Music | Sound Off

Japan jumps into the music stream

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

The biggest moment for streaming music in Japan this year came via a handwritten letter. In late June, Kenta Matsumoto of pop-punk trio Wanima shared a note on Twitter announcing that his band’s entire catalog would be uploaded to streaming music platforms like Spotify and Apple Music.

This year has seen some of Japan’s biggest digital holdouts finally accept (or at least surrender to) the fact that streaming has established itself in the Japanese market. While the rest of the world gave itself over to algorithmic listening and playlists built around the concept of “chill,” the Japanese resisted initially. After several false starts and muted debuts, though, J-pop has finally come around and every week a new artist makes a big deal about uploading their discography to these platforms. In recent months, the likes of Namie Amuro, Mr. Children and Bump of Chicken have made splashy streaming debuts.

Wanima isn’t an established act going on several decades in the biz, though. The trio is a contemporary marquee name, a group coming from a corner of the music community where it doesn’t need to lean too hard into digital. Pop-punk fans still buy CDs and have purchased enough to turn Wanima into a relative force.

There’s a tinge of reserve in Matsumoto’s Twitter letter. It’s a justified concern — streaming pays out significantly less money to artists per play than if a fan just bought an album from Tower Records. Then there’s the risk of a group’s catalog just being yanked from a platform at any second due to bad behavior (props to those still putting out CDs, which can’t simply vanish into the digital mist).

The potential of streaming, however, is just too much to ignore. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s Global Music Report for 2019 reveals Japan’s music market saw growth for the first time in years, driven by streaming. Other reports say streaming revenue has overtaken digital downloads here. This is just the start for the market and, like in other parts of the world, odds are that it will only grow more, at least for the top tier of J-pop.

It goes beyond just money. The reality of music in Japan in 2019 is that artists need to be in as many places as they can if they want to reach a wide audience. Streaming is just another possible venue to meet people, as is smartphone video app TikTok and TV streaming services such as Netflix (J-pop superstar Hikaru Utada made her big 2018 comeback concert tour documentary available this way). That’s not even factoring in YouTube, technically the biggest music-streaming service in Japan and a space bands like Wanima have already planted their flag in.

The musical landscape has been fragmenting all decade, and it’s better business to spread out on as many islands as possible than huddle on one. Wanima figured it out, and you can expect any J-pop stragglers to join them soon.