Masaru Ono doesn’t know how he will feel when he closes the doors of RECOfan Shibuya BEAM, the iconic Tokyo record store he has managed for the past 20 years, for the final time at 9 p.m. on Sunday.
“I’ve got a lot of memories here,” Ono says, as he surveys the rows of shelves and cardboard boxes stuffed with records and CDs, less than a month before the store’s last day of business on Oct. 11. “We’re working toward the end now but it’s difficult to imagine how I’ll feel when it actually comes. For the time being, I’m just concentrating on holding it all together.”
RECOfan Shibuya has been a fixture of Tokyo’s record store scene since it opened in 1994, and is known by music fans across Japan and around the world as a treasure trove of mostly used vinyl and CDs. The sprawling, windowless store is located on the fourth floor of the BEAM building a short distance from Shibuya Station, and stocks around 300,000 records and roughly the same number of CDs, spanning a mind-boggling range of genres.
Record stores have been enjoying something of a resurgence in recent years, with booming demand for vinyl revitalizing an industry that had been rocked by the rise of digital music services. Just 105,000 vinyl records were produced in Japan in 2010, but numbers have been steadily rising since then and 1,22 million were produced in 2019 — a more than tenfold increase in less than 10 years.
With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to keep shoppers at home, however, Japan’s record stores are facing a fight to survive. As Ono prepares to padlock the doors of a world-renowned institution, what will become of the vibrant record store culture that has helped establish Japan as a mecca for music fans?
“Any collector overseas who wants to go somewhere to buy records thinks of Japan first,” Ono says.
Japan’s love affair with vinyl is a long one, and many of the country’s stores have been around for decades. Disk Union, one of the largest chain stores in Japan along with Tower Records and HMV, was founded as a car-import company in 1941 and launched a record store as an offshoot under the name Union Record in 1967.
But record stores in Japan, as with those in other countries around the world, have endured a bumpy ride since the digital music revolution began in the early 2000s. HMV closed its Shibuya flagship store in 2010 after a 21-year run, with digital downloads eating into CD and vinyl sales. At the time, the production volume of CDs in Japan had fallen from a peak of ¥587.8 billion in 1998 to ¥245.9 billion in 2009.
On the surface, the advent of subscription streaming services in the years since would suggest that times should now be even tougher for physical music formats. According to Recording Industry Association of Japan figures, subscription streaming audio sales in Japan reached a record ¥40.42 billion in 2019 — up almost ¥10 billion from the year before.
The analogue revival that has swept the globe in recent years, however, has persuaded Japan’s record stores that vinyl still has a bright future.
In 2014, HMV opened a new store in Shibuya dedicated to vinyl records called HMV Record Shop, which was followed by two more Tokyo branches in Shinjuku and Kichijoji. Tower Records got in on the act in March last year, opening a dedicated vinyl store called Tower Vinyl on the 10th floor of its Shinjuku store, while Disk Union has also opened a series of record-only stores under its original name, Union Record.
Disk Union spokesperson Keishin Sato believes records and CDs hold a special place in Japanese music fans’ affections.
“It’s about having the actual thing — being able to hold it in your hand,” Sato says. “I think that’s the main attraction, especially with records. You get the big LP sleeve, and a lot of people have them on display in their rooms. People collect them over a long period of time and take care of them. They want to own them. I think there are maybe more people in Japan who like to own the physical copy than there are overseas. A lot of Japanese people like to collect things.”
The customers in RECOfan Shibuya one Thursday afternoon in September certainly seem to agree.
Forty-five-year-old Tetsuya Tsurukawa, from Saitama Prefecture, is browsing the prog rock CD section. He is clutching a notebook containing the titles of albums he is searching for, and he has a basket at his feet containing some he has already found, including releases by Cactus, Uriah Heep and Porcupine Tree.
Tsurukawa says he visits RECOfan Shibuya around once a month, and he usually spends two or three hours browsing each time. Tsurukawa says he will probably just buy music at Tower Records and other stores when RECOfan Shibuya closes down, but he is definitely sad to see it go.
“It’s very disappointing, but I suppose that’s just the times,” Tsurukawa says. “I don’t want record stores to die out. I also buy online, but I enjoy going to stores. I enjoy finding things that I don’t know about. That doesn’t happen when you’re shopping online. When you’re in a store, you find things you weren’t looking for and make a lot of discoveries. I don’t want to lose that.”
Store manager Ono says Tsurukawa is a typical RECOfan Shibuya customer. Most people who shop there are in their 40s and 50s, although retired people looking for classical records also make up a big chunk of the customer base. Some will stay for less than an hour, while others will spend half a day browsing the racks and boxes.
Ono says customers from overseas are also a common sight, and many make the trip to Japan just to shop for records. Rare Japanese records and CDs are highly sought-after, and many have original packaging or Japan-only bonus tracks that increase their value.
One unique feature of Japanese records is the obi, a strip of paper that wraps around the left side of the sleeve and contains information about the product. Ono says that a second-hand record with the obi intact will raise its value within Japan, but could also inflate the price by as much as five times if sold overseas.
It is not just rarity that makes Japanese records so attractive to collectors, though.
