Columns

Am I turning Japanese? Musically, maybe so 2015.03.18

     By RICH FOLEY

You remember the old song “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors, don’t you? Back in the day, and I mean back in the day when MTV actually played music videos,  the song was in heavy rotation. I immediately thought of it when I read a recent New York Times article about the compact disc still ruling the music industry in Japan. All of a sudden, it sounds like my kind of country.

Japan usually is among the first countries to embrace emerging technologies, but when it comes to music downloads and streaming, the Japanese have little interest. That sounds a lot like me. Compact discs in Japan still account for 85 percent of total music sales, compared to other countries where CDs make up as little as 20 percent of the market. With me, compact discs are 100 percent of my music purchases.

What’s more, not only is the digital trend not catching on in Japan, it’s actually in decline. Sales of digital music in Japan dropped 60 percent from a high of $1 billion in 2009 to just $400 million in 2013, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan. News like that has those music industry types who so badly want to eliminate the compact disc worried. 

The Times article notes that Japan “still views the digital business with suspicion.” As a long-time music buyer who has no desire to progress beyond the compact disc, it’s good to know that I’m not the only one who is suspicious. After all, in my lifetime, they’ve moved music from vinyl records to reel-to-reel tapes to 8-track tapes to cassettes to compact discs to digital. If you’ve never heard of some of these formats, visit your grandparents and take a peek in their attic.

Japan is vitally important to the music business. As the second-largest music market in the world after the United States, compact disc sales in Japan and a few other countries like Germany who are also resistant to give up the CD help keep sales of the compact disc at over 40 percent of the worldwide $15 billion dollar recorded music market. That’s bad news for people wanting to shove digital music down our throats, but good news for those of us who look back on the 1980s with fondness. 

 Tower Records, though out of business in the United States, still does $500 million a year in sales at its 85 stores in Japan. Interestingly, creative marketing of compact discs in Japan helps to keep sales strong, taking advantage of the love of collectibles in the country.

Fancy, elaborate packaging of greatest hits releases are especially popular. Some compact discs contain bonuses like concert tickets, encouraging fans to buy multiple copies. In the United States, even if a record company decides to do something special, good luck finding a brick-and-mortar outlet in business.

All that said, I’m standing firm in resisting what I like to call the Highway to Hell, that is, the road leading to digital music, not the classic song from AC/DC. If it isn’t good enough to be available on a compact disc, I don’t want to hear it. Finding said discs, however, just isn’t as easy as it once was. Yard sales have replaced record stores for the discs I’ve bought over the last few years. Unscratched used ones work just as well as new.

Recently, that situation changed at home following the loss of my old CD boom box. When compact discs were new, some people feared what might happen if the beam of light that reads the encrypted music went haywire. Would a renegade laser beam shoot around the room at random, destroying everything in sight? 

When mine malfunctioned, it merely jumped around inside the unit, playing short bursts of various songs, sort of like a skipping vinyl album. It was time to retrieve a long-ago purchase from the closet.

At least a dozen years ago, I bought a Koss brand CD/cassette player at a huge discount to have on hand when my current player bit the dust. Unlike cassette players, my old CD unit lasted about 15 years before I needed it.  

 Once again, I can listen to all of my CDs, both obscure and even more obscure. I’m hoping to stay with compact discs forever, whether the music industry likes it or not. If I have to visit Japan to buy more CDs, I will. Maybe I’ll even find something by the Vapors.