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Who was music being made for in 2014?

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

When looking back on the year in music, the big question music fans should be asking themselves is, “Who was music being made for in 2014?” Looking at the broader picture, we can find the answers writ large across the Japanese music scene.

Is music for the fans?

Despite the occasional article on how Japanese fans still love to buy CDs, the industry here saw a broad trajectory of decline — sales fell 16.7 percent in 2013, which brought the global figure down 3.9 percent. The ceiling is gradually lowering on the industry’s ambitions, forcing companies to grow sideways rather than upward, in an effort to capture new fans by broadening its approach.

One way we see this is in the way talent agencies and artists are increasingly reaching overseas to find new markets. One problem Japanese companies face, however, is the head start their Korean counterparts have had in cornering markets — particularly in Asia — and establishing a brand identity. While companies such as YG Entertainment (Big Bang, 2NE1) and SM Entertainment (Girls’ Generation, Shinee) have built up strong, identifiable brands that allow them to easily package and sell their events overseas, very few Japanese companies can claim the same achievement.

This year saw Avex’s A-Nation event take in Taiwan and Singapore with fading stars such as Kumi Koda and Ayumi Hamasaki, and dance-pop zombies like TRF, while talent agency Amuse was perhaps the most aggressive company in pushing its acts abroad, with Perfume, One Ok Rock and Babymetal all making inroads with some degree of success.

Lacking the brand identity of the big Korean agencies, all Avex and Amuse can really do is fit into the gaps left by their rivals rather than compete in the mainstream. This is probably better for their acts from an artistic point of view, allowing them to occupy their own idiosyncratic niches or flit between styles unimpeded by the agency’s branding imperatives, but it also limits the leverage by which the companies can impose themselves on the marketplace.

Within Japan, too, the trend has been to broaden, with the music industry seeking to colonize every last available cultural niche.

Music festivals continue to spring up throughout rural Japan, from the Aomori Rock Festival in the northeast to Okinawa’s Ishigaki Music Festival in the tropical southwest. Some companies have sought to capitalize on the subcultural appeal of anime, manga and otaku culture, with Sony Music Entertainment Japan putting increasing weight on musical crossovers via its Animax anime subsidiary and groups such as Kalafina and ClariS. Much of what has been going on elsewhere has been through the medium of idol music.

What has become clear to me in 2014 is that idol music isn’t really a musical genre, but rather a medium for delivery. Babymetal took a sort of visual-kei/glam-metal hybrid — written by professional musicians, fronted by three young girls — from viral sensation to festival stages worldwide. Meanwhile, Especia styles itself as the world’s first vaporwave idols, a gimmick that lets the songwriters behind the unit use it to present their own artistic vision, and wherever you looked, new idol groups — or idol-styled performers such as Seiko Oomori — were springing up as avatars for almost any musical genre you could imagine.

In a sense, idols have more in common with mechanical delivery devices like MP3 players and smartphones, which have long taken priority over music itself in the hearts and wallets of listeners. In more ways than one, 2014 saw the triumph of the delivery platform over the content, and the direct link between music and fans was diminished as a result.

But then the idea of music as a viable, discrete product that can be sold on its own merits is, in historical terms, relatively new, inextricably tied to the rise and fall of physical delivery forms such as records, cassettes and CDs since the mid-20th century. Instead, support from rich patrons has defined the creation of art and music through much of history.

Is music for modern Medicis?

Assuming the role of the wealthy Italian houses who patronized the Italian Renaissance, Red Bull brought its Music Academy to Tokyo like a sort of fizzy-drink Medici clan, suggesting one model for the relationship between corporate brands and music.

With highly visible promotional techniques, a strong lineup of domestic and international acts — and generally affordable ticket prices — RBMA was a rich showcase of electronic and experimental music that also helped foster collaborations and networking between its participants.

If events like this are the future, though, what does that mean for existing indie promoters who lack the money to spend on a marketing blitz, huge fees for visiting artists and subsidized ticket prices? Since it is promoters like these that events such as RBMA rely on to discover and develop the artists they book, it is still in the interests of all parties to ensure a vibrant scene exists week-in-week-out in the Japanese concert and club circuit.

