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Leave charts to fans of music, not gimmicks

by

Special To The Japan Times

Anyone who pays any kind of attention to the music charts in Japan knows that for many years now they’ve been a joke.

Year-end charts are increasingly clogged up with mass idol collectives, sales buoyed by multiple purchases from “otaku” (obsessive fans), encouraged by marketing gimmicks that tap into the most primal consumer instincts of the fanboy’s reptilian brain.

One gimmick that has caused controversy recently is the use of music cards with a download code for a particular release, usually made available at a much lower price than CDs, and which permit multiple purchases of the same MP3.

Music cards are not in themselves necessarily a problem. However, when they are used as part of a broad array of different versions, often with bonuses for fans who obediently buy the full set, they can have a distorting effect on the apparent popularity of a song.

Last month, Japanese magazine Cyzo had a lot of fun critiquing Nagoya idol group SKE48 for some of the most cynical exploitations of the music card system, such as including cards free with CDs to instantly double sales, or releasing multiple versions featuring 64 different members’ faces.

Chart company Oricon, an organization that guards its integrity with litigious vigor, eventually noticed that hardly any of the cards purchased were actually being downloaded and removed them from its rankings. SKE48’s “Coquettish Juutai Chuu” will be the last idol release under the current system.

But will this really make a difference?

The problem is that music purchases by idol fans aren’t really music purchases at all: They are a sort of abstract currency by which the fans make extravagant expressions of love for the group — the more you buy, the greater your love. They’re a completely different class of consumer from someone who simply buys a song in order to listen to it, and trying to force them to behave like traditional music fans misses the point.

At the same time, otaku have turned the charts into little more than a stage for the ostentatious, preening displays of their own collective idolatry, and Oricon clearly has to do something if it wants to claw back the shredded remains of its dignity.

Removing music cards from the rankings probably won’t have a great deal of effect, since it does nothing to deal with the bigger — and more difficult to regulate — issue of fans making multiple CD purchases in return for tickets to meet or vote for their favorite members. Even if it did, it would take a braver man than I to claim there’s a wealth of brilliant mainstream J-pop crowding around the gates if only Oricon would let it in (Ikimono-gakari? Wait, AKB48 — I forgive you!)

Even so, it’s a positive first step for Oricon in returning meaning to their rankings and, for music fans, a little more variety would at least make the charts less, y’know, embarrassing.

Of course, no one is stopping fans from continuing to pour their money into the idol-industrial complex’s insatiable maw. Perhaps what it needs is just a way for them to display their obsession that is better suited to their consumption patterns.

My modest proposal: some sort of electronic device that fans can hold at concerts and squeeze as the excitement takes hold, pumping money directly from their bank accounts and credit cards into a swimming pool of cash on the roof of AKB48 manager Yasushi Akimoto’s penthouse.

In the meantime, the music charts can be left in peace.

  • GBR48

    As someone who buys ’48 CDs for the music, and not for the Pokemon ethic of collecting them all, alongside other Jpop, Kpop, Canto-pop, Mando-pop and Western music, I’m getting a bit sick of the JT feeling that it’s writers can insult idol music fans with impunity, upon the basis of the music they like, when it would never permit casual insults to be directed at people for other life choices.

    Yes, the industry has cynical gimmicks (most industries, and most politicians do), but the insulting, arrogant abuse levelled at people who enjoy the music is just cheap and nasty. ‘Reptilian brain’? That doesn’t really merit JT column space, does it.

    By all means complain about the gimmicks, but keep your arrogant abuse of those with musical interests that are different to your own, to yourself.

    There’s nothing to stop the Oricon chart from moderating their figures to counteract these issues. As the AKS charity has raised billions of Yen for the victims of 3/11 and continues to do so, at least some of that Otaku revenue is going to a good cause.

    • Ian Martin

      The reptilian brain/lizard brain is a part of the brain stem that controls instinctive, unconscious responses and everyone has one. I used a bit of creative license and exaggeration for comic effect (the limbic brain is where the kinds of unconscious responses marketers like to play on really take place), but it doesn’t mean you’re actually a lizard.

      • GBR48

        I’d still consider that to be fairly unpleasant. The otaku can be annoying but they are young. Those of us who are not should maybe be a little more generous and forbearing towards the young, particularly at the obsessive end of the spectrum, where some of them may be replacing complex social interaction with idol worship.

        I was annoying as hell when I was young, and I certainly appreciate those who tolerated my excesses with generosity and kindness. We would all like to be young again, but when you are, it can be difficult.

