|

Shed a tear, pass the hat

by Steve McClure

What a Drag Dept.: Two well-known music mags, FM Fan and Indies Magazine, are calling it quits after their December issues. Falling advertising revenues are why their publishers, Kyodo News and Rittor Music, respectively, have decided to shut them down.

FM Fan started publishing in the 1970s, when commercial FM radio was in its infancy in Japan. As well as offering detailed program information, it also ran feature stories, interviews and selected Billboard charts (of interest to me, since I’m Billboard’s Japan correspondent). However, over the last several years, FM Fan lost its raison d’e^tre, as FM radio no longer had a novelty value and music mags with more hip appeal entered the market.

To me, it’s much more surprising that Indies Magazine is kaput, as the indies scene here is so incredibly active right now, with a steadily rising share of the overall music market. But the recession is really hitting the publishing industry hard, and niche publications like Indies Magazine are the first to get axed. Besides the amazing amount of info contained in each issue, Indies also came with a full-length CD with tracks by bands profiled in each issue — for 1,200 yen, it was a fantastic deal.

*  *  *  

I was shocked to learn that SMAP will not be performing in this year’s edition of that venerable Japanese showbiz institution, “Kohaku Utagassen (Red and White Song Contest),” on New Year’s Eve. The speculation is that this is because of SMAP member Goro Inagaki’s arrest in August, after he allegedly bumped a policewoman with his car as she tried to give him a parking ticket. Inagaki wasn’t charged, but the slightest hint of scandal has always been enough to keep even the biggest acts off the show. For example, the late, great Hibari Misora was not selected to perform for a few years after her brother was implicated in some illegal activities.

Meanwhile, former teenage idol Hiromi Go will apparently be making his last (and 22nd) appearance on the show this year; while enka singer Saburo Kitajima will be making his 38th — more than any other “Kohaku Utagassen” performer. And — yea! — Morning Musume will be making their fourth appearance on the program.

For me, the musical highlight of each year’s show is Sayuri Ishikawa, a classic enka belter who’s got more soul than the rest of the Red team put together. Apart from Ishikawa, I don’t really watch the program for the music. In its attempt to project the ideal of a big, happy national community, “Kohaku Utagassen” is totally out of touch with contemporary reality. But I enjoy it all the same, because it’s just so damned tacky and charming, in its own bizarre way. I don’t care which team wins — I want to see just how grotesquely over-the-top Sachiko Kobayashi’s outfit will be this year.

*  *  *  

The concept of charity albums and singles has really caught on in the Japanese pop world recently. Earlier this year, Ryuichi Sakamoto put together a single to raise money for the campaign against landmines, and now the Avex label is releasing a “songnation” series of duets by several of its female singers to aid international refugee-relief efforts. The first single in the series is by Ayumi Hamasaki and globe vocalist Keiko, and it boasts the very earnest-sounding title, “A Song Is Born.” The lyrics are by Hamasaki and the music is by Tetsuya Komuro, who is the overall producer for the series.

I’ve never been a big fan of either Hamasaki’s or Keiko’s singing styles, but on “A Song Is Born,” they sound a little more relaxed and, well, human, than in the past.

While there’s always a certain amount of “Dig me, I’m such a warm-hearted humanitarian” vibe about showbiz charity projects like this, worthy causes do get some badly needed cash.