Singapore are underscoring that no major music market has been immune from the global reach of the virus.

Japan’s first coronavirus infection was reported in mid-January. By Feb. 27, the number of cases had reached 210 infections and four deaths. That’s when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked elementary, junior high and high schools to close until early April.

Unlike neighboring South Korea, Japan has not carried out widespread testing for the virus. Instead, in Japan the emphasis has been on identifying and isolating clusters of infections. Critics charged that Abe wanted to keep the numbers low so that the Tokyo Summer Olympics would go ahead as planned.

That strategy appears to have failed, as the number of reported infections keeps rising. On March 24, Abe announced the games were being postponed until next year. The next day, the number of cases rose 8% to 1,291. As of April 28, Japan had reported more than 13,600 infections and 385 deaths. Japan’s testing badly lags behind other countries: It is testing about 1,200 people per million, compared to nearly 30,000 per million in Italy, nearly 25,000 per million in Germany, more than 11,500 per million in South Korea, and about 17,000 per million in the U.S, according to Statista.

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As the government dragged its heels, some artists acted more forcefully. Samm Bennett, a Tokyo-based singer-songwriter, began canceling his live-house shows in mid-March.

“At that time there were still a lot of people in Tokyo, other musicians as well as venue owners, who thought I was overreacting, and I think there was a bit of resentment here and there about it,” says the Birmingham, Alabama, native. “But I had been paying close attention to what was going on already at that point, in Iran, Italy and Spain, and knew that the coronavirus was probably already being transmitted in Tokyo.”

On April 7, Abe declared a national emergency in seven prefectures. It was extended nationwide on April 16. The declaration is in force until May 6, but it doesn’t include any punitive measures.

Post-War Legacy Preventing Wider Lockdowns

The prevailing wisdom is that Japan’s post-World War II Constitution, which was drafted in reaction to its authoritarian predecessor, makes it next to impossible to enforce the kind of restrictions seen in many other countries. Some legal scholars say the government could enforce draconian measures if it wanted to but may be unwilling to pay the political price — or a financial one, if locked-down businesses come cap in hand seeking compensation for lost revenue.

The looming question is how many people will comply with the government’s request not to travel during the “Golden Week” holiday period in late April and early May. That will likely be a key factor in whether the state of emergency is extended beyond May 6.

Many Japanese say the emergency declaration is too little, too late. The fear is that Japan’s big cities could become coronavirus hotspots and that the country’s healthcare system will be overwhelmed.

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Against this background, live-music venues have fallen silent. In March alone, 1,500 live-music events were canceled, for a loss of $43 million, Tatsuya Nomura, president of the Japan Music Producers Federation, said on a recent radio program.

Major acts that have canceled shows include male idol group Arashi, which had been scheduled to perform at Tokyo’s new National Stadium on May 15 and 16, and female idol group Perfume, which canceled a concert at Tokyo Dome scheduled for Feb. 26.

“Most people don’t want to go clubs, concert venues and karaoke bars at the moment,” says Yu Minagawa, label manager of Tokyo-based record company Inter Art Committees. “The entertainment business is in a black hole now.”

And although hard data isn’t available, it’s clear that sales of physical product — which accounted for 72% of Japan’s recorded-music revenues of $2.87 billion in 2018, according to the IFPI — are down, and that digital is getting a boost.

“Since major record retailers have closed during the state of emergency and many labels are putting new releases on hold, we are losing sales,” says Aya Ohi, GM international marketing at Tokyo-based label JVCKenwood Victor Entertainment.

Japan had 4,490 CD and record stores at year’s-end 2018, down 17% from 5,398 stores at the end of 2016, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan.

But it’s not just promoters and artists who are taking a hit, says Kyoko Sakuma, a human resources coordinator at a major Japanese label. Companies and freelancers in the merchandise, lighting, sound system, food and drink businesses are in dire straits as the live-music business grinds to a halt. “Preparation of concerts and events takes months and in the current situation, nobody knows when they can start again,” Sakuma says.

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Ohi says even before the coronavirus arrived, Japan’s live-music sector was experiencing a serious shortage of venues, partly due to the Olympics. “Now that the event is postponed, we may have another year of the same issue and with more competition, because of many tours and other events being postponed,” she says.

Tickets for two major summer music festivals, Fuji Rock and Supersonic 2020, are still on sale. The line-up for Fuji Rock, scheduled for Aug. 21-23 at the Naeba ski resort 125 miles northwest of Tokyo, includes international acts such as The Strokes, Tame Impala and Disclosure.

Perfume
Perfume Courtesy of Billboard Japan

Supersonic is scheduled for Sept. 19-21 at venues in Tokyo and Osaka. The festival is usually held in mid-summer. But the dates were pushed back so they wouldn’t clash with the Olympics.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced on April 20 that live venues can claim compensation from the city for closing during the state of emergency if they had booked acts, or if they are streaming gigs without an audience.

Singapore Becomes Southeast Asia Leader in COVID-19

In Singapore government officials are scrambling to contain a recent outbreak raging through its migrant-worker community, which has made the island nation the hardest-hit by the coronavirus in Southeast Asia. As of April 28, Singapore had more than 14,900 confirmed cases of COVID-19, up 65% from 9,100 on April 21, although only 14 people have died.

The country is entering its fourth week of partial lockdown, with social gatherings banned, schools shut down and only essential businesses allowed to operate.

The Singaporean government has instituted fines of $300 for anyone flouting social-distancing rules for the first time, according to media reports. Anyone convicted of violating a quarantine order faces a fine of up to $10,000, six months of imprisonment, or both. On April 24, a 22-year-old Singaporean citizen was charged with violating his quarantine order when he left his home to get breakfast, the Ministry of Health said.

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Singapore’s struggles are relevant because over the past year the country has emerged as a focal point of Asian expansion efforts by major labels, streamers and other entertainment companies. Universal Music Group inaugurated a new headquarters for Southeast Asia there, from which it is coordinating marketing and A&R activities throughout the region. And Los Angeles-based AEG relocated its Southeast Asian hub from Shanghai to Singapore. The offices are just a few streets away from regional outposts for Spotify, Netflix and Google.

For music companies, what was thought to be a welcome alternative to chaotic Hong Kong street protests has become a more complicated place from which to coordinate operations. Health experts say Singapore has not acted with the same vigilance as South Korea, despite both countries’ experiences in 2003 with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Bloomberg reported. In that crisis, Singapore used aggressive contact tracing — tracking down people who had come in contact with an infected person — to limit the spread.

Staff from each of UMG’s six offices in South Asia — Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines — are working from home and the label says it is continuing with plans for domestic and international releases, including A&R signings, particularly for Def Jam Southeast Asia,

“Nobody is traveling anywhere,” one official from a U.S. company based in Singapore tells Billboard.

Additional reporting by Alexei Barrionuevo and Benson Zhang.