Music | Sound Off

It’ll take more than Ayumi Hamasaki to help streaming services in Japan

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Ayumi Hamasaki has seen better days as a J-pop superstar, but she still carries some clout. So it should have been noteworthy that her newest release, the five-song “Trouble,” would arrive on streaming services a bit earlier than in stores. That’s a win for fledgling in-Japan operations such as Spotify and Apple Music, right?

Not really. “Trouble” is no slouch, having grabbed a fair amount of attention when it was released Aug. 6. It’s performing well enough on streaming services and sits at No. 24 on Apple Music’s top album chart at the time of writing (not to mention being a particularly introspective set from someone going through all sorts of tribulations). But the rollout behind Hamasaki’s latest is really just a reminder of all the other big releases still unavailable on these platforms.

Streaming services were supposed to change Japan’s music industry, or at least that was the line trotted out by tech evangelists and people who were sick of overpriced CDs. In 2018, though, a couple of years after the major streaming players debuted in this country, the status quo remains largely unchanged. The only digital music destination that’s flourishing is YouTube, which has become the default go-to for younger viewers wanting not just music, but all forms of entertainment. Unfortunately, the streaming experience remains incomplete.

The reason? Many of J-pop’s biggest releases aren’t uploaded at the same time as when they come out in stores, which was also the case during the days when Japanese labels tried to create their own streaming platforms — it’s still a case of physical sales first, convenience second. Coincidentally, one of the first big names to make their music available on a streaming service was Hamasaki, whose 2016 album “M(a)de In Japan” appeared exclusively (for a time, at least) on Avex’s AWA streaming service.

Not much has changed in 2018. Some of the best-selling albums of the year have come from rising pop-punk band Wanima, established J-pop singer-songwriter Hikaru Utada and surprisingly sturdy rockers The Oral Cigarettes. Best-of albums from Yumi Matsutoya and, more recently, Southern All Stars have moved big numbers and been central to the pop culture conversation. Then factor in the world of Johnny’s idols, and 2017’s big breakthrough act Kenshi Yonezu.

None of these artists’ most recent releases appear on streaming services domestically, though some do appear abroad — hinting that Japanese labels understand Apple Music, not a record store, is the way to reach fans overseas.

A common argument in favor of music streaming is that for a low price, you can have access to a seemingly bottomless pit of songs. The real draw for these services, though, is convenience — the ease of accessing what you want trumps anything else. In the United States, not putting out an album via streaming in its first week if you are a major label act constitutes a hell of a risk. For many, these services are the first stop for new tunes, to the point where rapper Drake found a way to promote his latest album on Spotify by plastering his image everywhere on the site’s homepage.

There are still many big-name Japanese artists that factor streaming into their launch plan — Keyakizaka46, One OK Rock and the Exile family to name a few — but it’s not like streaming is a slam dunk for the industry, due to low payouts (the fact the above artists can still move a solid amount of CDs might be reason enough to avoid embracing the digital frontier).

When looking solely at the streaming ecosystem in Japan, though, the lack of new releases from top acts serves as a massive roadblock to convincing customers to sign up. This year, some of the biggest digital music developments came via nostalgia, with Utada and Mr. Children’s old catalogs going online to much fanfare. As mentioned earlier, though, Utada’s latest, “Hatsukoi,” is still nowhere to be found on streaming services, and it is unclear if Mr. Children’s forthcoming October full-length will debut via streaming. Considering these two releases will be among 2018’s most popular albums, it’s a huge blow.

There’s no easy solution for streaming services in Japan. These marquee artists have developed loyal fan bases happy to pay a healthy sum for a new CD or MP3 download — they don’t need streaming in the same way the West seems to. If these services ever hope to make a dent in the Japanese market, they’ll need to pay a lot of money for exclusive new releases — or pray that Hamasaki can come up with a real blockbuster.