In Japan, we didn’t experience a European-type strict “lockdown”. Concerts were not “banned”, but concert halls and orchestras were asked to “refrain from” holding events as early as the end of February. Even after the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency on 17th April, some private promoters were still putting on concerts (my last was a viola recital by Mari Adachi in Ueno on March 26th), but most publicly funded organisations (even partially) were pressured into closing. By the end of June, 1,000 orchestral concerts had been cancelled. After the state of emergency was lifted on May 23rd, performing arts groups were given phased guidelines for resuming their activities. Public events with an audience up to 1,000 people (at half capacity) were permitted from June 19th. Slowly and cautiously, orchestras and concert halls are re-starting concerts with audience.

The Japan Philharmonic and Junichi Hirokami © Japan Philharmonic
The Japan Philharmonic and Junichi Hirokami
© Japan Philharmonic

Government support for artists and arts organisations was slow in coming. Many orchestras had to refund ticketholders but got no compensation. The majority of Japanese orchestras rely on a mixture of public funding, sponsorship, and ticket sales (similar to the UK) so no concerts meant a major reduction in income. There were exceptions like the NHK Symphony Orchestra, owned by the national broadcaster, and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, funded by the city. Concert halls – whether public like Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall or private like Suntory Hall – rely hugely on venue rental for income, which also vanished.

For many, streaming was the obvious way forward, especially in March when musicians could still gather. But unlike their European counterparts, many orchestras had no existing streaming platform: in the past, Japan had been ultra cautious about streaming concerts, fearing that they would lose live audience.

Tokyo Symphony Orchestra were quick off the mark and found a way to stream two of their scheduled concerts with support from Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall, their home venue, on Niconico (a Japanese equivalent of YouTube). The two live-stream concerts on March 8th and 14th got a staggering aggregate of 200,000 viewings. The streamings were free, but many viewers made donations. Encouraged by these viewer numbers, the orchestra has now set up their own Niconico channel and have recently given three more free streamings from Muza Kawasaki, for which they received matching funding from the City of Kawasaki. Suddenly, orchestras and venues realised that if even a fraction of these viewers would pay to watch, streaming could be a new source of income in this Covid-19 age.

Suntory Hall: filming the first concert post-Covid-19 © Suntory Hall
Suntory Hall: filming the first concert post-Covid-19
© Suntory Hall

The Japan Philharmonic, also in serious financial difficulty, took the cue with a paid live-stream concert in June, supported by Suntory Hall, who had already been looking for a way into the paid streaming model. On June 10th, their string ensemble, conducted by the energetic Junichi Hirokami, live-streamed their first concert in over three months. The tickets, sold online via Japanese ticketing service eplus Inc, were priced at ¥1,000 for live stream (including 7 days on-demand viewing), or one could pay ¥3,500 for a “supporter ticket” which included a donation to the orchestra. Suntory Hall say that the concert was viewed by 2,500 people.

Orchestras are now gradually coming back to the stage, albeit with limited capacity and acres of precautionary measures. Will they continue to stream? Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall is presenting Festa Summer Muza, its annual two-and-a-half week festival of orchestral music in July and August, using a “hybrid” model combining live audience and paid live streaming. According to Akiko Maeda, their Press Officer, it has been a difficult planning process, with Covid-19 striking just as they were about to announce the programme in late March followed by a prolonged period of staff working from home. But they were all determined to go ahead and when the state of emergency was lifted, they decided to let in a small audience (600 people, a third of hall capacity) but also sell online viewing tickets for fans who can’t attend and for audiences across the country. In particular, Maeda is keen to make the streaming experience special, adding streaming-only perks such as interval talks and backstage footage. She even hopes that the live audience might buy a viewing ticket afterwards to relive the concert! The hall tickets are ¥1,000-4,000, and streaming tickets are ¥1,000 per concert or ¥9,000 for all 14 concerts. Whatever the viewing number, it will contribute to filling the financial hole.

Meanwhile, Tokyo’s Suntory Hall had to cancel their annual early summer Chamber Music Garden festival due to issues of safety and travel bans for overseas musicians. However, when the state of emergency was lifted, they decided to hold an online version of the festival (without audience) with a reimagined programme and lineup, featuring many of the younger generation of Japanese musicians and chamber groups, including the fellows of their own Chamber Music Academy. Seven concerts were held over two weekends, with live-stream tickets at ¥500 - ¥1,500 per concert. There were 4,000 viewers in total, figure that Suntory Hall hope will improve in future, when they add languages other than Japanese to their ticketing system, to reach a global audience.

Toshiyuki Shibata with Henro Hat face shield
Toshiyuki Shibata with Henro Hat face shield

Why has the transition from free to paid streaming been smooth in Japan? Probably because it captured the viewers’ desire to support the artists (many who have had no income or state support during this crisis), and because free streaming was never prevalent in the first place. While the long-term success of paid streaming is not guaranteed, it is a viable additional source of income as well as a new way to reach a wider audience.

Many individual musicians in Japan have gone online to stream live performances from their homes or remote sessions with colleagues. Most of these have been free, but one flautist has been highly creative in using his social network to perform for a fee. Toshiyuki Shibata, who is normally based in Belgium, had been in Japan to prepare for his early music festival in his native Takamatsu (on Shikoku Island), which was to be held in April. But the festival was cancelled and Shibata was barred from returning to Belgium.

Fortunately, Takamatsu had few cases of Covid-19, so in May, Shibata set up an early music delivery service “Delivery Kogaku” – one man, one flute, socially-distanced live performance delivered directly to your home, which could be booked online. A classical music version of UberEats! He started locally where he could travel by public transport or car, gradually going further afield, even across the Seto Inland Sea to Hiroshima. As some studies have shown that flutes emit more droplets than other wind instruments, he set up strict distancing guidelines of 2 metres between him and the small audience; if this was difficult, he wore a face shield in the style of a traditional “henro hat”, a straw hat worn by Shikoku pilgrims! The performance would be 15 minutes and the fee ¥2,000 for one person, with an additional fee for family members.

“The reason why I started this delivery was because when I tried streaming, I didn’t feel that the sound of the baroque flute came across well digitally. So I thought even if we can’t perform in packed concert venues, I should be able to perform one to one, or to a family if we took safety measures.” So far he has performed solo Telemann, Couperin, and Bach in houses, shops, and public spaces such as museums. “It’s like a salon concert for our times, and I feel I’ve been able to reach a new audience who had not been familiar with early music before”, he says. Since he started, there have been examples of small groups delivering music to hospitals and homes in Europe as well. Perhaps such grass-roots music delivery could be one way forward for instrumentalists in this socially distancing era.


[Update 2020-07-15: the original article incorrectly showed the top price for the Suntory Hall Chamber Music Garden concert as ¥1,000]