Alas, the iPod Shuffle

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While the iPod took three years to break into the Japanese market, the iPod Shuffle has quickly exploded onto the scene. At least in Tokyo, everyone aged 18 to 30 is dangling the little white trinket from their necks like an ID pass to Coolsville (Population: You). Rumors have it that Apple designed the iPod Shuffle specifically for Japanese consumers, but regardless, the success of the Shuffle over the regular tank iPod seems to prove the following points about Japanese consumers, which mostly contradict the “common” understanding of Japanese buying behavior:

A) Japanese consumers are lo-tech. Without a life spent in front of the computer downloading songs nor a concrete knowledge of “firewire,” there’s not much need for an iPod. The Shuffle is all about loving USB and owning no digital musical files.

B) Japanese consumers are price-sensitive. In the past, the golden rule of Japanese buyer behavior was “design/style/quality over price,” but that’s only because they were rich. Now ¥10,980 is about all your going to milk out of a poor freeter.

C) Japanese consumers want conspicuous gadgets and trinkets. Okay, we knew this already, but if a Japanese consumer can’t show their item off, they’re not going to buy it. The iPod stays in a protective pouch in a bag; the Shuffle sits on your chest, waiting to be adored.

D) Japanese consumers don’t like music. You heard me. They like the idea of music and the act of listening to music, but apart from music nerds, the Japanese don’t love music and define their entire individuality on their monthly ironic intake of E.L.O. albums. For the music fanatic, the iPod offers complete control of musical background — set to coincide with specific environmental and personal factors. The Shuffle is for people who don’t care about what they’re listening to as long as they’re listening.

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

31 Responses

  1. dzima Says:

    Since we all know about your love affair with Top 10 lists, here are the Top 10 songs on the iTunes website this week:
    1. Hollaback Girl
    Gwen Stefani
    2. Feel Good Inc (Single Edit)
    Gorillaz
    3. Don’t Phunk With My Heart
    Black Eyed Peas
    4. Incomplete
    Backstreet Boys
    5. Mr. Brightside
    The Killers
    6. Switch
    Will Smith
    7. Beverly Hills
    Weezer
    8. Speed of Sound
    Coldplay
    9. American Baby
    Dave Matthews Band
    10. Lonely No More
    Rob Thomas

    Does that sound like a list of songs that was created by ‘music lovers/fanatics’? Or maybe in America people also listen to music without caring about music? I challenge you to find anyone who had his/her ‘life changed’ by Gwen Stefani or a Dave Matthews ‘fanatic’ because in the end I think you’re just talking about yourself and bringing up once again that old argument ‘American content/no form vs. Japanese form/no content’.

    (kudos to iTunes for rereleasing all the Pierre Boulez discography though. It’s a shame I’m not able to buy them)

  2. trevor Says:

    well nothing to do japanese wise.. i do agree with the theory on. the shuffle is for people who don’t really like music. atleast enough to care about what they are listening too..
    but i think this is true for all parts of the word.. and not really related to the ipod shuffle. and i’m not so sold on the success of the shuffle being a gadget as fashion item. i see hordes of ipod mini’s on people belts or straped to there bag straps here.. it’s not just a japanese thing.

  3. marxy Says:

    While us snobs don’t like Coldplay and their ilk, I can attest that millions Americans believed that they’ve had their lives changed by the Dave Matthews Band, No Doubt, Weezer, and Matchbox 20. Can you say the same about Smap?

    An interesting experiment: look at the way that Japanese songs hit the #1 spot. Except for a few exceptions every year, #1 songs generally hit #1 immediately (the week of release) – often, before they are even heard by consumers. Japanese music fans are young and buy songs based on the “brand” of the artist – not the song itself.

    As bad as American tastes are, consumer do seem to be choosing songs on content and not the “brand” of the artist. When’s the last time you’ve heard someone say, “I love all the former SMAP songs, but this new one SUCKS!”

  4. nate Says:

    I think you miss out for sitting in the elite set again. People do feel really moved by hirai ken, mister children and dreams come true. The stuff that crops up in the cheesy soundtracks to the cheesy dramas on tv is every bit as moving for the japanese consumer as the cheesy crap that shows up on the oc or six feet under is for the american.
    well, not every bit as moving, maybe. but I think your dealing much more with a difference in ratios here, not a phenomenon that (nearly) doesn’t exist in this country.

    Maybe when you say the japanese don’t like music, you’re right, but you’re wrong to defend the rest of the world.

  5. marxy Says:

    People do feel really moved by hirai ken, mister children and dreams come true

    This is true.

