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Militant approach to collecting fees hurts JASRAC’s reputation

by

Special To The Japan Times

At the start of 2017, it was hard to imagine a way that the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers (JASRAC) could garner more hate from social media users than its already received. The music copyright management organization has long been one of the most loathed institutions on sites such as Twitter and 2channel. People focus on its militant approaches to YouTube uploads or collecting fees from independent hair salons playing background music.

It only took one month, however, for JASRAC to find a new way to anger the online masses.

On Feb. 2, JASRAC announced its intention to collect fees from music school performances, defined vaguely enough to make a classroom setting fair game. The proposal, which would go into effect in 2018, would impact hundreds of music education institutes and, most likely, result in higher fees for students.

The general public online reacted with more anger than usual, pushing it to the top of Japan’s Twitter trends thanks to waves of people outraged at the organization. It went beyond just the normal netizens looking for something to be peeved about. Even J-pop star Hikaru Utada expressed an unfavorable opinion.

“If you are a teacher or student who wants to use my songs for classes, I want you to use them for free without worrying about copyright,” Utada tweeted. More than 92,000 liked the post, with 68,000 retweeting it.

JASRAC’s recent snafu drew out a common series of complaints, albeit amplified this time around. People balked at the “greed” displayed by the organization, and many blamed it for “ruining” Japanese music. Like most internet griping, these statements carry a lot of hyperbole. However, the grim view of JASRAC many hold does illuminate an issue hurting the image of music in Japan today — the feeling that the industry is completely out of step with how people actually listen to it, and JASRAC isn’t helping matters at the moment.

The organization has faced a number of controversies since forming in 1939, and has been criticized for its collection fees well before social media became common. Many have disliked JASRAC well before they could vent about it on message boards. However, the advent of such sites — and eventually more mainstream social media destinations such as Twitter — allowed complaints to come in fast and furious.

Especially grievous stories about JASRAC always go viral, regardless of how valid they are — a teenager working at a food stall listens to songs to get through her shift and gets a letter asking for payments; a monk at a shrine tweets about JASRAC asking him to pay for the use of centuries-old songs. The music school proposal fits this description, too, appearing almost cartoonishly greedy in nature.

These alleged grabs at money make JASRAC look desperate and bad, while also hurting them when talking about murkier moral issues. The most constant issue netizens hammer the organization for is charging independent businesses — hair salons, restaurants, cafes and so on — for playing music and going to great lengths to extract fees. Many see this as overkill and an overall detriment to Japanese music, and I went into this article thinking the same thing. You don’t hear songs all that much out in public, which goes against the very idea central to pop music. And I believed it was JASRAC’s constricting approach to enforcing and gathering fees doing this.

But then I checked out the fees charged that were available on the JASRAC site and found them to look fairly reasonable. A small venue estimated to hold at most 100 people has to pay ¥10,000 annually to play music under copyright with JASRAC, which most of the places drawing online sympathy probably fall under. That amount isn’t cheap but it is pretty fair and, if not, playing the radio is always an option. JASRAC’s inconsistency in assessing fees and annoying way of collecting them are less than sympathetic. And yet, we should remember that JASRAC is actually trying to get artists and composers money for their work.

The friction comes from perspective. JASRAC operates like an entity in another decade and out of step with a generation who don’t see the same monetary value of music. It’s a familiar story but one that only becomes more true — the internet has made music more available than ever before, making it seem like something that doesn’t need to be paid for. Yet it is still important for artists to be paid for their work, unless people want music to fragment even further.

JASRAC has an image problem, one it has mostly made for itself thanks to short-sighted grabs at money. It has made plenty of good moves, too, some of which have been a boon to music in Japan — see their special agreement with video-sharing site MixChannel, which has been embraced by teenagers thanks largely to the ability to use big-name J-pop songs in clips.

Yet eye-rolling proposals such as the music school payment plan attract attention online and continue to reinforce its bad reputation. That, in turn, makes it harder for JASRAC to convince people that what it does actually has some benefits. The organization needs to stop looking at ways to make money in the short term that are bound to attract negative publicity and think long term. It’s the only way to reverse course and save JASRAC’s reputation.