        We all have our own personal bugbears. Mine include wine snobs, music snobs and Apple fanboys. All obsessive in their own sweet way, but much less likely to have the excuse of youth on their side.

      • http://sayonarababy.tumblr.com/ Ronald

        But aren’t most of them older though? Like aren’t these groups meant to appeal to older men?

      • GBR48

        No. That would be creepy and economically counter-productive.

        Wota demographics are more diverse in both age and gender than the image suggests, even if concert/event attendance for AKB48 often seems to be largely younger males.

        For revenue generation, the target audience for obsessive purchasing would be male, teens to 20s, as that is ballpark for maximising otaku spending.

        The music (lyrics) and image pulls in more, younger women/teens. The fan demographic for idol bands is wider than most people assume.

      • http://sayonarababy.tumblr.com/ Ronald

        I’ve had this discussion with fans before and there always seems to be this need to… paint a better picture of the fandom. I’m not saying you’re doing this but this is a thing. And I’ve seen documentaries and concerts and it is largely older men.

        The hint of innocence brings in the older men while the childishness/girliness of the whole thing brings in younger girls.

      • GBR48

        Concerts have a specific demographic, probably due to all the chanting and waving of lightsticks. TV documentaries in areas like this are always biased. They are looking for a specific angle, so they make sure they find it.

      • http://sayonarababy.tumblr.com/ Ronald

        The main reason for the rise of E-girls though is due to the fact that they attract the female fanbase because they present a contemporary image of young women. Why did none of the other girl groups address this market when KPop left that void?

    • http://hello-id.org/ Chafidz Akbar

      “Raised” not donated. It means that he collect money which are not his own and then give them for “charity” under his name.

  • hhhh

    The Oricon chart regulations are extremely loose when you compare them with what happens in other countries.
    In the UK, for example, to have their sales counted by the chart regulators CDs cannot contain any bonus items or tickets, and they’re limited to either two or three different editions I can’t remember the exact details, but you’re free to look for them if you’re interested.
    Even the more down-to-Earth idol groups in Japan tend to include things like photos with their singles, but if they tried that in Britain, they’d be void from the chart. (Notably, Beck’s album “The Information” couldn’t enter when it was released because it includes stickers to decorate the blank album cover.)
    It’s because these comparatively huge loopholes exist that Oricon is so easily exploited, but I suppose they’re reluctant to do something about them because sales are sales and money is money, after all. In the end it’s more Oricon’s fault than the idols’ and their fans’.
    At this point, though, complaining about them is a bit “old man yells at cloud” – it’s more fun to sit back and be amused by the intense shamelessness it takes to abuse the loopholes. Do you think anyone can one-up Kamen Joshi’s hilarious #1 from the beginning of the year?

    • Ian Martin

      The British charts also limit the number of tracks a CD can have and still qualify as a single, if memory serves. Oricon have been accused of gaming the charts to suit certain groups in the past and responded with some particularly vindictive legal tools (I suspect there’s a reason Cyzo took so much glee in sticking the knife in over this issue) so I think it matters symbolically that they’re taking even this small step to clean up the mess their rankings have become, even if it doesn’t make much difference on its own. The fact they allowed these cards but not actual normal downloads from iTunes in the first place is beyond ludicrous.

      • GBR48

        Given the issue of illicit downloading, the CD format may only survive with additional inclusions, whether they be photos, tickets, posters or (in the case of 4Minute’s 5th mini-album, ‘4Minute World’) a desk diary.

        The British chart restrictions may well be killing the physical format in the UK, which isn’t very bright. Whining about piracy and prosecuting consumers whilst damaging their own industry’s chances of incorporating added-value into legal, physical releases suggests grotesque levels of incompetence.

        They could police the charts far more effectively without these restrictions and (in the case of Japan) bundle sales of all versions of a CD together and then divide by the number of releases.

        Some variant editions have merit: DVD or Blu-Ray for concerts, for example. After School’s recent compilation album is available in 3 versions: Live (with a concert DVD), Music Video (with a DVD of the MVs) and regular CD, at three different prices, which seems fair.

        I liked Houkago Princess’s ‘Manatsu no Yoru no Yume’ enough to buy a copy, but one of the eight versions on release was enough. That’s not the only Jpop single to be released with eight different versions. I’m sure even Otaku throw in the towel at some point.