    But let’s compare elite set to elite set: there’s no external proof that anyone in Japan is analyzing popular music critically, even in snobby magazines; whereas this kind of criticism is bread-and-butter in the US/UK/Europe, floating downstream to the music reviews in People. Are there Japanese people thinking really deeply about music? Of course. Is criticism, analysis, creating tastes through distastes a standard part of the Japanese musical experience? No. I would argue that these may not be the dominant factors moving Western music consumption, but it’s way more present than in Japan.

    One minute the argument is: Pitchfork is too powerful! Now, it’s Pitchfork is only elitist culture!

  6. Momus Says:

    You left out D) and E) (although perhaps they should have been A) and B):

    D) Japanese consumers like small things.

    E) Japanese consumers appreciate elegant design.

  7. Momus Says:

    and maybe we could add F):

    F) The femininity factor. Just as it’s usually women who say of music “Oh, I like a bit of everything” (in other words, they’re shuffle-ready, non-rockist and non-otaku), it’s also women who lead consumer tastes in the direction of the small, light, elegant, slim. Witness what happened with keitai design: it took a female consumer journalist to basically re-invent the keitai for female tastes. Now everyone has a “female”-style keitai, even men. The Shuffle is to the “tank” iPod what the new “girly” keitai is to the old “tank” keitai used by businessmen.

  8. dzima Says:

    I think Momus is right about the ‘non-rockist, non-otaku’ bit. For example, in the last few years I found myself to be spending less money on music and more on interesting food or clothes. Music is one among things I enjoy. Does that mean I’m not a real music fan or did I sell out? I think you just live and learn that very important Fluxus lesson ‘Everything is art’ or in Beuys’ words ‘Everyone is an artist’. Then you just stop worrying about who’s got better taste in music or who buys it thinking about content or brand.

  9. marxy Says:

    D) Japanese consumers like small things.

    Maybe this is because they’re for show.

    E) Japanese consumers appreciate elegant design.

    Yeah, the original iPod was so beastly…!

    F) The femininity factor.

    So, we’re calling a non-specific, non-critical interest in things “feminine”?

    ‘Everything is art’

    Or is it “everything can be art”?

  10. Momus Says:

    D) Japanese consumers like small things.

    Maybe this is because they’re for show.

    You’re going to have to explain the inherent relationship between small things and ostentation, because I don’t really see the connection. Can’t you just admit that in your usual rush to tie the success of the Shuffle to the negative things you habitually see in Japan, you left out the most important factors in the product’s success in that market? You’re heading for an A for Anti-Japanese Studies but an F in Marketing, I’m afraid!

  11. marxy Says:

    You’re heading for an A for Anti-Japanese Studies but an F in Marketing, I’m afraid!

    Look, your two points:

    1) small size
    2) elegant design

    don’t explain why consumers didn’t go for iPods (or conversely, why Apple didn’t even bother releasing them) but have gone gaga for the Shuffles. Both are extremely well-designed, relatively small objects – even if the newer one is the smallest yet. The determining factors in the Shuffle vs. iPod story were absolutely price and tech-skills over “design.”

    Also, in regards to feminity – you’re overgeneralizing again. Japanese “consumers” aren’t feminine: young people and non-professional females are the only ones allowed to be consumers, and therefore, the market bends to their wants and needs.

  12. der Says:

    Hm, wasn’t the iPod mini a huge success in Japan as well? I remember seeing people buying several at once in the Mac store in Ginza.
    And aren’t the white cables already show-off-y enough?

  13. olivier Says:

    The iPod took a long time to win the hearts of japanese consumers, not because it was bad per se, but because there was such a large minidisc market that a big, expensive hard-drive player had a lot to fight against.

    The shuffle, on the other hand, has a much easier job: the customers already love the ipod, and instead of marketing the shuffle as just a flash based compact player (which have been around for a while), Apple markets it as a smaller, cheaper ipod.

    The Japanese market doesn’t love the shuffle just because it is small, low-tech and cheap, but because it’s that *and* an ipod.

  14. MC Says:

    I think price is a big factor in this discussion. When you say that the shuffle is for people who don’t like music, do you mean the shuffle function or the lower memory listening device? Because, I like the shuffle function, it can make an old album seem new with song order being altered and it can unearth music that I had forgetten about or didn’t apprieciate on the first 10 listens or so.

