We are living through the dying days of the CD format. It clings to life here and there, but its usefulness as a medium for transmitting music is pretty much over. What remains is a sort of meta-existence, where the value of a physical music format lies purely in the tactile physicality of the object at the moment of an exchange — before it gets ripped to your computer.
An album can be anything now, as long as a download code can somehow be attached. CDs must compete not only with a resurgence of vinyl and cassettes, but in theory with any kind of merchandise: T-shirts, tote bags even key rings.
Formats aren’t solely a means to distribute, however. There are ways of making and experiencing music that grow up and die along with the formats that carry the results. The DJ-driven electronic and hip-hop scenes have helped keep vinyl alive and have, to an extent, reaped the benefits of its revival.
This past month I’ve been traveling around the southwestern island of Kyushu, and from Fact Records in southern Miyazaki Prefecture to Ticro Market in northern Fukuoka Prefecture, club-orientated vinyl speciality stores appear to be surviving.
Shops catering to indie rock, on the other hand, have almost completely disappeared from Kyushu despite the region retaining an often explosive live scene, and part of this may be down to the way DIY indie acts are more closely connected to the CD. With artists tending to have smaller, more local fan bases, CDs are cheaper and easier to produce than vinyl. The level of commitment music fans will devote to the music (or musician) they like almost ensures that indie will remain biased toward physical formats rather than digital ones, with CDs suited to direct sales at concerts.
While vinyl remains an expensive option to produce, cassettes are cheaper and feature a lot of the benefits of CDs. There has been a noticeable uptick in the use of tapes (driven by the punk and twee pop scenes), with recently opened cassette-specialist store Waltz in Tokyo’s Nakameguro neighborhood perhaps pointing the way toward things to come.
In the far reaches of Kyushu, however, that future looks a long way off, lost in the (admittedly good-humored) laughter of the audience as Miyazaki-based indie musician Yasushi Matsuo a.k.a. Rain Paints delivers a sales pitch for his various cassette EPs. In much of the country, it seems, cassettes can still come off as hipster nostalgia, and certainly not the immediate harbinger of any record-store revival.
What has happened instead is that record shops have been diversifying their services, playing the role of bar, cafe and performance space.
In Kyushu, with the independent record store almost extinct outside the club scene, this convergence is heading in the other direction. Places musicians and music fans tend to gather now gradually mutate into makeshift CD shops. In Kagoshima, music bar Mojo carries a small selection of music from local artists, while Walk Inn Studio has a little grotto devoted to CDs from its favorite acts.
The situation is the same in Kumamoto, where the recent closure of On The Corner Records has left Rock Bar Days as one of the few local places where a band can sell music. Similarly, while a dedicated record and CD shop such as Parks still clings to life in Fukuoka, with a reasonable selection of local material, it is musician and event organizer Shuichi Inoue’s E.G. Records store inside Cafe & Bar Gigi that carries perhaps the most comprehensive range of local independent music.
Existing like benign parasites within more stable parts of the local music infrastructure, these makeshift CD stores give musicians an outlet for their recordings. By the nature of the places, however, they also ensure that the primary customer base they’re reaching is going to be other musicians — the same money getting passed around the same basic crowd of people in ever-dwindling circles.
The indie scene can be a conservative one in many ways, and its continuing attachment to a format with no obvious future is one of the most visible pieces of evidence for this. But there is also a sort of resilience in how indie music contorts to sustain its precarious existence, and that’s pretty admirable.
Read more about Ian Martin’s travels around Japan on his website at www.burnyourhometown.wordpress.com.