Fuji Rock turned 18 this year, an age when newly minted adults are able to drink and drive in many countries.
Promoter Smash marked Fuji’s coming of age quietly. Japan’s marquee rock festival isn’t the rapidly growing sprout of its early years. Instead, like its model Glastonbury, Fuji Rock has reached a stage of maturity where few surprises are expected, but it can still be trusted to deliver an unmatched feast of sounds—and offer a snapshot into the state of international music in Japan.
For some perspective consider the following: when Fuji began in 1997, this year’s headliners, Canada’s ambitious Arcade Fire were still fresh-faced teenagers. Late-breaking New Zealand songstress Lorde was an eight-month-old infant.
With Japan’s youth population in a tailspin, Smash has had to cultivate the loyalty of its aging rock demographic. This it’s done in style by building its kids area into a memorable Tarzan-adventure treat (disclosure: I attended with son in tow for the first time).
The quoted attendance of 102,000 over three days was down a bit from peak years, but among the revelers was a growing contingent of families. Cultivating a multigenerational audience—long a goal of Smash boss Masa Hidaka—and attracting more folks from overseas (Chinese accents were heard frequently this year), look to be the key to maintaining Fuji’s run of success.
The larger problem of whether rock itself is facing senescence is something festivals everywhere are grappling with. Fuji’s stabs at broadening its audience into the hip-hop market have yielded acts from Run DMC to Eminem. Kanye West was supposed to headline the 2014 edition but for unexplained reasons canceled, leaving a reunited Outkast to wave the banner.
In the meantime Smash can only hope that emerging lights such as deep-lunged Lorde and indie rock fairy princess St. Vincent—this writer’s best act of 2014—will one day be big enough to fill the Naeba Ski Resort’s gigantic Green Stage with a new generation of rock fans. With stadium-level classic rock, punk and even grunge-era rock bands in increasingly short supply and international music’s market share in Japan stagnant, Fuji Rock may look different in the future.
In addition to fighting to maintain international rock’s appeal in Japan, we’d also like to see Smash do a better job of alerting Japanese to their own emerging rock music. Toward this end we think it’s possible to achieve a more creatively curated selection of young domestic acts for the Rookie A Go-Go stage. This stage has been the launchpad for acts like Sambomaster, but for the most part doesn’t seem to host many of the intriguing bands on Japan’s underground live house circuit.
What isn’t in doubt about Fuji Rock is the promise of a rewarding and diverse weekend of music, performance, freak shows, mountain breezes, and a uniquely freewheeling break from Japan’s grueling day-to-day. It’s the last factor that more than anything else guarantees the festival’s future for many years to come.