What’s Big In Japan?

Jerry Lucky Commentary September 2013

Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2013 All Rights Reserved


Some of you noticed that I took a bit of a break at the beginning of August. It’s true. My wife and I took a short holiday to Orlando, Florida. Man was it hot and humid! Us West Coasters aren’t used to that. While in Orlando I checked the web to see if there were any good record stores. The one everyone seemed to rave about was a place called Park Avenue CD’s. So I checked it out and it was a small store but had a little bit of everything from books, to vinyl to rock paraphernalia. The one thing I was most pleased about was discovering they had a dedicated section of CD’s for Progressive Rock and Psychedelic. It was only two columns of mostly re-released early prog and psych, but as I say I was glad to see they had a dedicated section for the music I enjoy. When it comes to larger selection at a “brick and mortar” store…I’ll just have to wait for my next visit to Amoeba Records.


When I got back I saw a story on the news that defied current trends. So much so that even the news reporter had trouble explaining the “story behind the story.” The headline to the TV piece was that while CD sales have continued to tumble in most parts of the world…In Japan it’s just the OPPOSITE! In Japan CD sales are actually INCREASING. The reporter talked about how the record companies in Japan go to great lengths to add things to the CD (DVD’s, extra tracks, extra artwork, invitations to events, etc.) all in an effort to keep people interested and buying CDs. And it seems to be working.


Now I’ve written before about the value of the physical CD in the world of prog, and how it may have more of a place in this genre than others. But this up-tick in sales got me wondering yet again: why are CD sales dropping here. After all some of those tricks with extra stuff have been or are being tried here too. Why don’t our music fans respond similarly? It can’t be the fact that we have greater access to digital technology…we are talking about Japan here. They have all the latest and greatest gear that we do. It makes me wonder if perhaps it’s a function of the music or fan culture that we’ve created. And when I say “we” I mean the artists and the industry.


Having lived through the early days of Top 40 radio then into the era of the Album and now to the digital age offers some context to what is currently happening. In those early days of Top 40 radio the only thing you could buy was the single and whatever else was put on the “b” side. So that’s what we did as kids, we bought singles. At that time albums were just starting to become a purchasable commodity and if they were from England they usually didn’t contain the singles – those were included on the Extended Plays. But during the mid-sixties as the psychedelic era blossomed and bands started to experiment with music the era of the album was born.


Now it occurs to me everything was fine with album sales as long as there was a musical “reason” to buy an album. If the album itself had a sense of musical purpose it made sense to hand over the money for the album. If on the other hand the album was merely a collection of singles the question would naturally arise; why buy the whole album?


Therefore as long as the musical genre’s that were popular, i.e. psychedelic, progressive rock, then clearly the music that was being created was something that merited purchasing the whole album. It didn’t hurt that for a time radio was playing some of the longer more experimental albums as well. But then in the late seventies as music scene changed and as radio stopped playing the wider playlists and started to focus once again of more restricted playlists all of this started to change.


So here we are once again in an era of singles and hit songs. All the latest research still shows that almost 75% of new music is discovered on terrestrial radio stations and then downloaded to MP3 players. And that’s true of even the youngest demos. The radio industry keeps pumping out the limited playlist of top 40 hit songs and it’s no surprise that music buyers only focus is what’s “popular.” After all nobody gets to hear anything outside the mainstream unless they intentionally go looking for it.  Should we be surprised that the focus is solely on the hit, the single?


Which brings us back to why CD’s sales are increasing in Japan…and not so much here anymore. To my mind it’s about the culture. They place a lot of value on the packaging and the physical contact or possession of the thing. In some ways it appears the music buying culture in Japan hasn’t been as co-opted by the digital age as the West. Here, we no longer seem to care about having the disc…it’s all about the immediacy of the download. I want it now!


Who knows what the final impact of this will be. Is it something we should be concerned about? Is there a danger to our incessant desire for instant gratification? Will there be a more serious impact as a result of our failure to think about these things? Well, whatever will happen, will happen and you know what? The law of unintended consequences has a funny way of waking us up. Sometimes it’s too late…but it wakes us up. At least that’s what I think.


Jerry Lucky