  • http://sayonarababy.tumblr.com/ Ronald

    I would’ve liked if this article had pointed out who is really being hurt by the dismissal of music cards: Avex acts (particularly LDH acts) and KPop acts. J-idols aren’t really being hurt by this. One prime example of a J-idol act using music cards is Sexy Zone releasing a ton of music cards and cd editions in an effort to beat Mr.Children to #1 (which they did, ending their 20-year streak of #1 singles).

    Oricon is also banning the bundling of cds with concert tickets. Again, this is seen as a move against LDH. EXILE famously did this in 2013 with their single “EXILE Pride ~Konna Sekai wo Aisuru Tame~.” That single ended up selling over a million copies, not because people were buying the cd, but because the cd came with the concert ticket and was counted towards Oricon.

    The thing that really needs to be banned are handshake tickets. These are the the biggest cause of Oricon chart inflation. I mean look at AKB48’s new single “Green Flash.” According to Oricon, it sold 1,001,393 copies. But Soundscan, which doesn’t count sales from company stores (therefore not counting the theater editions with the handshake tickets), said that it sold 179,798 copies. This nearly 80% difference in numbers was then split between 8 editions. To be quite honest, that’s a pathetic figure for 8 editions.

    The head of Oricon came out a while ago and shaded AKB48 by saying that Arashi’s sales were out of genuine popularity, alluding to the fact that AKB48’s sales are heavily inflated due to handshake tickets. So why doesn’t he just get rid of handshake tickets? Could it be because if those sales were removed from the market, the market would have a sudden decrease in sales? Million of units would suddenly disappear from the market. This would look bad for the market but then again anyone who follows the market knows that it’s been in bad shape for a while. These gimmicks are what’s buoying the market. There is a give and take here.

    In the end, just look at digital if you really want an idea of what songs are popular. The general public stopped buying physical singles years ago. But then again with the aversion to technological advances in the music industry, the digital charts aren’t given the same respect that the physical singles chart is given. I stopped complaining about the Oricon singles chart years ago because I knew better.

    • SlightlyDisappointed0

      If this column is anything to go by, the mission is clearly taking advantage of the non-existent knowledge of Japanese language of their average readers to fool them with fictional “spooky facts”, hoping someone will eat all up blindidly.

      • http://sayonarababy.tumblr.com/ Ronald

        I see… Like I come across articles on here about Japanese music and they seem really… uninformed and messy. Some good points are made at times (like how Oricon needs to crack down on inflation), but most of the time…

  • http://sayonarababy.tumblr.com/ Ronald

    I would’ve liked if this article had pointed out who is really being hurt by the dismissal of music cards: Avex acts (particularly LDH acts) and KPop acts. J-idols aren’t really being hurt by this. One prime example of a J-idol act using music cards is Sexy Zone releasing a ton of music cards and cd editions in an effort to beat Mr.Children to #1 (which they did, ending their 20-year streak of #1 singles).

    Oricon is also banning the bundling of cds with concert tickets. Again, this is seen as a move against LDH. EXILE famously did this in 2013 with their single “EXILE Pride ~Konna Sekai wo Aisuru Tame~.” That single ended up selling over a million copies, not because people were buying the cd, but because the cd came with the concert ticket and was counted towards Oricon.

    The thing that really needs to be banned are handshake tickets. These are the the biggest cause of Oricon chart inflation. I mean look at AKB48’s new single “Green Flash.” According to Oricon, it sold 1,001,393 copies. But Soundscan, which doesn’t count sales from company stores (therefore not counting the theater editions with the handshake tickets), said that it sold 179,798 copies. This nearly 80% difference in numbers was then split between 8 editions. To be quite honest, that’s a pathetic figure for 8 editions.

    The head of Oricon came out a while ago and shaded AKB48 by saying that Arashi’s sales were out of genuine popularity, alluding to the fact that AKB48’s sales are heavily inflated due to handshake tickets. So why doesn’t he just get rid of handshake tickets? Could it be because if those sales were removed from the market, the market would have a sudden decrease in sales? Millions of units would suddenly disappear from the market. This would look bad for the market but then again anyone who follows the market knows that it’s been in bad shape for a while. These gimmicks are what’s buoying the market. There is a give and take here.

    In the end, just look at digital if you really want an idea of what songs are popular. The general public stopped buying physical singles years ago. But then again with the aversion to technological advances in the music industry, the digital charts aren’t given the same respect that the physical singles chart is given. I stopped complaining about the Oricon singles chart years ago because I knew better.

