The new National Stadium will have to rock you

June 8th, 2014 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

The show must go on: Attendees of a sayonara event at the National Stadium snap photos of an air show held on June 6.

The show must go on: Attendees of a sayonara event at the National Stadium snap photos of an air show held on June 4. KYODO

The old National Olympic Stadium in Tokyo closed down at the end of May with a big sendoff: two days of star-packed concerts in front of a capacity crowd. As everyone knows, the venue is being torn down to make way for an even bigger structure for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, an endeavor that continues to court controversy due to its projected size and cost, not to mention what it will likely do to the neighborhood around it.

Originally, the estimate for the new stadium was ¥300 billion, but mysteriously this figure was decreased to ¥169 billion just prior to the final bid. According to Professor Tomoyuki Suzuki, who was in charge of preparing Tokyo’s unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Games, construction costs for public facilities always end up rising over time, but neither the 2020 Tokyo bid organization nor the Japan Olympic Committee has ever explained that bit of conventional wisdom to the public. He told Tokyo Shimbun last April that the estimate was simply based on a number “that was most likely to be accepted.”

There is also the question of what to do with the stadium after the Olympics. The JOC is predicting that it will show a surplus of ¥400 million a year, but as Suzuki points out, this projection is based on the premise that the stadium will host 12 major pop concerts a year, and that, he believes, is impossible, unless the stadium foregoes sporting events, which is what it’s being built for in the first place.

The main problem with using stadiums for concerts, especially stadiums that hold field events like soccer, is that the playing surfaces are used for seating, which has a tendency to destroy the grass. Suzuki cites Ajinomoto Stadium in Western Tokyo, which is the home field of the FC Tokyo soccer team. In 2008, the stadium operators rented the facility to a promoter who held a rock concert attended by almost 80,000 people. Despite FC Tokyo’s protests, the concert went ahead, and afterwards the stadium had to spend “tens of millions of yen” to change the grass on the entire field in time for an FC Tokyo match.

Japan has many stadiums with seating capacities of over 50,000, and it’s impossible to utilize them to their fullest with only sporting events, so large-scale concerts are a natural solution, but operators have found that the related maintenance costs are too high and so several have implemented no-concert policies. If the stadium is run by a local government, that means the local government has to subsidize the venue. Tokyo’s is richer than most, but Suzuki thinks that the ¥400 million surplus estimate is far from reasonable and was probably arrived at to avoid discussing how much money the stadium will lose once the Olympics are over and there’s this huge white elephant sitting in the middle of the most expensive city in the world. When quizzed by Tokyo Shimbun, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said that concerts are “not a big problem for grass” and left it at that.

Still, is it possible to schedule 12 large-scale pop concerts during a given year, and will enough people attend them to justify the use of such a huge facility? Last November an association of 58 Japanese concert promoters released figures for the first half of 2013 that showed considerable growth in the industry — a 50 percent increase in events and attendance over the first six months of 2012: 10,493 concerts comprising 16.38 million attendees pulling in ¥93 billion. And since typically the second half of the year is busier for the concert industry, the association predicted 2013 would be the biggest on record. The average concertgoer paid ¥1,000 more for tickets in 2013 than he or she did five years ago. The biggest share by region, of course, was the Kanto area, which commanded a 35 percent share of all the concerts staged (Tokyo alone garnered 27 percent), followed by Kinki with 21 percent.

It’s obvious that the audience for live music is actually increasing, which may sound counterintuitive given the continuing drop in population, in particular the waning numbers of youth, but in fact, it’s older people who are attending more concerts and spending more money to attend them. Paul McCartney knew this very well, which is why he could get away with charging so much money for tickets only six months after touring Japan last fall: the Japanese boomers who probably think this is their last chance to see an honest-to-God Beatle don’t mind spending upwards of ¥100,000 to sing along with “Hey Jude.” Too bad Sir Paul got sick.

And if you look at the charts showing which acts were the biggest concert draws last year, those who did the best did so by utilizing stadiums: the top nine artists pulled in at least 500,000 attendees apiece, and you can’t do that by playing auditoriums or even arenas. (Though The Ventures did place fifth on the chart for non-Asian foreign groups thanks to the fact that they played 56-count-em-56 auditorium shows in Japan last year) Moreover, according to Nikkei Entertainment, concertgoers spent on average about ¥7,000 for tickets last year plus another ¥5,000 for merchandise at the concert venues, meaning CDs, T-shirts, etc., and, again, it’s mostly older people. Artists who themselves are over-50 have seen a spike in their concert revenues thanks to fans who have stuck with them over the years and now have not only more disposable income, but more time on their hands.

So does that sort of business development bode well for the new National Olympic Stadium? One concert industry insider told Nikkei that stadiums in the Kanto were “fully utilized” in 2012 for concerts, attracting 30 million people to music shows, and the industry feels it’s a problem that there are no new “dome-class stadiums” on the drawing board. Given that a lot of stadiums built for the World Cup in 2002 fell into disuse, it’s obviously more of a problem of distribution: too many fans in Tokyo and Osaka, not enough elsewhere. Still, maintenance for the new venue will be ¥3.8 billion a year, which means the stadium will need to fill all 80,000 seats for however many concerts it can organize if it really is going to make the surplus the JOC predicts. Also, the old National Stadium charged ¥31.5 million to rent its facility for a concert. The new one will probably have to charge a lot more.

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