    For me, I like the fact that if I have the sudden urge to hear a song I can toggle through the 3500 songs to find it and hear it within a minute. But I can see the anology of people who buy “best of CDs” rather than collect an artists’ catalogue would be more likely to buy a mini or shuffle. Also I agree the design is “sexy.”

  15. dzima Says:

    Another biased look at facts leading to a conclusion that suits his agenda. It looks like this one is going to be filed under ‘Marxy’s Failed Theories about Japan (number 38)’.

  16. marxy Says:

    And this could be ‘Dzima’s bitchy comment about a blog he voluntarily reads #38.’

  17. Momobuta Says:

    Sorry if I’m out of place here, but I thought I’d add something.
    I learned from a man named Yuichi Washida that the annual revenue for the chaku-melo market is over US$1billion, and (here’s the scary part) it is poised to surpass CD sales. Aside from an obsession with individualized ringtones, what this might also suggest is just further evidence to marxsy’s point D: Japanese do have a different relationship to music.
    Washida has done some interesting research showing how young females direct the tastes and decisions of most other consumer populations in Japan. (Male) otaku, often thought to be Japan’s earliest adopters, do not effect product design like females do.
    Washida’s research:
    http://arago.cprost.sfu.ca/~smith/conference/viewabstract.php?id=610&cf=4

  18. marxy Says:

    Japanese do have a different relationship to music.

    I’m just being a dickhead when I say, “Japanese don’t like music,” because I mean “The Japanese have a completely different system of music appreciation than what is widely understood as the ‘standard’ Western model.” There’s no reason to criticize their listening culture just because it’s different, but knowing that they don’t “like” music the way that Westerners “like” music does help explain why Mr. Big have a half-dozen Japan-only releases.

  19. nate Says:

    if the current designs of keitais are feminine, then everything apple has made for generation upon generation is feminine.
    This stark white phallus doesn’t really strike me more apropriate for women at all. In fact, I’d say apple’s white designs are specifically out there to avoid the gender divide between black and pastel electronics.
    I think it’s docomo who has those awful leather covered keitais for women right now. They are the product of designing for the presumed female tastes rather than you know… good design.

    (pitchfork is now the place you go to read a short blog entry from one of a group of scenesters posted below the cover of a new album and a number between 7 and 9.)

  20. Momus Says:

    Just because something is phallus-shaped doesn’t mean women don’t want to buy it, Nate!

  21. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    I found it interesting that when I went shopping for an iPod a couple of months ago (I was a late adopter and didn’t buy one until it was clear I was facing a weekday commute) most of the electronics shops I visited didn’t have them on their shelves. This puzzled me so I asked one of the shop attendants why they didn’t stock them. And he had an answer ready: the store considered the iPod a computer peripheral and therefore it should be sold in computer shops. Trying to be polite, I didn’t ask him why they did sell a wide range of Japanese manufactured (or at least Japanese designed and distributed but probably Chinese manufactured) mp3 players.

  22. marxy Says:

    I don’t want to crazy in this direction without factual backup, but it seems that Apple’s weak presence in Japan has a lot to do with protecting domestic companies against foreign computer firms through tarriffs and other “cultural” barriers, etc. Apparently, the Japanese used to go to America to buy Macs in the 80s and 90s because they were almost half-price compared to the Japanese mark-up.

  23. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Hmmm … interesting question. I should ask around about this. I’ve got a friend who made a considerable amount of money during the late 80’s and the 90’s “localizing” mac software (mostly double byte-ing it) for the Japanese market.

  24. Chris_B Says:

    I think the shuffle looks like a tampon

  25. mark Says:

    A) Japanese consumers are lo-tech.

    B) Japanese consumers are price-sensitive.

    D) Japanese consumers don’t like music.

    E) Japanese consumers appreciate elegant design.

    Well… then I really should consider bringing the iNO to Japan… :-)

  26. Brad Says:

    I’m sorry but this is totally ridiculous. Assumption D isn’t even remotely valid, mostly because you’re so off on the shuffle. Do you have one? Have you ever even used one?

    I own a 60GB iPod photo which cannot hold my entire mp3 collection. When I try to listen something on that, I instanly hit option paralysis because I can’t figure out what I want to listen to. (answer: make more playlists…I know) The shuffle though makes that decision moot.

    Is it perfect? No. I skip through a lot of deep album tracks that aren’t worth listening to or don’t fit my mood. But a dozen track 13’s from some band I can’t even place is more than made up for by the moments when Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky” comes through unexpectedly.

