Last year proved to be a pivotal one for streaming music in Japan. According to a report by the Recording Industry Association of Japan, 2018 saw plays via platforms such as YouTube, Apple Music and Spotify overtake digital downloads.
This would be a great piece of evidence for futurists trying to argue that the Japanese music market is actually catching up to where most other nations are today. But mucking that up is the total lack of info regarding physical sales, a still-major slice of the proverbial pie. And recent changes only underline how important they are, even as different developments point toward other directions.
Tower Records opened Tower Vinyl on the 10th floor of its Shinjuku store on March 21. The space, once reserved for pop-up events, now houses 70,000 records, according to the company, with more than half being secondhand.
It stands as the latest sign of a renewed interest in records in Japan. HMV launched a new Shibuya location devoted to vinyl in 2014 after several years out of the area — and has since opened more stores.
Contemporary J-pop acts have started releasing vinyl editions of their albums, probably helped by Sony opening a new pressing plant. You can even spot more boutique record shops sprouting up (like in Yoyogi-Uehara, where you can now find old city pop and yacht rock albums at a place called Adult Oriented Records). Record Store Day Japan has grown from a niche celebration to a bonanza bringing in Yellow Magic Orchestra members as spokespeople.
The “vinyl revival” has been a trend for a while now globally, with sales in the U.S. continuing to grow according to Nielsen Music. Plenty of digital ink has been spilled on why this is happening, though I’m a fan of the theory that it is partially because consumers are starting to value physical music in an age of digital impermanence (though even tactile releases can disappear from shops here if an artist is caught enjoying narcotics). It’s also a bit of a status flex.
Tower has long offered records, but Tower Vinyl latches on to this trend (check the branding …”Tower Vinyl” sounds like a flooring company when “Tower Records” already works wonderfully). The new space highlights the demand and absurdity of this development, capped off by selling special vinyl editions of old Morning Musume albums, despite that group being a powerhouse of the CD era.
Speaking of which, CDs remain prevalent in Japan (see the other floors at Tower Records Shinjuku). They’ve actually made a bit of a comeback in places like South Korea, another country big on idol pop, but lack the cool cachet of records in Japan or elsewhere, at least for the time being. Maybe the format’s heyday is still too fresh in people’s mind to strike up the same nostalgia as vinyl, so a few more decades are needed for discs to win over a new audience.
Then again, it has been said that CDs from 30 years ago are now starting to disintegrate, while records remain solid. At that rate, Tower Records might want to stock up on vinyl for other departments, too.