    • SlightlyDisappointed0

      The digital sales aren’t given respect because they represent a risible (and actually decreasing) portion of Japanese music users, even less than 11% of the grand total.
      If you don’t trust Oricon charts because bonus-driven marketing brought pretty much everyone to attach something extra to their CD releases to stimulate sales (like AVEX does with every one of their cash-cows, this bears repeating), then I have no more reason to trust a market which represents 10.9% of people who purchase music, let alone pretend it’s the vox populi.
      It’s like you’re only looking for a chart that fits your tastes so as to validate your preconceptions, and just go by elimination method until you find the one.
      No, if you really want to be such an Internet rebel, you should shout “To hell with charts, I like what I want to like” and be done with that.

      • http://sayonarababy.tumblr.com/ Ronald

        I bring up popularity this article is clearly trying to find a way to judge what songs are popular. Digital and Soundscan remain the least biased means of figuring out popularity because they are the charts that strip away extras the most.

        As far as digital sales go, they are down from their peak in the middle / end of last decade, but then again the industry has declined a lot since then too. However, a big part of this decline can be attributed to the decline of the mobile digital music market (largely ringtones). The PC music market has actually been growing over the years as people switch from Japanese feature phones to smartphones. But then again, sales of Japanese feature phones are rebounding as of late.

      • Hana

        But songs by Arashi aren’t popular in Japan now. They have A HUGE fanbase, which is made only by girls and women, they ARE NATIONAL ADOLS, but their songs…

      • http://sayonarababy.tumblr.com/ Ronald

        Yeah, Arashi as an entity is popular but their songs are a fanbase thing.

  • SlightlyDisappointed0

    It’s hilarious how in an article about Musiccards, the one being cynically critized is SKE (of all people) and not Avex (whose name isn’t even mentioned once in this whole piece of “news”, surprisingly).
    In this case, let’s get a few facts right for the clueless editors who are still mysteriously allowed to write on this site without any supervision.

    Point 1:
    Despite the article’s strenous effort to make it seems like that AKB invented this sort of marketing or it’s the one exploiting it, the truth is far different. Musiccard is a system invented by Avex, hosted by Avex (digital songs can be downloaded only from servers under the company’s property, as the official site grociously explains), from which only Avex and Avex-associated acts can obviously benefit, and which Avex has been pushing on just about every musical act releasing under their label (surprise, surprise, Avex also releases SKE singles under their label since 2011, who would’ve guessed). Avex was also the one who convinced Oricon to count the digital downloads toward the CD sales in the first place, initially proposing it as an “alternative” to physical purchases.
    Source:
    Oricon: EXILE、ベスト盤を“カード”で発売 日本初の「ミュージック・カード」とは? – 2012-12-04

    Point 2:
    Unlike what this ridicuolous article would suggest, the main group to benefit from sales doping resulting from the Musiccard business has been (since it’s introduction in 2012), none other than Avex’s flagship group: EXILE (again, not even a single mention of it in this article). Avex distributed these Musiccards in such a variety of methods (as prizes, in conjunction with concert tickets, as trading-card sets, etc,,,) during any EXILE event that the term Musiccard has inevitably become associated with EXILE’s name, and to a lesser extend E-Girls’, for years.
    Source:
    J-Cast: EXILE、驚愕の「おまけ商法」 CD発売5か月後に「オリコン1位」返り咲き – 2013/9/20 16:45

    Point 3:
    All Japanese media agrees that the cancellation of Musiccard counting from Oricon charts is a result of EXILE’s exaggerated overdoing of this marketing, and that they would be the most hardly hit by these changes (among all Avex acts still using this method, which also includes people like Hamasaki Ayumi, etc…). Also, the decision to discontinue the Musiccard counting was already announced by the Oricon staff on January 28, so any claim that it was a backlash from SKE’s promotion (or whatever Avex was trying to force on them), is a brazen falsification of the “journalist”.
    Source:
    J-Cast: 「EXILE」のファンは大ショック? オリコンランキング集計法が変更に – 2015/1/30 19:56

    Mr. Ian Martin has sadly become infamous on this site for his hysterical and fundamentally irrational hatred for AKB groups, the fact he even sinks as low as using Cyzo as if it’s a valid source proves that his activity here on JT is more of a personal crusade that nobody seems to share.
    However, to get so obsessed with your own confirmation bias that you start losing touch with the bigger picture, and begin to provide willingly incorrect and warped informations is simply intellectual dishonesty.

    I’m going to parody the title of this article and give an advice: Leave journalism to journalists, keep underresearched rants to your private blogs.

    • http://sayonarababy.tumblr.com/ Ronald

      Well damn… But yeah, the big red flag here for me was the fact that Avex was not mentioned at all.