    I was like you. When the shuffle came out, even though I was impressed by Apple undercutting every other manufacturer and also because they had the balls to market it’s shortcoming (no screen) as a feature (life is random!). But I needed a flash drive and it was cheap so I thought what the hell. And it really has changed the way I listen to my music collection. Sure, when I get a new album, I still copy it manually to the shuffle to listen to it in the way the artist intended. But once I’ve had enough, into the randomizer it goes.

    I tend to give you the benefit of the doubt most of the time, but this time…

  27. nate Says:

    brad… listen to yourself. you like to listen to crap music 80% of the time because then you’re more happy when a piece of music you like pops up.
    That’s precisely what marxy had in mind when he descibed not caring what you’re listening to.

    Ever heard of the radio? it can do the same thing, and provide live traffic updates.

  28. Brad Says:

    Thanks for letting me know that only 20% of the music I listen to is good enough for the people who comment here. I’ll keep that in mind.

    The fact is that I tend to buy/download a lot of albums. If I like some singles or whatever, instead of getting just the singles, I”ll get the whole album. Which often leads to disappointment. Often times the other tracks on the album aren’t up to snuff. But occasionally, I’ll find some band that I’ve never heard before where every track on the album (or a vast majority) are incredible. Those bands, few and far between though they may be, are more than worth the crud I have to wade through.

    As I mentioned before, the answer to all this is to take more time rating songs, making smart playlists, etc. but honestly, I find few things more boring than rating music. My tastes are too hard to pin down (for even myself!) to be able to say why one song is a 5-star track and another is only 4-stars. I like what I like. If 80% of that is crap, so be it. I”m perfectly happy to be one of the sheeple that Apple markets to. But I still think that David’s take on this is mis-guided.

  29. marxy Says:

    Thanks for letting me know that only 20% of the music I listen to is good enough for the people who comment here. I’ll keep that in mind.

    I listen to the Archies and the Grass Roots, so it’s better to not make the assumption that we listen to “good” music.

    I think Brad has a point, but I find it hard to believe that most hardcore music fans would rather have a Shuffle than an iPod – especially for their first mp3 player. Can the Shuffle be fun for the music-obsessed? Probably, but it also works for the non-music nerd a lot better than an iPod, no?

  30. Sarmoung Says:

    I bought an 30G iPod two years ago and I now also own a Shuffle. Currently, I much prefer the latter. It weighs almost nothing, takes up very little space, has a better battery life and its relative lack of memory forces me to be more selective in my choice. I found that things tended to vanish into the iPod and now I make a more concerted effort to put new music on the Shuffle. Do I really need to carry around that much music with me unless I’m going away on holiday or similar? In which case I’ll have the laptop with me anyway. I don’t wear it around my neck though.

    In terms of Firewire/USB operation, I’m not sure there’s any real difference between the two models. One you attach and it generally sticks your entire iTunes library onto the device. The other takes what you tell it to or chooses at random. As far as your idiot consumer goes, including myself, they’re just wires or plugs. One seems faster.

    I think that Shuffle owners have to exercise just as much choice as your iPod owners. The latter can construct and tinker multiple playlists to their hearts content. The Shuffle is just one singular playlist and needs as much care in construction and has to be done before you leave the house. if you left the house ten years ago carrying a Walkman and three carefully crafted cassettes intended for the day ahead, did that mean you didn’t love music? The sun was shining, you had a date. Later, you’ve been stood up, it’s raining at the bus stop. So much the better that you don’t have access to the more suicidal cuts from your collection. The Archies might grate in a curiously gratifying way if it’s all you’ve got.

    Your use of the word background in D is intriguing. Since the advent of the Walkman, we’ve had this ability to control the musical accompaniment to the day. I’m not sure whether really loving music in fact wouldn’t have one abandoning all such devices and going back to creating the music in your head as you remember it. Then, in this rain-soaked lovelorn world, you’d burst into the house after humming that heartbreak tune on the journey home and finally get to place the needle upon the record. Loving music is not the same as collecting music. It might be be for many men (?).

    I think I know what you mean about Japanese consumers not loving music, but I’m equally convinced that the UK public don’t either. It’s wallpaper for all. Apart from the music nerds and I’m not sure what sort of headcount we’d get if we compared the numbers in Japan to the UK, US or, indeed, elsewhere.

  31. MC Says:

    I think Brad has a point, but I find it hard to believe that most hardcore music fans would rather have a Shuffle than an iPod – especially for their first mp3 player. Can the Shuffle be fun for the music-obsessed? Probably, but it also works for the non-music nerd a lot better than an iPod, no?

    I think this is an accurate asumption and I can agree with it.