By: William Hoffman
Produced and Edited by: Zainab Kandeh
Japan is known as a technological powerhouse in the international market, constantly innovating and introducing new and interesting gadgets. But when it comes to CD sales, the world’s second-largest music market looks like a blast from the past.
The New York Times reported earlier this year in September that CD sales, while in decline in Japan, still account for 85 percent of total music sales for the Japanese market. In the U.S., CDs account for only 20 percent of total market sales.
Idols Change The Market
A number of theories have been presented by The New York Times and follow ups from publications such as Fortune as to why this might be: a cultural affinity for tangible objects, poor wireless Internet speeds and an industry-wide resistance to new streaming services such as Spotify, Google Music and Beats.
While these are all contributing factors, Jennifer Matsue, an associate professor of music and anthropology at Union College in New York who is currently studying in Japan, sees a musical trend resurfacing from the 1980s — teen idols.
“The idols are booming again to everyone’s chagrin who considers themselves music connoisseurs,” Matsue said. “They are marketing characters, they have no identity themselves, their whole job is to sell other things. So, they can’t sing really well they can’t be very good actors they can’t be great dancers or else they alienate themselves from the consumers.”
|AKB48, a popular Japanese group, has sold CDs containing tickets
to its performances, encouraging fans to buy multiple copies.
©Eugene Hoshiko/ Associated Press
These idols, or rather the teams behind them, have deployed some of the most brilliant marketing and management schemes devised in the music industry.
The most popular of these groups is AKB48, a 61-member group of women ranging from early teens to mid 20s. The concept of the group stems from the idea that fans can meet and talk to their favorite teen idols at a very accessible venue where they play nearly every night in cities around Japan.
AKB48 is popular, but its popularity is stacked by its marketing scheme — where fans can only receive tickets to shows if they buy a CD. There are even perks for additional purchases including a chance to meet, take photos with or shake the hands of idols.
“AKB48 even did a campaign where you could vote for your favorite member but you had to get the code that was in that CD to vote for your favorite member, so some people were buying 100 CDs,” Matsue said. “So sometimes these CD sales are not a reflection of the real popularity of the group.”
Virtual Idols Take Center Stage
Idols don’t even need to be a tangible person. Hatsune Miku, a digital hologram projection, is another popular idol who just made her debut to the U.S. market with a performance on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Crossing Into American Music Market
But Miku is the exception here, as most Japanese bands have had a hard time crossing over into an American music market.
A local indie-rock band, Moools, has been working for more than 15 years to get discovered even in a domestic market and sticks to “old-school” methods of promotion.
Hamamoto Ryo, guitarist for the band, said he’s not ready to move into the digital realm.
“I don’t like it … you press download and it’s in your PC or Apple computer and send it to your iPod and you forget where it came from,” Ryo said. “When you buy a CD or vinyl all the information comes with the music … I feel like I can appreciate the music more.”
For many it’s not an easy transition to make as Spotify, one of the world’s largest music streaming sites, has not yet been made available in Japan.
Clicks Mean Hits
However, there’s one music-streaming site that’s in operation in Japan and it’s the biggest of them all — YouTube.
While most idols have big marketing pushes behind them, another idol group, BabyMetal, said they’ve simply been letting the fans drive the group’s success.
“Actually to tell you the truth with BabyMetal it was never that we put out an ad in a magazine or on the billboard or on the TV or whatever, everything just kind of happened without anyone doing anything,” said KobaMetal, creator and producer of the idol group.
BabyMetal mixes metal and J-Pop for a blend of genres that KobaMetal hopes will come to define the Japanese metal musical vocabulary. It’s a message that is spreading quickly, as the band opened at the 2014 Sonisphere Festival in the UK headlined by Metallica and Iron Maiden and has enjoyed an opening slot on a number of Lady Gaga’s tour stops this year.
Its success is in large part because of the viral success of the band’s videos. One of which, “Gimme Chocolate,” has garnered 16 million views and spawned an edition of the popular series “YouTube Reacts,” where YouTube personalities talk and discuss videos.
Fans Get What They Pay For
Still, CD sales have a certain hold over the music market and remain expensive because of the premium features included in the package including extra songs, special DVD features and special art books.
|Kimiaki Koinuma, an engineer, with CDs he bought
at Tower Records in Tokyo. “I buy around 3 CDs a
month”, he said. ©Hiroyuki Ito, New York Times
“They’re usually like $50 for 12-15 songs because they know people will pay for it,” said Andrew Spiga, an assistant language teacher in Sapporo, Japan and an avid music fan. “iTunes is really expensive here too, per song it’s like $3 or $4.”
No matter how good the technology gets, Matsue said there is a significant racial barrier that Asian musicians will have to overcome if they want to make it in a western music market.
“I think it’s purely racial, anglo-American markets, (while) it’s changed a lot, you don’t see a lot of Asian face in rock or pop,” Matsue said. “People aren’t associating Asian face with authentic rock.”