The music industry in Japan is afraid, that much is clear. Even behemoths like Sony Music Entertainment are being forced to admit that the Internet exists, industry figures are looking with greedy eyes at the attention their Korean neighbours have been gaining abroad, and artists deemed to have the potential for overseas appeal like kooky fashion icon Kyary Pamyupamyu and electro idol trio Perfume are being tentatively shipped out on carefully stage managed tours, playing tiny venues guaranteed to sell out. No one knows how things are going to play out, and they are worried. They are afraid.
And for music fans, it’s good that industry is afraid, because their fear comes from a lack of control, and the control the music business exerts over its product is bad for music. Troubled times create cracks in the system, through which unexpected things may pass. Idol music might not be everyone’s cup of heart-shaped latté, but the explosion of new acts incorporating a variety of increasingly bizarre musical and visual styles is at least something different, and is the direct result of an industry unsure of where to go. The aforementioned Ms. Pamyupamyu and Perfume are also artists who emerged from the cracks, propelled by subcultural appeal into unexpected success.Kyary Pamyupamyu: Invader Invader
And there are signs that the music industry might be starting to come to terms with its fears, finding a way to work with the still new (to them) technology of the web, and reconfiguring their marketing to deal with the way fan behaviour has changed over the past ten years. Needless to say, music fans will likely not be the first to benefit.
One way we can see these changes occurring is in music videos. Having traditionally enjoyed a healthy income from video cassette and DVD sales, the music industry’s initial reaction to video streaming sites like YouTube was one of abject horror, and they blamed them for everything from Hurricane Katrina to the Kennedy assassinations. The viral success of Kyary Pamyupamyu’s “Ponponpon” in 2011, however, did a lot to encourage them that maybe video streaming sites could be made to work for them. Nowadays, all major labels have a YouTube channel, and are raking in a smidgeon of cash from the advertising.
In terms of fans, there has been a clear decline in the amount of money what we can loosely call “mainstream” music fans are willing to spend, which leaves the industry with the option of either looking outwards like the Koreans, or consolidating inwards like, let’s say, the British Empire.
As someone who has spent the past nine years involved in indie promotion in Japan, insofar as I have any kind of strategy at all (something many who have had the misfortune to work with me may choose to strenuously doubt), it tends towards fostering a core group of fans who are genuinely into the music, and who are dedicated enough to come to the shows and buy the CDs. Everyone’s welcome, but some kinds of people are obviously going to be more receptive than others and it makes sense to give them more attention.
On the face of it, a popular, major label group is faced with a slightly different set of circumstances. If they’ve got this far, they most likely already have a core group of fans, and these fans are going to buy the records regardless, so their goal would seem to be to reach outside this core group and try to capture the stray dollars of people with a more casual interest in the band.
One thing that seems logical for both indies and majors here is the value of having a nice video, ready for people to share on YouTube. An indie video can be shared via specialist blogs or networks of genre aficionados on Twitter and Facebook, helping to introduce them to prospective fans; a major label video that goes viral shouldn’t impact on sales to core fans, and might bring in a few extra sales from elsewhere.
Not so for the Japanese music industry though, where companies seem to be even more aggressively than ever pursuing a core fan strategy. And this is where the issue of videos comes up again, because look once more at YouTube and while major labels are happy to take Google’s advertising crumbs and seed the ground with videos from smaller acts in the event of an unanticipated viral harvest, they are focusing ever harder on maintaining tight control over the image rights of their key properties.
“Gentleman”, Psy’s attempt to follow up the success of viral sensation “Gangnam Style”, racked up millions of YouTube views and posted U.S. sales of around 70,000 in its first week. For a song inevitably doomed to be seen by History as the first step in Psy’s inexorable slide back into relative international obscurity (I’ve still got money on him finally getting big in Japan about three years after everyone else has forgotten about him), those numbers aren’t too shabby. So why is the Japanese record industry running shy of these possibilities?Psy: Gentleman
Part of this is probably because they’ve decided that on balance, it isn’t worth it. My back of a fag packet calculation gives a viral video about one sale for every thousand YouTube views. I would imagine there’s a lot of variation from video to video depending on how viewers are engaging with it, and there’s probably some sort of curve involved depending on the level of saturation, but in any case, we need millions and millions of views to make any meaningful impact on a major label act’s sales figures.
So what countervailing advantages does pursuing a core fan strategy have for the Japanese music industry? Well, at one extreme, just look at mass idol collective AKB48 and their legions of obsessive fans, some willing to spend millions of yen on thousands of copies of a single in order to gain multiple voting rights in the group’s annual “senbatsu election” of the most popular members. Not only the CDs, but an ever growing pile of goods that the fans are encouraged to buy and buy again in order to show their devotion to the goddess of their particular sect within the AKB cult. AKB48 are an extreme example, but they’re the big success story in the domestic industry, and their success in monetising fans within a shrinking market has been noted with interest by their competitors.
One problem with the AKB method is that it is so reliant on CD sales, which in a marketplace increasingly having to come to terms with iTunes and similar legal download sites, and where streaming services like Sony Music Unlimited and soon Spotify are gradually carving out a place for themselves (several years too late, but well done anyway), this model is already an anachronism. AKB48’s enormous sales are the Tyrannosaurus Rex stalking the late Cretaceous of the CD format’s lifespan. One download buys you the song, and if you want to download it again, well it’s already yours. If a fan who spent ¥2,000,000 on over a thousand copies of the CD single wants to give them that ¥2,000,000 via Music Unlimited, he’s going to be busy.
So it’s not music, but goods that are the key to exploiting (and I do mean exploiting) the core fanbase, and the key to goods is image rights. Videos can also be monetised, not as promotional materials, but as commodities in their own rights, and by ruthlessly shutting out YouTube users from access to the videos, they can then sell exclusive broadcast rights to the videos to certain TV channels, to which the core fans must obediently turn, or flog them as video downloads to fans’ smartphones. This shift can be seen in the way the music industry in Japan now refuses to use the term PV (“promotional video”, i.e. for promotion) and has en masse adopted the term MV (“music video”, i.e. a discrete product whose value is intrinsic).
So a group like Perfume, having taken the big step by Japanese industry standards of making their music available to buy online internationally (still few of their J-pop peers have been willing to take the risk, whatever they imagine it might be), have been preparing to embark on an international tour with a new single and a clever, imaginative and quite charming video that their management company, Amuse, has until recently been vigorously battling to make sure none of their fans were able to see.
Yet Perfume are among the radicals, the trailblazers of modernity, and as a rule, they seem to be releasing the videos from captivity eventually, allowing them to roam their natural online environment after they have completed their terms of indenture to whatever broadcast organisation into whose service they were sold (Magic of Love finally appeared on Perfume’s official channel last week). The broader picture though, of an industry suspicious of the outside, not just of other countries but now of potential domestic fans from outside core fanbase groups, turning with ever greater cynicism towards the cultivation and exploitation of those fans devotion, is a profoundly depressing one.Perfume: Magic of Love
It’s inevitable in a way that once it begins to become accustomed to a new technology, an industry will first seek ways to retain control over it, and of course it’s natural that businesses will want to protect their profits before all else. It would be naive to attempt to deny this. At the moment, the Japanese music industry is still afraid, but what’s really dispiriting in all this is the way that in the midst of seismic changes in the marketplace, they are still channeling their resources into attempts to chart a path that turns the clock not forwards but backwards.