In March 2013, Japanese business magazine Tōyō Keizai borrowed the cultural term Black Ships(黒船) to capture the threat music streaming service Spoitify posed to the Japanese music industry. The Black Ships were American commodore Mathew Perry’s fleet that approached Tokyo Bay in 1853 with the sole purpose of coercing Japan to open its gates to Western trade. The American vessels utilised an innovative technology (steam) in the service of a disruptive ideology (capitalism). Analogously, the magazine suggested, Spotify uses its music recommendation algorithm to mobilise a social movement of 100 million digital users—true believers in the way music ought to be consumed and distributed.
But as Perry quickly found out, landing on Japanese shores hardly guarantees immediate success. Since the early 2000s, Japanese music producers have had their own ideas about saving the music industry. As CD sales were plummeting, music producer Yasushi Akimoto looked to the grassroots of Japanese music, an urban phenomenon of ‘underground idols’ (地下アイドル). Underground idols sang on street corners of Tokyo neighbourhoods like Akihabara and Nakano. Small communities of committed fans followed them around, captivated by their innocence and accessibility. Akimoto wondered if it would be possible to replicate the same appeal for professionally produced pop stars.
Idol bands, spearheaded by Akimoto’s AKB48, then adopted the underground idol style—but through the use of a “Japan Inc.” method. Newly produced singles were promoted by the band’s presidential style election campaign. Each single’s CD jacket contained a ballot fans could use to vote for their favourite idol. This was the clever scheme that lay behind the “idols you can meet” slogan—the plan that essentially tweaked consumer motivation to buy and keep thinking about music. Consumers did not buy CDs to listen to their favourite songs anymore, but to express their love, or better put, monetise it to make a difference. Voter fraud came into the music business through this market with fans sometimes buying dozens of singles to cast more votes. Idols’ artistic style and direction was now, ostensibly, completely in the public’s hands.
|See also: What will it take for Spotify to fly in Japan?|
The interesting point here isn’t the idols themselves, but the system’s implications for musical tastes. In his book Popular Music and Capitalism (ポピュラー音楽と資本主義) Japanese sociologist Yoshitaka Mori brilliantly exemplifies the interplay between taste and the music industry with two simple tables: the Oricon best-10 chart from 2000, and the same one from 2010. In 2000, still the J-Pop era according to Mori, musical talent dominates—impeccable song-writing, professional production and spectacular performance. In 2010, however, the top ten are all idols – some of who can’t even sing, and some even loved for their skills as puppeteers.
Somewhere during the first decade of the new millennium, music in Japan died, sacrificed for CD sales, sidestepped for an emotional display of adoration.
Since the early 1970s, the Oricon chart defined music success for Japanese audiences, but Akimoto took music out of the equation. Sure, the consumption of music usually has something to do with persona—from pop icons like David Bowie to mask-clad DJs like Daft Punk, but when persona becomes a matter of popular vote, music gets lost in the sea of options.
Idols’ hostile takeover of cultural institutions like Oricon didn’t eliminate music completely, but simply drove its migration to other spaces and platforms. In Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa, for example, a movement of DIY musicians emerged – independent singer-songwriters who see music more as a medium of intimate artistic expression. With digital platforms like “ DIY Stars” the DIY scene also touches upon industry ethics, since buying music on these sites means supporting artists directly, instead of going through big media conglomerates and production studios. Bandcamp provides a similar service for artists and consumers who wish to avoid the Apple or Google fee. With the recent breakup of SMAP, top Japanese production companies’ practices are increasingly becoming a matter of media scrutiny.
Online, Spotify’s biggest competitor in Japan is actually YouTube, which poses even more serious questions about the relevance of music alone to digital life. A recent survey found that almost 30 percent of Japanese music consumers use video sharing sites like YouTube to listen to music. Artists also increasingly rely on YouTube for distribution. Hakodate-born singer MACO, for example, generated 6 million views in five months for her unique cover versions of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. MACO translated the lyrics into Japanese and added her own flavour, eventually striking a deal with Universal Japan.
|This article is part of the Cultural Radar series|
Musical taste is defined, first and foremost, by categorisation. Journalist Tom Vanderbilt claims that consumers “categorical perception” shapes their music preferences, and artists lacking in familiar sound or style eventually have to invent their own genre. Experience in Japan, and other markets also shows that these genres are communicated though different mediums and platforms. Akimoto’s idols, for example, are linked with CDs, ballots and live election coverage. The independent YouTube artist features original videos with a distinctive look and message. The DIY star cares about how innovative his sound is, or the artistic value of his work. Categorisation, in other words, also has a lot to do with the websites and apps you use and the context in which you use them.
So how will Spotify connect communities, genres and artists in Japan? With Spotify now launched, we will soon see whether it can restore music’s mojo in a saturated market like Japan’s.
Omri Reis is senior research executive at Flamingo Tokyo