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We’ve got high expectations

by Steve McClure

A while back, I was whingeing about how Japan needs a music awards show that has more popular input. Well, the good folks at MTV Japan have done something to help remedy that problem. On May 24, it will host the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards Japan.

Videos of music titles by both Japanese and non-Japanese acts released in Japan between Jan. 1, 2001, and Feb. 28, 2002, will be eligible for the MTV awards. Nominees in various categories will be chosen by a committee comprising MTV Japan staffers and industry notables, and MTV Japan viewers will vote for the winners.

I’m curious to see how well Japanese videos will do against the foreign nominees. To be blunt, Japanese music videos often suffer by comparison. Record companies here can’t afford to spend too much money on making music videos, since there are few media outlets like MTV Japan where they can be seen. And because a relatively low percentage of Japanese homes have cable TV, MTV Japan has a limited reach anyway.

The awards ceremony will be preceded by a concert featuring various nominees on May 23, and both events are shaping up to be glamorous, glitzy affairs. This is a great chance for MTV to really make its mark in Japan, which has never taken to MTV the way the rest of the world has. And maybe MTV can help liven up the moribund Japanese music biz.

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Four-member female idol group Max will soon be reduced to a trio following the announcement by group member Mina, 24, that she is three months’ pregnant and that she and her boyfriend, Shin-ichi Inoue, 37, were married on Jan. 30. Inoue is a member of Max’s concert tour staff, and it seems he and Mina have been an item for the past five years or so. Word is that Mina plans to rejoin the group some time in the future.

Also expecting is singer/actress Miki Imai, who announced her pregnancy on her Web site the other day. She’s married to rocker Tomoyasu Hotei. Let’s hope the sometimes painfully thin Imai puts on some weight over the next few months.

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Until recently, music file-sharing services such as Napster and Gnutella haven’t been nearly as popular in Japan as in other parts of the world. One reason is Japan’s comparatively low rate of personal-computer use. Another is the existence of the CD-rental business, which makes it easy and cheap to copy your favorite songs from CD to minidisc or cassette. But when a Japanese-language file-sharing service recently began to attract hosts of users, the local music business went into panic mode.

On Jan. 29, the Recording Industry Association of Japan — which represents major record companies — and copyright-protection group the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers launched Japan’s first-ever legal action against a Web-based music file-sharing service. They applied for a provisional disposition against Hachioji-based Japan MMO Ltd. to stop the company from facilitating the exchange of MP3 music files via its File Rogue Web site ( www.filerogue.net ).

The site has been in operation since Nov. 1, and the RIAJ says Japan MMO has refused to stop providing the file-sharing service despite repeated requests to do so. The RIAJ says some 70,000 MP3 files are currently available through the site.

RIAJ chairman/CEO Isamu Tomitsuka says Japan will become a “pirates’ paradise” if services like File Rogue are allowed to operate.

Now the RIAJ has every right to protect its members’ interests — I don’t subscribe to the jejune notion that recorded music somehow belongs to “the people,” instead of the people who create it and invest in it. But the RIAJ is going to find it hard to get public support for its fight against online file-sharing as long as it backs retention of the saihan system.

Saihan allows Japanese record labels to set the retail prices of CDs, which are among the highest in the world. Several labels have recently adopted a more flexible stance on saihan, but getting rid of it altogether would create an enormous amount of goodwill and maybe even discourage people from downloading MP3s.