Japan is a symbol of the future. Their cities look like scenes from Blade Runner, they pretty much invented reality TV and their populus get the new version of every gadget and gizmo months before poor sods in this country do. Even their pop music sounds so batshit it makes Grimes sound like Ellie Goulding moonlighting as a Butlins red coat.
But, for all their looks toward the future, it's strange that the country continues to be enamored with the humble Compact Disc, a format so outdated that teenagers nowadays are likely to look at it with the same bewilderment as they do an abacus or Mini-Disc. You're more likely to see a CD used as a prison shank or tool to pick up dog shit than you are to store music, and that's pretty much a fact.
The figures are startling: CDs account for a massive 85% of all album sales in the country, compared to just 57.2% in the States and 64% in the UK. Tower Records, who closed all their U.S branches in 2006, are currently booming in Japan, operating 85 stores nationwide. Strangely, digital sales in Japan are in decline too, falling from $1 billion in 2009 to $400 million last year; with no streaming services like Spotify, Deezer or Rdio prominent in the region either.
A recent New York Times editorial lists traits like a collectible goods culture as a possible explanation, while industry factors - such as price caps and complicated licensing laws - may have had an impact. We were kinda baffled at why Japanese people still love CDs so much, so we spoke about the matter to Hiroshi Oyamada from Tokyo's Tugboat Records, a label that's released albums by Baths, Doldrums, The Drums and more to the Japanese market.
Noisey: Hi Hiroshi. Why do you think the Japanese prefer to own music physically?
Hiroshi: One reason is that there still are many songs and albums not released on the digital format. Japanese people prefer things you can see or touch, something that exists in real life. For example, I heard the credit card has a low penetration rate in Japan compared to other countries, as people prefer physical form of currency here. We even have this word called “Jake-gai” (literally “buying jacket”). It means to buy products such as CD, vinyls and books, based on the quality of its cover art and design.
Why is it that digital music sales have decreased and that major streaming platforms like Spotify are almost non-existant?
I think there’s a pattern in digital music listeners. They follow the paths that goes from Youtube to Soundcloud to online music stores. In that sense, they are probably satisfied with these services and they don’t reach the point where they buy music digitally from online music stores.
I think streaming gradually started becoming popular recently.
Is there much of an illegal downloading culture in Japan?
Some people download illegally but it hasn’t become that popular or active to call it a culture yet. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking though.
Over in the West, vinyl is probably the only physical platform having a resurgence right now. Has vinyl also experienced a revival in Japan?
Not as much as UK or US yet, but I know some stores started selling vinyl more and more, so there is a sign of a revival, I guess.
We don’t sell vinyl at our label, however.
What percentage of your sales are for CD, compared to digital?
CDs account for around 80% of all our sales and digital just 20%.
Do you feel like Japan's attachment to music in a physical form - especially a platform like the Compact Disc, which we see as pretty dated in the UK - contradicts its love of forward-thinking technology?
I don’t think they contradict each other. People do love something handy and technologically advanced, but sometimes you grow attached to something that requires time and patience, don’t you think?
Sure. Thanks for your time!
Follow Luke on Twitter: @lkmrgnbrttn