The Decline of the Japanese Music Market, Part One

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I recently picked up a copy of “Yoku wakaru — ongaku gyoukai” (The Easy to Understand Guide to the Music Business”) at my library, and I have learned a lot about the Japanese music market from just a quick reading of the overview. The library’s copy was from 1999 — which is the year right before sales started to plummet — so I ordered the newest printing from 2003 to read their explanations of the five-year decline. Things I have learned so far in comparing the two editions:

1. The Increase of Million-Sellers in the ’90s

Graph of Singles and Albums Selling Over 1 million copies (from RIAJ data)

Starting in 1993, the J-Pop market started producing an ever growing number of singles and albums that broke the million copy mark. This peaked around 1998, and the number of hugely-selling singles in particular has been in heavy decline ever since. In 2002, there was only one single that broke the million mark — compared with 20 in 1998 — and it was SMAP, who aren’t really a music group as much as a national institution.

This means that the music market was getting bigger, but the purchases of those new consumers clumped towards mass market-directed releases that piggybacked on other media through tie-up with trendy dramas, commercials, and anime theme songs. In other words, the market was about mass cultural participation rather than individual enjoyment of musical content.

2. The Change in the ’90s from a Male to a Female Market

Until the 1990s, the eternal question in the backrooms of record companies was, how do we get women to consume music? The market was essentially comprised of mostly male music fans. With the rise of Amuro Namie and Hamazaki Ayumi, however, female fans flooded into the market, and that influx of female consumers led to the million-seller era. By the late ’90s, the market had become almost 65% female.

Record companies like female customers since they are (supposedly):

a) More sensitive to trends
b) More influenced by the mass media
c) Less interested in music itself (so do not have any preferences that would get in the way of new product offerings)

Essentially, Japanese females are not really “music fans” but bought records because they were part of larger culture movements, whether those be drama viewership (Long Vacation) or teenage subcultures (kogyaru).

So, the music market was basically over-saturated with the female “non-music fan” contingent, and when the mega-trends like the amuraa disappeared in the late ’90s with nothing to take their place, the record companies had a hard time producing anything relevant to a bunch of less-wealthy girls who don’t particularly like music anyway.

And when they geared the market towards the high-risk game of trying to produce mega-hits, they worked to remove that pesky thing called “musical content,” and in turn, alienated all the true music fans, who all went off into their own less profitable sub-genres.

So, the market is shrinking, but only because they are losing people who should have never been music consumers in the first place.

As a side note, I find it interesting that right when the idol commodity-driven Japanese market started to decline in the late ’90s, the American Idol idol-commodity market started going into overdrive.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
October 17, 2004

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

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