Record Store Day finds its groove in Japan

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

It won’t be business as usual at Big Love Records this Saturday, April 19. The store, one of the best places to shop for records in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku neighborhood, will be selling limited-edition music from various artists, including film director David Lynch. Meanwhile, shadowy beatmaker Sapphire Slows will perform live at the store. Shop owner Masashi Naka says visitors can buy beer, and get free food, if they buy some music. It’s all in celebration of Record Store Day.

“It has only been a few years since (Record Store Day) began in Japan, but people nowadays don’t just visit us to buy special records, they come to celebrate our store,” Naka says. “Our beer kegs are empty by the end of the day.”

Record Store Day began in the United States in 2007. The official website says it was organized by a collection of record store owners and employees to “celebrate and spread the word about the unique culture” surrounding such establishments, which have taken monetary hits with the advent of digital music. Since then, the day has become a global recognition of brick-and-mortar music stores, featuring special records that go on sale for only one day and in-store performances (the likes of Metallica and Jack White have played notable gigs).

Kenji Suzuki, the head manager of Record Store Day Japan, didn’t hear about the concept until 2010 when the band Electric Eel Shock introduced it to him. The first official Japanese edition happened the following year, but Suzuki says the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, forced them to scale back on their plans.

The festivities really kicked off in April 2012, when four artists (Kinoko Hotel, Syoko Suzuki, Carnation and moonriders) agreed to release limited-edition records for the event.

“In 2013, 14 artists joined up. But this year, 43 artists will be taking part,” Suzuki says. “A big reason why Record Store Day is getting bigger is because artists and listeners are becoming more interested in vinyl in Japan.”

While Suzuki notes an interest in vinyl, earlier this year the recording industry announced a slump in both physical and digital music sales in Japan, resulting in an overall revenue decline of 15 percent. Could Record Store Day be a way to bring listeners back to music?

The 2014 installment of the event is the organization’s largest to date, with major stores such as Tower Records participating alongside independent sellers. There are Record Store Day events in 20 prefectures this year, with 30 stores in Tokyo taking part (that number is inflated, as every Tower Records, HMV and Disc Union branch is counted separately). Some locations have been celebrating vinyl for a month now, like the Parco Department store in Hiroshima that hosted a Record Market in March.

Even more interesting are the artists releasing limited singles and albums. It’s not surprising to see smaller-scale outfits such as Tokyo indie-rock mainstays Cubismo Grafico Five, Kyoto folk poppers Turntable Films or hardcore outfit Lostage take part. But major label acts such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Kaela Kimura, Asian Kung-Fu Generation and Quruli are among those also getting in on the action.

Mainstream artist participation in Record Store Day has been the norm overseas for a while now, and that has also become a sore point with critics.

“At first, it was more about going to your local store to support them by buying limited-edition goods, but now it’s just about the special analog records,” Suzuki says about criticism he has heard. Some fear the event has become more about procuring limited records only to sell them later for a profit, the “unique culture” aspect trumpeted by Record Store Day is being replaced by consumer greed.

“Other Japanese record stores are taking pre-orders for limited-edition items, or are selling them earlier than April 19. They have no idea what Record Store Day even means,” Naka says. “No offense, but it’s just pitiful. It almost seems impossible to convey to the Japanese how crucial it is to visit and celebrate the actual stores.”

Big Love Records will carry limited-edition items (besides David Lynch, they will also sell a special record courtesy of Canadian act Dirty Beaches among other offerings), but Naka once again stresses the experience of going to the store and meeting like-minded music fans.

Many of the participating stores — all viewable on the official Record Store Day Japan website — primarily promote themselves as being a place where music lovers can buy limited-edition items. However, some are taking an extra step.

Okinawa’s CD And Records ’69, for example, will have “analog-only” DJ sets along with a “slip face” contest in which people can take photos of themselves with record covers in front of their face. Nagoya-area staple Banana Records, meanwhile, has a smart way to get customers out to the physical stores — any purchases made on April 19 will be ¥500 cheaper. Disc Union stores across Tokyo will offer limited goods, too — any Record Store Day purchase will come with a special sticker, while spending more than ¥10,000 will score shoppers a special tote bag.

The most common Record Store Day events, though, are concerts celebrating the yearly event. The official organization is putting on two shows before Saturday. The first, happening tonight at Shibuya’s WWW, features a performance by Asian Kung-Fu Generation lead singer (and official Record Store Day Japan ambassador) Masafumi Gotoh along with sets from Turntable Films and The fin., while Gotoh and former Megadeth member Marty Friedman will have a discussion about vinyl. On Thursday, subversive idol pop outfit BiS (whose latest album, “Who Killed Idol?,” will be issued as a special record this Saturday) play at Omotesando live house Cay.

Even more goes down on April 19. In Osaka, Flake Records and Second Royal Records will put on a special show at Digmeout Art & Diner that will feature Kansai acts, while at night DJs representing local stores Drum & Bass Records and Root Down Records will host an event at club Wax. A Kumamoto Record Store Day event will happen at Little Star Hall on the third floor of Nagasaki book store, and feature a free set from Keron. Back in the capital, electronic music store Technique will host a special popup store presented by Rainbow Disco Club, featuring DJs all day. Tower Records in Shibuya, meanwhile, is set to host in-store DJs and discussions all day.

“Records are like a pet or a loved one, as they can be a pain to take care of but in the end they are worth the return,” Suzuki says. “Records give you more substance. We think this is the year that the Japanese analog record scene makes a comeback.”

Record Store Day is on April 19. For more information, visit www.recordstoreday.jp. For more information on Big Love Records, visit www.bigloverecords.jp.