Anyone who pays any kind of attention to the music charts in Japan knows that for many years now they’ve been a joke.
Year-end charts are increasingly clogged up with mass idol collectives, sales buoyed by multiple purchases from “otaku” (obsessive fans), encouraged by marketing gimmicks that tap into the most primal consumer instincts of the fanboy’s reptilian brain.
One gimmick that has caused controversy recently is the use of music cards with a download code for a particular release, usually made available at a much lower price than CDs, and which permit multiple purchases of the same MP3.
Music cards are not in themselves necessarily a problem. However, when they are used as part of a broad array of different versions, often with bonuses for fans who obediently buy the full set, they can have a distorting effect on the apparent popularity of a song.
Last month, Japanese magazine Cyzo had a lot of fun critiquing Nagoya idol group SKE48 for some of the most cynical exploitations of the music card system, such as including cards free with CDs to instantly double sales, or releasing multiple versions featuring 64 different members’ faces.
Chart company Oricon, an organization that guards its integrity with litigious vigor, eventually noticed that hardly any of the cards purchased were actually being downloaded and removed them from its rankings. SKE48’s “Coquettish Juutai Chuu” will be the last idol release under the current system.
But will this really make a difference?
The problem is that music purchases by idol fans aren’t really music purchases at all: They are a sort of abstract currency by which the fans make extravagant expressions of love for the group — the more you buy, the greater your love. They’re a completely different class of consumer from someone who simply buys a song in order to listen to it, and trying to force them to behave like traditional music fans misses the point.
At the same time, otaku have turned the charts into little more than a stage for the ostentatious, preening displays of their own collective idolatry, and Oricon clearly has to do something if it wants to claw back the shredded remains of its dignity.
Removing music cards from the rankings probably won’t have a great deal of effect, since it does nothing to deal with the bigger — and more difficult to regulate — issue of fans making multiple CD purchases in return for tickets to meet or vote for their favorite members. Even if it did, it would take a braver man than I to claim there’s a wealth of brilliant mainstream J-pop crowding around the gates if only Oricon would let it in (Ikimono-gakari? Wait, AKB48 — I forgive you!)
Even so, it’s a positive first step for Oricon in returning meaning to their rankings and, for music fans, a little more variety would at least make the charts less, y’know, embarrassing.
Of course, no one is stopping fans from continuing to pour their money into the idol-industrial complex’s insatiable maw. Perhaps what it needs is just a way for them to display their obsession that is better suited to their consumption patterns.
My modest proposal: some sort of electronic device that fans can hold at concerts and squeeze as the excitement takes hold, pumping money directly from their bank accounts and credit cards into a swimming pool of cash on the roof of AKB48 manager Yasushi Akimoto’s penthouse.
In the meantime, the music charts can be left in peace.