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Online music store helps Japanese music go global

by Ian Martin

You’ve heard the stories: The music industry is in crisis, CD sales are dropping year on year, iTunes is taking over the world, the future is digital, the revolution is here. While a lot of this may be true, music fans could be forgiven for some cynicism when all about them the music industry seeks to desperately reassert its hegemony, be it through copy protection, restrictions on overseas digital download rights or aggressive prosecution of file-sharing users. Music is going global, but independent bands aren’t being invited to the party.

One company that has taken a different approach to the globalization of music is online music store Japanfiles. Japanfiles was started by Tokyo resident Steve Laity, who deals with bands and contracts, and U.S.-based George Trombley, who runs the Web site, finances the business (largely through his other company, the Japanese language school YesJapan), and takes on the CEO role. Finally, the duo was joined last year by David Cirone, who deals with press, promotion and live booking in the United States. Their plan was to focus on the kind of little-known independent bands that usually get overlooked by larger companies, and to sell their music at an affordable 99 cents per track to the growing numbers of fans of Japanese independent music overseas.

The small size of Japanfiles is one of its biggest advantages. Those Japanese bands able to get their tracks onto iTunes in the U.S. are unable to sell in any significant quantities. Laity notes, “I was talking to a label owner who was saying, ‘We’ve got our stuff on iTunes in the States, but they’re not promoting it at all.’ Unless people are actively searching for it, they’re not going to sell to anyone outside of the usual hardcore fans. Because we’re smaller and completely focused on Japanese music, we can promote it directly to people we think are going to be interested.”

Alongside such established Stateside performers as Melt-Banana and bands on Tokyo’s Sister/Benten label such as Tsushimamire and Petty Booka, a search of iTunes USA does reveal an increasing number of Japanese bands. All-girl garage punk trio Bo-Peep and indie-pop band Swinging Popsicle both have albums available, as do Ketchup Mania (although with only one album available against the four albums and three singles on Japanfiles). However, for a casual customer just browsing the site, or even a dedicated fan of Japanese music looking for something new to try, the iTunes setup obstructs rather than enables access.

Focusing on bringing Japanese indie music to a foreign audience, in many ways Japanfiles itself embodies the DIY ethic of many of the bands it promotes. The site has developed through a long process of trial and error and is still somewhat chaotic to navigate, with attempts to classify the artists by genre proving particularly difficult. Laity concedes that this point in particular was “a nightmare,” considering many Japanese bands’ dizzying disregard for traditional genre constraints: “It got to the point where every time a new band came along, I found myself inventing a new genre for them.”

Nip and tuck

The clumsy navigation is set to change soon, however, with a new version of the site scheduled to be up and running by January. While the site already allows users to listen to samples of tracks before they buy and offers features such as special free downloads and music videos, the new version of the site will offer a raft of new features. For example, while users must currently download tracks from an album one by one, they will soon be able to download a whole album in one go.

In addition, site members will each be given their own page where they will be able to write their own comments and reviews, similar to the approach of networking sites such as MySpace or Mixi. Laity explains that embodied in the new site is a policy of trying to make a more communal atmosphere: “We’re hoping to just make the site much easier to use and get people to stick around. We want to make a community with members’ forums.”

Another change will be the introduction of more sophisticated sales data collection. Whereas at the moment Japanfiles knows who is buying the tracks and what country they are in, in the future it will be able to collect more useful information, such as the age and gender of the buyers as well as tracking the times of year that individual bands make the most sales. That sort of data is useful not just for the company, but also for the bands and labels it supports.

Japanfiles’ tracks are encoded as MP3s rather than the higher-quality AAC format used by iTunes and other music sites, although at a higher bitrate (192 kbps against what was iTunes’ 128 kbps). As Laity explains, “We want CD quality, and 192 is considered CD quality. Of course, if there becomes a strong demand for a different format, we’re open to change.”

Since the idea of “CD quality” depends a lot on the user’s own hearing, the type of music recorded and the quality of the stereo on which it is played, some people might disagree with that. In addition, since Apple has been gradually introducing 256 kbps AAC downloads, one is left to wonder if there really is any future in MP3 as a viable format.

Record-label politics

The operation has not been without its share of business problems, with a frustrating example being Laity’s attempts to prise his own now-defunct Tokyo indie band Guitar Vader’s back-catalog out of the vice-like grasp of its label. “We could be selling those tracks and sending them money, but instead they’re just sitting on them,” he laments.

With bigger labels come different problems though, in the shape of Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection, which restricts users’ ability to copy tracks, burn them to CD, or play them on some external devices such as digital audio players. The Japanese music industry in particular has been notoriously resistant to the idea of online music and the blunt situation is that, as Laity explains, “Bigger labels will just stop the conversation if you can’t give them DRM.” Japanfiles sees the situation differently, maintaining that the ability to burn files to CDs that you can play to your friends in the car or put onto mix CDs is crucial to the way indie music finds its audience.

Nevertheless, Japanfiles’ bottomup approach has led to some success with bigger labels, with the recent success of Ketchup Mania a case in point. “We got Ketchup Mania’s early mini-albums through (Shimokitazawa Indie label) K.O.G.A.” Steve explains. “A U.S. promoter who wanted to put them on live got in touch with us. (Ketchup Mania’s current label) Toy’s Factory liked the idea of doing a U.S. show, so it went from there.” The show pulled a crowd of 2,500.

Despite its growing success (currently averaging over 1,000 downloads per month), Japanfiles retains a pragmatic view about the limitations of online music. As a site specializing in indie music, it recognizes the romance of owning music in a physical format with the original sleeve artwork. As a result of the many requests they’ve had for CDs of their more popular bands, Laity and co. have taken the step of pressing and releasing albums by bands such as Ketchup Mania, Swinging Popsicle and LiN CLOVER, as well as its own “Fresh Cuts” compilation series, to sell in the U.S. alongside the digital equivalents.

Bands recently added to the site include punk-metal maniacs Electric Eel Shock and eccentric “Asianica hard march band” Asakusa Jinta. Laity seems enthusiastic and optimistic about the future, despite the frustrating backlog of music that the three-man operation is rushing to upload, and cryptically promises “some big stuff next year that I really can’t talk about.”

Japanfiles can be found at www.japanfiles.com.