The Japanese music market has faced hard times as of late. Starting with an announcement from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry in March that the country’s music sales dropped 16.7 percent in 2013, the past 12 months saw no particular upswing in physical or digital sales, therefore trying to draw a consensus of what’s actually popular here can be a challenge. The Oricon Charts, which only count physical sales, and various download rankings looked like totally different worlds at the end of 2014.
This problem of pinning down what is actually popular, however, isn’t only a problem in Japan. In Western countries, the music industry grappled with how best to approach (and profit from) emerging listening mediums such as streaming services and YouTube. As they wrestled with this, sales of music continued slipping. A report from Nielsen SoundScan in late June indicated that album sales across all formats dropped 15 percent.
Lower sales means it’s easier to score a place on the American Billboard Charts, which resulted in the top spot changing frequently and producing a few surprises — “Weird” Al Yankovic nabbed his first No. 1 debut, as did Christian rapper Lecrae. This is great news on the surface, but it also means that taking first place doesn’t mean a musician is as widely embraced as they used to be.
Well, unless you are Taylor Swift, whose fifth full-length album “1989” debuted with the highest sales in one week since 2002, and is the best-selling album of the year with nearly 3 million copies sold. The 25-year-old singer, who started off her career as a country-meets-pop performer but who described “1989” as her “first documented official pop album,” has only been bested in overall sales by the soundtrack to the Walt Disney film “Frozen,” which has been out for a significantly longer period of time.
As sales sagged, streaming services gained momentum. Spotify, the most well-known streaming site, said it had amassed 50 million active users. Still, labels and artists weren’t seeing nearly as much revenue from it and other such sites as they would’ve liked. Swift pulled her music from Spotify stating that she thought, “people should feel that there is a value to what musicians have created.” Still, streaming is the current direction listening is heading in the West, and the Billboard charts responded by starting to include streaming plays in their chart rankings last month.
In the rest of East Asia, music industries continued trying to expand beyond their borders. K-pop — for several years considered the coolest offering coming out of the continent — saw a 20.7 percent increase in sales this year according to The Korea Times, who cited labels such as SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment establishing stronger bases in the burgeoning Chinese and Southeast Asian markets as central to this boost.
China, meanwhile, made small strides to break into the global music market, though all of the country’s most interesting developments happened from within. CNN reported last week that the nation’s music industry could be worth $214 billion by 2018, and local technology firms have spent 2014 investing in artist catalogs and streaming services, highlighted by online commerce company Alibaba buying XiaMi, the Chinese equivalent of Spotify.
Still, as China tries to push its soft power abroad, the country’s biggest musical moment of the year in the West resembles a problem Japan has long faced. Long-running Chinese pop star Wang Rong’s video for “Chick Chick” went viral late in 2014, racking up more than 11 million views thanks to its general “craziness.” Like Psy, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Babymetal, Rong (also known as Rollin’ Wang) used YouTube as a way to push a song that didn’t attract much attention in her home country to a wider audience abroad . . . but as a weird curio. Almost every music market in Asia will need to work hard in 2015 to overcome this perception.