While the Japanese music industry ended last year on a promise of change, 2013 has highlighted a few of the ingrained practices that are going to be a little bit more difficult to dislodge.

One industry story that caught the interest of the international press was the news that Japan had overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest music market. Indeed, the domestic music business in 2012 actually registered a small rise on the previous year, thanks largely to a massive surge in singles sales driven by fans of idol groups as well as a confluence of comeback albums and greatest hits compilations released by golden oldies.

Combined with that was a collapse in digital sales that seems to have been driven largely by a boom in smartphone use. Recent shifts in smartphone use devastated the old mobile music download market, forcing retailers that had become reliant on consumers’ music downloads to compete with a growing apps market at a time when smartphone users’ incomes were stagnating.

That Japanese CD sales were driving unexpected growth in the music market was certainly an eye-catching story, and a look at 2013’s yearend charts suggests an industry eager to repeat the trick. The result, however, amounts to a disaster for the health of the music scene as a whole.

As with 2012, album sales this year were dominated by oldies, with compilations by the venerable Yumi Matsutoya (whose 1973 song “Hikoki-gumo” was selected as the theme song of anime director Hayao Miyazaki’s summer hit “The Wind Rises”) and wannabe bad boys Exile, both actually released in 2012. They were joined in the annual bestsellers’ list by multivolume compilations from rock stalwarts B’z, Bump of Chicken and established hitmaker Kana Nishino, plus numerous others.

Meanwhile, just a couple of companies or production houses dominated the Oricon singles market in 2013, with half of the Top 30 best-selling singles of the year coming from all-female idol groups from the “XXX48” stable (including AKB48’s pretend rivals, Sony Music’s Nogizaka46), and most of the rest hailing from the Johnny & Associates boy band factory.

Indeed, only evergreens Southern All Stars, which managed to nab 17th spot on Oricon’s list, and anime band Linked Horizon, which snuck in at No. 30, fall outside the aforementioned music industry heavyweights.

Moreover, given the extent to which idol group sales — especially those of AKB48 and their spawn — game the charts by encouraging fans to buy multiple copies of the same singles in exchange for “handshake meetings” and voting rights in intra-group popularity contests, most of these purchases could arguably be redefined as character goods rather than music sales.

AKB48 provided a lot of the drama on the gossip pages as well, with the most startling example being member Minami Minegishi’s tear-stained January video message as she shaved her head and begged forgiveness in penance for the crime of having a boyfriend. And just in case the AKB organization’s hypocrisy wasn’t blatantly obvious by this incident alone, the group’s general manager, Tomonobu Togasaki, helpfully laid doubts to rest in November by getting photographed by weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun leaving a love hotel with a teenage girl he later identified as a prostitute.

Meanwhile, producer Yasutaka Nakata continued to be a minor music industry unto himself, with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Perfume both riding respectably high on albums composed entirely of his work. Released in October, Perfume’s “Level3” provided moments of genuine surprise and delight, while Nakata’s own group, Capsule, returned with the rich, multilayered and courageously experimental “Caps Lock.”

K-pop, on the other hand, seems to have mostly run its course, with TVXQ and Girls’ Generation the only acts still pulling in really big sales. Instead, a new generation of Japanese artists have begun to emerge that draw on and repackage elements of K-pop’s appeal. Faky are the most obvious, apparently aiming to duplicate K-pop’s international success by recruiting English-speaking girls and molding them into a sort of Japanese version of Avex/Rhythm Zone labelmates 2NE1.

Elsewhere, former idol queens Morning Musume’s pivot to Asia — driven by the at-home dominance of AKB48 and their clones — has seen them incorporating a lot of decidedly K-pop-esque electro influences in their music, which may go a long way toward explaining a counterintuitive comeback of sorts in the Japanese market that saw the 10-member troupe to a run of consecutive No. 1 hit gold records. E-girls, a girl group from the same stable as Exile, took the opposite tack by borrowing — hopefully, not literally — Girls’ Generation’s legs and absolutely nothing else. They were rewarded in 2013 by a No. 1 album and a string of hit singles.

Many of the worst fears over the 2012 anti-downloading laws proved to be unfounded, with arrests failing to materialize. However, the other thing that failed to materialize was the much-anticipated launch of Spotify in Japan, although word from inside the company continues to insist that it is on its way “soon.” Rival music-streaming site Rdio simply gave up on the Japanese market for now. In contrast, Sony continued to push its own Music Unlimited service, and the decision to make it the core music delivery platform of the PlayStation 4 suggests the company is serious about streaming as at least part of the way forward.

In indie music, the long-awaited release of shoegaze pioneers My Bloody Valentine’s first new album in more than 20 years gave a shot in the arm to Japan’s own moody guitar feedback technicians, with Osaka outfit Lemon’s Chair putting together the “Yellow Loveless” compilation and taking their Japan Shoegazer Festival on tour throughout the country for the first time. Japanese shoegaze or shoegaze-related bands Sugardrop and BP. also re-emerged to stand alongside their peers, while Aomori newcomers The Earth Earth released the decidedly My Bloody Valentine-influenced “Pop Confusion.” Rounding things off, a whole ecosystem of bands from backgrounds as diverse as electronic and visual-kei continued to expand shoegaze way beyond the limitations of its U.K. origins.

Looking forward to next year, it does seem that incremental changes are beginning to occur as the Japanese music industry grapples with disruptive new technology, but it also appears — perhaps wisely from its point of view — to be working to ensure the form of those changes does not mirror the damage to the established order that we have seen elsewhere.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.