A turbulent 12 months

by Philip Brasor

Like pretty much everything these days, the fortunes of the music business in 2008 were mainly tied to the global economy. CD sales have long been dropping steadily, mostly due to the steady increase in illegal downloading, but until this year, top artists could still count on fairly decent sales, and indie bands were doing OK by taking the do-it-yourself route.

The center didn’t hold in 2008. EMI closed offices all over the world and talked about joining forces with Warner. BMG, which in 2004 hooked up worldwide with Sony, as Sony BMG, basically evaporated when Sony bought it out in October — leaving Japan as the only remaining territory where BMG maintains its brand. V2 Records, once one of the world’s most important indie labels, stopped putting out new music. The simple truth is that people — or, at least, young people — don’t see the point in paying for music anymore.

However, if the record business is dying, it’s mostly poisoned by its own hand. In a critical piece that appeared last May in the Asahi Shimbun, music journalist Daisuke Tsuda took Japan’s music industry to task for its continuously gloomy outlook and self-pitying attitude. Tsuda says that record companies obsess over CD sales as an excuse for maintaining high retail prices and asking for stricter copyright laws, both of which hurt consumers in the end. With more imagination and an open-price policy — the prices of domestically manufactured CDs in Japan are still fixed — these companies could turn themselves around without too much trouble.

The fact is, people are still willing to pay for music, as evidenced by the relatively healthy concert industry. Tsuda points out that in Japan from 1998 to 2007, CD sales dropped almost by half, while concert ticket sales during the same period increased by more than 30 percent.

And with the yen higher than it’s been against the dollar for 20 years, Japan is and will be seeing a lot more foreign acts, especially those who aren’t necessarily getting the love they think they deserve back home. This week, tickets go on sale for two Janet Jackson concerts in February at the Saitama Super Arena, one of the biggest venues in the country. Her “Rock Witchu” U.S. tour famously flamed out earlier this year, supposedly due to health problems and “scheduling conflicts,” but there were rumors that in reality the headliner couldn’t stand the idea of playing to half-full arenas. Presumably, she has more confidence in her Japanese fans, as do the Japanese promoters, who are charging up to ¥22,000 for tickets.

Here, television still plays a major role in promoting music, which is why the likes of Ms. Jackson, Britney Spears and Madonna flew to Japan this past year just to appear on TV variety shows to plug their albums.

TV isn’t as important as it used to be overseas, where newer technologies are becoming increasingly important for artists to just make a living. The Internet is basically the place where new acts are broken and older ones are propped up. The worldwide success of indie artists such as Vampire Weekend, Santogold and Black Kids was completely blog-driven. While these artists didn’t necessarily burn up the charts, they sold out wherever they played, and they played all over the world.

The biggest album of the year, Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III,” followed up dozens of mix-tapes that the New Orleans rapper had made and given away for free over the Internet the past several years. These mix-tapes generated fans and caught the attention of influential critics, so by the time “Tha Carter III” came out, people were waiting for it. It was the kind of cheap, effective marketing strategy that could only be carried out by an individual, even if the benefactor in this case was a major label.

Compare Lil Wayne’s success with another Universal Records act, Guns N’ Roses, whose “Chinese Democracy,” heralded by its label as the most anticipated album in the history of the world, underperformed monumentally. By all accounts, music fans just weren’t convinced that Axl Rose’s magnum opus, which was 17 years in the making, was going to be as good as the old-fashioned hype would have it. Wayne presold himself with his generous mix-tapes, while Axl just played the self-absorbed hermit.

Internet notoriety doesn’t translate as dynamically in Japan, though a lot of local acts are finding fans overseas. Japanese pop-metal bands such as Dir En Grey enjoyed successful foreign tours this past year, mostly thanks to Internet word of mouth. Moreover, J-pop survivor Bonnie Pink and electro-rock duo Boom Boom Satellites expanded their profiles by getting songs attached to, respectively, an Xbox 360 game and a PlayStation anime released in the U.S. and Europe.

This sort of cross-platform marketing seems the way to go right now. Metallica, the most famous metal band in the world, received more press for licensing not only their songs but also their images to the popular video game “Guitar Hero” than they did for “Death Magnetic,” their first album since 2003.

Digital sales skyrocketed this year in Japan, which recently became the No. 1 market in terms of per capita downloads. One of the more unusual success stories of 2008 was the all-male vocal quartet GReeeeN from Fukushima Prefecture. The group’s sixth single, “Kiseki” (“Miracle”), was released in May and has been legally downloaded a million times since then. The band’s subsequent album, “Ah, Domo. Hisashiburi Desu” (“Oh, Thank You. It’s Been a While”) has sold 900,000 copies both in CD form and digitally.

GReeeeN have never performed live anywhere or appeared on TV. In fact, the public has no idea what the members look like. Universal Music has already exploited the phenomenon by having two of its foreign artists, reggae star C.J. Lewis and party animal Andrew W.K., record singles of GReeeeN songs for the Japanese market.

Another latent winner was Perfume, a trio of young women from Hiroshima who have been singing technopop since 2001 but only broke big this year, notching not only a No. 1 album (the first for a techno-oriented group since Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1983) but a two-night stand at Budokan.

In fact, Perfume’s grassroots success puts the big local music story of the year in proper perspective. Tetsuya Komuro, currently out on bail after his arrest for defrauding an investor by selling him a catalog of songs Komuro didn’t own, dominated the Japanese charts during the 1980s with his own style of techno-dance music. But, when that style no longer held its own against music preferences after the turn of the millennium, he failed to adjust.

Now, Japanese pop is now dominated by what is casually referred to as R&B, as characterized by the music of AI, BoA and to a lesser extent Hikaru Utada. It’s a distinct sound that music fans prefer to Komuro’s Eurobeat, and by this time next year it may be eclipsed by something else entirely — maybe technopop. Based on the past year, the only thing you can count on is that nothing will stay the same.