How Japan Keeps Physical Media Relevant

Japan has more brick and mortar music stores than anywhere else in the world, reports Quartz in this fascinating article. Oddly, this a result of a market that became immersed in digital technology years before many other first world countries, and that experience has engendered an unexpected consumer fondness for physical media. Japan’s music industry has also been smart about maximizing the perceived value of the compact disc:

The huge popularity of girl and boy bands, and the rabid fandoms that they spawn, allow record companies to cash in using the marketing gimmick of limited editions. It’s not uncommon for a CD to be released in five different versions, featuring different covers, B-sides, or bonus DVDs.

This speaks to a love of physical objects that’s characteristic of Japanese and also German culture, says Mulligan. These two countries have a shared preference for cash over credit cards, and also the strongest sales of physical music in the world.

This has led to a transformation in what CDs mean—from being objects that play songs to a form of merchandise. It’s less about the music itself and more about the experience of supporting, and feeling closer to, your favorite idol, says Ronald Taylor, music correspondent for the Japan Times.

In the last 15 years, record companies have partnered with artist management agencies to take this further. Inside the CDs there are tickets to special concerts; handshake events, where buyers can spend a few seconds locking hands with their idol; and voting cards used for annual ‘elections’ that determine the popularity of band members within the group. Popular members get TV appearances and endorsement deals that the bands and management can further profit from. Fans can vote as many times as they want—one CD single counts as one vote—leading extreme fans to buy thousands of copies of the same CD.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I’ve never been fond of the exploitive tendencies that physical formats, especially CDs, seemed to inspire in music marketers; there’s no good reason to buy five versions of the same album, and, environmentally speaking, plenty of good reasons why there shouldn’t be five versions even issued.

On the other hand, I admire how the Japanese music industry has apparently continued to add emotional resonance to their products—not just to the actual CDs, but to the idea of an album or a release as a work to be valued, as a connection to the artist. This is diametrically opposed to the trend that I’ve experienced with streaming services, where the value of a work seems to degrade all the time; I feel less connected to the artists (and albums) that I’ve discovered on Spotify than I do to the music I actually owned—whether in physical form or even as a digital download. There’s got to be a happy medium between buying five copies of the same CD and feeling generally blasé about an infinite catalog of streaming music.

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