“I think records in Japan are kept in the best condition in the world,” says Ono. “Japanese people look after them very well. When they handle them, they’ll flip them over so they’re not touching the actual record with their hands. If you touch it, it damages it a lot. With Japanese records, there isn’t much damage to the record or the sleeve.”
With RECOfan Shibuya enjoying such prestige among record fans around the world, then, why is it closing its doors? The answer, Ono says, is simple. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the number of customers coming through the door, meaning the store cannot afford to keep paying its city-center rent.
Other record stores around Japan have met with a similar fate, and the majority of those that have survived have taken a significant hit. Disk Union’s Sato says his company’s 40 stores were closed throughout Japan’s state of emergency in April and May and, with infection rates remaining stubbornly constant and many people still working from home, in-store trade has remained lower than usual since reopening.
Sato says Disk Union, like many other stores, has offset those losses to some degree with an increase in online sales. Stores have also devised other strategies to boost in-store shopping, including priority access to new products and live performances and signing events by bands. Striking the right balance between trade and customer safety can, however, be difficult.
Activities to encourage shoppers to visit record stores in person are nothing new. Record Store Day, which began in the United States in 2007, was conceived as a way to promote and support record-store culture, and spread to Japan in 2011. Record Store Day Japan, which typically features limited-edition releases and in-store performances and events, has grown with each passing year and now has roughly 300 stores around the country participating.
Record Store Day is usually held on the third Saturday of April each year, but the pandemic has forced organizers to revise their plans for this year’s edition. The event is now being held over three days at the end of August, September and October, and involves limited-edition releases being sold in stores under the banner RSD Drops 2020.
“Until now, Record Store Day had been an event to celebrate record store culture but, this year, record stores are in a tough position financially,” says Tsugumi Hattori, a spokesperson for Toyokasei Co. Ltd., a record manufacturing company that took over the running of Record Store Day Japan in 2018 and also organizes Record Day and City Pop on Vinyl, both promotional events in a similar vein.
“In Japan, around 100 titles are usually released on Record Store Day, but in the U.S. and Britain, they’ll release between 400 and 600 new titles on vinyl on that day,” Hattori says. “Some stores don’t have the budget to buy all that stock, so staggering it over three months helps them financially. It’s designed to help record stores by releasing limited-edition records over three dates.”
Not all record stores in Japan are feeling the pinch from the pandemic, though. Yohei Kunitomo opened Pianola Records, a tiny, one-floor store stocked with around 1,500 records, in Tokyo’s Shimo-Kitazawa neighborhood on April 1 this year. The store forms part of the area’s new Bonus Track shopping complex, which also opened on April 1 and houses cafes, bookstores, vintage clothes stores and other establishments.
Shimo-Kitazawa has a long association with record stores, and Kunitomo says around “three or four” new stores have opened in the area in the past two years. On the surface, the timing of Pianola Records’ opening couldn’t have been worse. With no financial assistance from the government forthcoming, however, Kunitomo had little choice but to stay open throughout the state of emergency and try to make his business a success.
“In terms of sales, the pandemic hasn’t really affected me,” Kunitomo says. “I had just opened, so people were keen to check the store out. You have your best stock when you first open, so a lot of people came for that. I was surprised at how much I sold in the first month. Since then, it’s calmed down a little and sales have been steadily good. I think if I had opened in January, the pandemic would have had some impact on me.”
Kunitomo’s business plan is based on his extensive knowledge of records. The 35-year-old worked at Disk Union for eight years before spending five years at HMV’s specialist vinyl store, and he has an extensive network of record-dealer contacts around the world. The carefully curated selection at Pianola Records spans various genres from avant-garde to world music, and contains several rare items ranging in price up to around ¥50,000.
Kunitomo wants his store to be a place where people can come and savor the record-shopping experience, and he believes this personal touch gives small independent stores an advantage.
“Customers like the vibes in a small store,” Kunitomo says. “In a big store, there are lots of other customers and there might be some really loud background music playing that you don’t want to hear. My store isn’t like that and I think there are people who like this kind of atmosphere. You can chat face to face and take your time choosing what you want to buy. I think that’s the strength of small independent stores.”
Kunitomo believes his store can thrive if he works hard at it and gives his customers good service, and he thinks RECOfan Shibuya might have been able to do the same had it had less of a haphazard business strategy and moved with the times better in terms of online sales. As a music fan who has spent hours rifling through RECOfan Shibuya’s racks and boxes himself, though, Kunitomo is sad to see the store preparing to close its doors for the final time.
Ono says the piles of stock left over will probably be moved to a warehouse or a storage unit until the company figures out what to do next, and he says a new, smaller store in a less expensive part of the city may well be an option.
As for the next step for Ono himself, however, he has yet to decide. One thing he is sure of is that record-store culture is something worth preserving.
“You find new things at record stores,” Ono says. “With physical music formats, it’s something you can actually see. Records that you don’t know jump out at you because of their sleeves. In that one moment, you wonder what that record might be like. If you shop on the internet, you’re only likely to come across things that you’re actually looking for.
“It’s terrifying to think of losing this culture,” he says. “It’s something that we absolutely can’t let disappear.”