The Decline of the Japanese Music Market, Part Four

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5. Way Fewer New Artists

In 1991, the Japanese record industry debuted 510 artists. Ten years later in 2001, the 24 largest record companies only debuted 128. There was an increase in 2003 up to 281, but this is still about half the number from the late ’80s/early ’90s, which was hardly the peak of the industry. Clearly, the major labels found a profitable strategy in streamlining debut artists to only those with potential to produce mega-hits.

Around this time as well, the majors started using the “indies” labels as a kind of farm league. If your band could sell over 10,000 on an indie label, the majors would take notice and send you up to the big city. These days, the major labels nurture young bands with promise and coordinate their careers, but “debut” them on indie labels before committing to a large-scale and costly launch.

Certainly, anytime a large industry downsizes their new product options, they are going to keep around the sure-sells and dump the high-risk ventures. I can imagine that all the talented bands without an obvious marketing strategy are the ones left by the wayside. J-Pop is now a high-cost, high-payoff game and bands who cannot sell in the 100,000s are not worth the investment.

Whether or not this is related to the lower number of new acts, Japan has a ridiculously stale turnover rate. SMAP had the biggest selling single in 2003?! Can you imagine an America where New Kids on the Block are not just left un-mocked, but rack up hit after hit for sixteen years?

Japan’s collusive media system continues to support high-profile acts with pinky-less jimusho backing, and in times of economic distress, firms will obviously tighten the purse strings and keep milking what they know will sell. If anyone is going to save Japanese music, it will certainly be coming from below, not above.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
October 20, 2004

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

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