There are lessons for us in Taiwan as we strive to develop and grow our own indie scene. Maybe we can learn from how they created the atmosphere of a festival. Maybe we can take notes on the details that were so meticulously taken care of and how they kept the festival running smoothly. Maybe we can adopt some of the DIY ethos to grow our own scene. Maybe some of you readers might be inspired to run Taiwanese versions of this festival.
The organisers wanted to create an atmosphere highlighting music and performance at the festival. Everything in the festival emphasized the music and performance of the artists involved.
Many different, diverse genres made up the music. There was hardcore, post-rock, electronica, punk, eclectic, world music, hiphop, singer-songwriter – almost everything that you can find in a record shop. There was no break in the music as there were two stages and a DJ booth. When one band was sound checking (and the sound checks were relatively short), there was another band playing at the next stage. DJs would also play to ensure that music kept on going.
Performance was an important part of the festival. There was an abstract dance troupe that would improvise and perform to the music. From my wild guess, they were pretending to be different animals or objects dancing to the music. Maybe a crane. Maybe a crab. Maybe a tiger. Who knows? I was only sure of the belly dancer being a belly dancer. Having such performance artists scattered throughout the festival definitely added to the atmosphere of the festival.
The venue was at a camping site deep in the woods just outside of Tokyo. There were tall evergreen trees all around. At night, a huge bonfire was lit in front of the stage and the festival continued around the fire. Imagine this – bands playing awesome atmospheric music, in the middle of an evergreen forest, with a huge bonfire, and abstract dancers heralding mystical animals – a magical atmosphere to the nth degree. I was definitely spellbound.
The two stages had good PA systems and good equipment. I definitely recalled the bass subs being amazingly good. When the hardcore band’s bassist stomped on his distortion pedal, the floor of the room I was sleeping in shook and shivered in fear. As the equipment was generally good, there was less sound checking and more time playing music. It really helped to keep the atmosphere and vibe going.
The food was well-catered. There was a small kitchen set up, and there was this amazing ramen and curry rice available. Even though everything was sold out by 8pm, it was enough for all at the festival. There was a supply of hot miso soup late into the cold night. As it was a camping site, there were barbecue pits available for attendees to make their own fires and cook their own food.
A lot of thought went into ensuring the details of the festival were ironed out. Some were simple. Some were complex. The organisers had five years of experience running this festival. That experience showed in the way details were handled. Things did go wrong (a broken amp, rain causing equipment failure) but the disruptions were minimised and the key was always to keep things moving and happening. There seemed to be little dwelling on the stuff that did not work. Hey, after all, it was DIY.
From my description above, the reader might think that this was a well-funded and well-supported big festival. While it is true that the organisers have held this festival for the last five years, it was still a small-scale festival. There were probably about 70-100 attendees and most of them were performers, or friends and families of the performers. Everyone seemed to know everyone else at the festival. The people were all part of the local music community and they were at the festival to support each other.
The organisers explained to me that the most important thing for them was to run the event well and to make sure everyone had a good, magical time. I did not get into details about finances and ticket sales, but most of the event was sponsored in-kind. For example, the PA systems were from the studios that the bands frequently rehearse or record at.
Hence, the ethos is definitely DIY, with the local music scene (from bands to studios to dancers to even restaurants and bars the scene frequents) coming together to hold this event. The overarching goal was to hold an event that the scene could be proud of. It might not have meant commercial success, but more of an artistic statement that said “Yes, we are alive. We make music. We dance. And we built this moment together.”
Before I left for Japan, I surveyed the Taiwanese indie scene. I noted the many challenges that this current generation of bands has to face. Record sales are no longer a proven source of revenue. The number of live houses available for performances is dwindling. Seeking governmental support is usually distracting and morale sapping (a band might have to change its identity to secure government assistance). Musicians and artists struggle in a low-wage environment. Everything seems bleak.
What I experienced at Tsurugi No Mai made me change perspective. These guys ran the festival as if that festival was the art-piece or the album that they were putting out to the world. It had to be good and it had to represent all the things they wanted to say as artists. Whether or not the festival becomes the next Fujirock, it does not matter. What matters is that they have created a moment of existence where their vision became reality. That was the goal.
My experience at Tsurugi No Mai has charged me up to gather our Taiwanese brethren together to just do shit that is our shit. The goal is not about fame, money or power. We operate in a DIY environment and we will find our own way. We do it ourselves and we will do it well. We make art and music true to ourselves and will continue to make art and music, one way or another. We are part of the same community and will support each other. The work we produce might not become mainstream immediately, but because our hearts are in it, it will become important.
If fame, money and power do come, they come to a scene that was true to itself. If they do not come, at the very least, for one moment in our existence, our vision will shine in reality. We can point to that manifestation and definitively say
“We built it.”
PS. Before I decided to go to Japan, I had no idea what the festival was about, what kind of bands were playing and how it was organized. When venturing into the unknown, it helps to have a guide. I was lucky to have the guys from BHD as guides. If the festival was good enough for them to perform at, it should be good. And it was good. Really good. Thanks BHD!