For now, at least, big stars at the top of the pile can rely on lucrative stadium and arena tours. The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney played gigs at Tokyo Dome this year that were the highest grossing in the world, and nationwide revenue from the concert industry has more than doubled in the past 10 years. Things are not all rosy, though. Tokyo Dome also posted a 10 percent drop in concert bookings in 2014, and there’s an upcoming “2016 problem” as large- and medium-sized venues begin closing for refurbishment in anticipation of the 2020 Olympics. This could, at least temporarily, knock Japan off the circuit for many big overseas touring acts.

One of the ways acts have been able to make the arena circuit work is by leveraging the visibility they get from advertising tie-ups and product endorsements — things that have taken on greater relative importance as sales of the music itself have diminished. Acts such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Momoiro Clover Z, who began their careers by courting subcultures, inevitably go through a process of smoothing off the edges as the need to be amenable to a broad range of commercial uses — from games consoles to pharmaceuticals — grows in importance.

While Kyary’s Nintendo commercials and Momoiro Clover Z’s Sankei eyedrops ads were silly and largely harmless, 2014 was also the year of a far more disturbing advertising tie-up that raised serious issues about the role of pop culture in social discourse.

In July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right-wing government passed legislation “reinterpreting” the pacifist Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, opening the door for Japanese servicemen and women to take part in overseas military operations. On the same day, a military recruitment drive was launched featuring AKB48 member Haruka Shimazaki exhorting people that the military is, “like a sky filled with dreams.”

Aside from the questionable taste of that tag line (the suicide rate for Japanese Self-Defense Force members sent overseas currently sits at about eight times that of the population at large), this is a serious question for the entertainment industry.

Does music work for the state?

There are many layers of approval that need to be navigated before an advertising tie-up of any kind can be achieved. On top of that, the entertainment industry is inherently wary of being associated with any explicit political messages because their divisive nature can limit commercial opportunities. The decision to allow AKB48 to be used in this way will have been by no means a straightforward one.

One factor may have been the way the compartmentalized, franchise-like nature of the group works, with each member represented by her own agency and all in a sort of pseudo-competition with each other. This could, in effect, insulate the group as a whole from any blowback caused by one member’s controversial actions, but at the same time, AKB supremo Yasushi Akimoto must still give the nod of approval to any commercial use of his girls.

Another point to consider is that while sales remain buoyed by a fanatical core audience, general interest in AKB48 (indicated by Google Trends) fell for the third successive year to a mere 30 percent of its 2011 peak. The group is of declining importance going into the future and Akimoto may have felt the hit to its credibility was a price worth paying.

The offer of a position for Akimoto on the executive board of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics may have sweetened the deal, too, and as the Olympics approach, the Japanese government is going to take an increased interest in the country’s cultural output as a tool of its global image and influence.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Cool Japan initiative has generally been seen as an embarrassment to creative types and a nuisance to the music industry, but in its favor it appears to have had a big hand in the government’s October decision to amend Japan’s absurd laws banning dancing after midnight — albeit with face-saving caveats ensuring rooms be well-lit to avoid any sneaky hanky-panky or skinning-up sins.

Government investment in the Cool Japan fund now means there is billions of yen sloshing around for overseas projects aimed at promoting Japan’s image abroad through its culture, some of which appears to be making its way past the usual sushi-and-manga promotions and reaching pop and rock music.

Whether it is the state or corporate brands, music seems destined to serve those with the deepest pockets, with fans a passive influence through their consumption of fizzy drinks or clicking of “Like” buttons on social media. Alternative models that have emerged in the West, such as Spotify’s controversial streaming model, have been slow to cross over. The domestic music industry — and Sony in particular, with its Music Unlimited service and forthcoming subscription streaming service with Avex and instant-messaging app Line — is working to ensure it retains control over whatever streaming model emerges as the dominant one in Japan.

As it stands, the best viable option for fans in 2014 who wanted to enjoy a simple, unmediated, unencumbered relationship with the music they love remained the old-fashioned one: buy it.