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Japanese Whispers

Date: 1st March 2016

Japanese Whispers

As far as the recording industry is concerned, Japan is the exception that proves the rule. The world is moving to streaming – not just from CD but now, mostly, from downloads. Yet the land of the rising sun still buys seventy-eight percent of its music on physical formats. That is staggering, and all the more so because the country isn’t some technological backwater, but rather probably the most advanced in the world in terms of its consumer technology uptake.

This is the country where ATM machines have been speaking to you since the nineteen eighties, with cartoons of smartly dressed ladies bowing to you onscreen and thanking you for your custom. In nineties Japan, when Western mobile phone users were still fumbling with buttons and black and white alphanumeric displays, the ‘personal phones’ of that country were as full of features as the smartphones we use today. When the adventurous British motorist was driving around with a large Tomtom satnav device suctioned to his windscreen, Japanese car buyers had the option of standard fit, manufacturer approved integrated navigation systems. In the last decade, everything from Japanese gaming to internet-connected smart homes have shown to be decades ahead. From a fridge to a toilet seat, the Japanese will put a silicon chip in it! So why this curious refusal to leave the venerable old Compact Disc behind? It’s a fascinating cultural – and psychological – question that deserves a serious answer. Japan is the world of the ‘superfan’. There are historical reasons for this, not least the fact that when World War II ended, the country found itself working closely with the United States, and to a lesser extent Britain, to rebuild itself. This coincided with a brilliant time for western music – first Little Richard and Elvis Presley from the States, then the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Who and Queen from the UK. Japan got a taste for ‘western music’, hearing it on their transistor radios, playing it in their cars. This unintentional cultural exchange enthralled two generations of Japanese music lover, who wanted to share more and more of their idols, living on the other side of the globe.

The Japanese music industry didn’t miss a trick, and began to make lavishly packaged Japanese versions of western LPs. By the late sixties, these included an ‘obi’ (a strip of paper around the disc, introducing the band to Japanese music fans), and an extra bundled lyric sheet with both the original English and the Japanese translation. The Japanese version of the LP would often include extra artwork, pictures and posters, too. Basically, a Japanese vinyl pressing of, say, Wings’ Band on the Run or Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here became a desirable artefact in its own right. Obsessive Japanese fans loved all this of course, and so the idea continued with the launch of CD – free stickers, more photos, postcards, fold-out posters, etc. Even some discs began to be bundled with T-shirts.

In the eighties, Japanese youth culture exploded. Not only did big British boy bands like Wham and Take That make a big splash, but a new breed of ‘J-Pop’ took off, and the record companies played a blinder. So-called ‘superfans’ competed with one another to own the most versions of the CD and the greatest amount of merchandise. The music industry became aware of the ‘always-on fan’, sitting there ready to spend money as fast as possible to signal his or her allegiance to their hero’s musical brand identity. J-Pop artists routinely simultaneously released multiple editions of albums, each with a different free gift. This ‘merchandise retailing disguised as music sales’ is cynical alright, but the Japanese music industry showed a mastery of monetising its clients nevertheless.

CD, like LP before it, has become more than just a mere ‘music carrier’ in Japan. It is the centrepiece of ‘the handshake economy’, where fans consent to buying a whole range of other artist-associated paraphernalia. One can now begin to see how a music streaming package doesn’t quite achieve the same effect when the physical media route is already so strongly entrenched. For those of us who love CD, this is a great thing – music is wonderful, but some of us want an even more immersive fan experience.

The downside is that things have now gone from the sublime to the ridiculous, in the J-Pop world. Japanese ‘idoru’ are daytime TV celebrities, some of whom are ‘musicians’ with regular TV shows devoted to them. The music industry has tied up with these, so that superfans can vote multiple times for their favourite members of the band to get the best coverage. Whereas in Western talent shows, this would involve calling a premium phone line, in Japan it involves an official voting slip which is bundled inside the band’s latest CD. The result is that on the day of such votes, all around Japan you can see discarded CDs in city garbage cans, with the voting slip missing. So, next time you’re in Tokyo and walk out of one of that city’s record stores with an AKB48, Nogizaka 46 or Deep Girl CD, don’t be surprised if a thirteen year old girl asks you for the voting slip!