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3G phones — putting your music where your mouth is

by Steve McClure

Today’s topic, class, is how to promote music in Japan and keep the Japanese music biz afloat. Are you ready? Then I’ll begin.

Now, those of you above a certain age will recall with fondness the transistor radio. Remember the sense of freedom it gave you when you were a teenager, eager to break the familial bonds and establish your own independent identity?

That was then and this is . . . oh yeah, it’s 2001, and radios aren’t exactly the hottest consumer item around. Not that the technology itself is outmoded. But in Japan, at least, there’s not a hell of a lot of great music to be heard on the radio, with the exception, of course, of the many fine programs on InterFM, including my own “Beyond the Charts” weekly noisefest.

Another reason radio is a less crucial entertainment medium in Japan than in North America, for example, is simply that radio is the natural medium of choice when you use your car to commute. Most Japanese take the train or subway in the morning and would rather read or sleep during their commute, it seems.

Which goes some way to explaining why there are only 48 FM radio stations in all of Japan (population: 126 million) and there are more than 5,000 in the United States (population: 275 million). Figure it out: Americans have a lot more choice when it comes to FM radio, where the focus is on music programming, than Japanese.

The wise folks at the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry have always been extremely reluctant to approve new FM radio licenses. Perhaps they want to avoid “market confusion,” that wonderfully wacky euphemism for competition used on occasion by Nagata-cho bureaucrats.

So to promote their music, Japanese musicians and the record labels to which they’re signed rely on other media such as magazines and TV, which offer highly compromised “tieups.” In a tieup deal, a song is used as a theme for a commercial or TV show, and artists and songwriters often sign away the royalties they would normally get for such use of their music in exchange for the exposure.

Where, I hear you asking, is this all leading? Well, as you have no doubt noticed, most young and many not-so-young Japanese spend an inordinate amount of time talking and sending/receiving e-mail on their cell phones. The bulk of teenagers’ spending money goes on their keitai, to the great dismay of the music industry, which would rather have them shell out their money on the latest collection of remixed B-sides by Mini-Moni or similar sonic treasures.

Later this year, we’ll see the launch of third-generation (3G) mobile phones, whose wider bandwidth will enable music, video and other entertainment content to be downloaded much more easily.

The way I see it, if the Japanese music business plays its cards right, the 3G keitai could become the pocket radios of tomorrow. Like radios, they’re cheap, portable and, most important, cool.

Besides using your keitai to check out song samples at record labels’ and retailers’ Web sites, you’ll be able (in theory, at least) to check out Web sites offering Internet-based “personalized radio”: streaming-music services featuring what the site operators reckon are tunes you’ll like, based upon a user profile you’ve submitted.

And while you’ll use earphones to listen to music directly from your keitai while on the go, you’ll also be able to download tunes onto a memory-storage device and listen to the music through your home stereo or computer.

The Japanese music biz, faced with an ever-shrinking teenage demographic and lower per capita spending on music, desperately needs a way to promote music more effectively and so boost music sales — especially sales of singles, which have been declining drastically in recent months due to the popularity of “maxi-singles.” The keitai could be the answer.

That optimistic scenario is tempered by the fact that Japanese record labels have been slow to realize and develop the potential of new-fangled technologies such as online distribution and Internet radio. There is no regulatory framework for Internet radio in Japan, and the label execs I talk to are often ignorant of the difference between downloadable files and streaming audio (which can’t be copied).

I suspect that after an initial period of opposition, the Japanese music industry will wake up to the potential that the Internet and the Internet-capable keitai represents. Then the keitai really will be the radio of the 21st century.

Some people I know hate the whole idea of the omnipresent keitai. Reminds me of what older folks said about those damned transistor radios back in my tender youth.