Old NHK News Clip about Shibuya-kei

Yoshi from OK Fred just sent me this news clip of a March 1995 NHK evening news report on “Shibuya-kei.” (Note the male newscaster’s hilariously outdated reference to shibukaji — a late ’80s clothing trend that had already been over for years at the time of the broadcast.)

The gist of the story is that HMV and Tower Records essentially created a new genre in the Japanese music market: Shibuya-kei was the first hougaku (邦楽, Japanese music) to sound like yougaku (洋楽, Western music). Until that point, most kids bought music strictly according to performances on network television programs, which are decided by organizational relations between the TV networks and artist management companies. Suddenly in Shibuya, buyers started recommending a host of unknown bands from tiny labels on the basis of subjective quality. Subjectivity on a mass scale breeds diffusion and chaos, but when centralized within two main stores in one area, this selection practice ended up creating large-scale, visible consumer patterns. For a short while, if Ohta Hiroshi liked you, you could suddenly sell 100K copies.

These days, Tower Records and HMV have taken on a supermarket mentality — almost anyone can “rent” floor space regardless of musical quality. These stores’ buyers still probably make good selections, but there’s too much clutter, too many options, too many branches, too much diffusion. In the end, this zaps away their taste-making authority. Pitchfork Media may be currently enjoying a similar level of power, but the level of their impact on the (fringe) music market depends upon their monopoly over authority. Too many Pitchforks means less mass commercial viability for bands.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
February 5, 2006

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

21 Responses

  1. trevor Says:

    whatever people may think about pitchfork. if they decide, they can make or break a record. i think that power is already dwidling though. as they take on more and more “major” type release’s. though how much of that has to do with the emergence of “major indie’s”.. i dunno. so it’s harder to get space on pitchfork unless you make.. A: horrible horrible music.. ala ariel pink. or B: make more or less noise. but call yourself rock [or art rock, but with none of the art, cause thats pussy bull shit].. ala.. most things on pitchfork you’ve never heard.

  2. Jacob Says:

    Oh god, this is the SECOND mention of Pitchfork Media I’ve read tonight.

    I thought they were insteresting a few years ago, but now I realise they’re just a bunch of musically-jaded self-centred twits who understand they have a huge following. I wish they would die.

    /on-shibuya-kei-topic: went to a Shonen Knife concert last year, still likes Pizzicato Five

  3. marxy Says:

    I’m less interested in the quality of Pitchfork as their effects on the music market in relation to their position on the internet. The more they become one of a whole slew of similar media, the less power they will have.

  4. Jacob Says:

    As one media source becomes “diluted” with imitators, another “different” one will be seen as the new “authentic” source.

    The shift has happened again and again, but the interval seems to be shortening.

  5. Arnaud Says:

    Interesting point and video, Marxy. But when you say “Too many Pitchforks means less mass commercial viability for bands”, isn’t it a little bit in contradiction from what I grasped of your master thesis (i.e. monopoly of jimushos in artist promotion is bad for creativity). Are you saying that Pitchfork’s monopoly in the prescription of cool has had a good influence on indie production? Or do you think there is a difference between creativity and commercial success (i.e. Pitchfork might orient people for always the same kind of cool -thus repressing creativity-, but this is necessary to create a profitable indie scene)?

    (I’m not sure I’m very clear here : is monopoly good or bad for artistic production?)

    Of course eventually Pitchfork and Jimusho don’t share the same artistic views. But it’s quite obvious -judging from the above comments- that choices Pitchfork made have had a lot of influence on commercial successes. Therefore on creativity orientation?

  6. marxy Says:

    A media format becomes legitimate through a single source, then imitators come in and dilute that format. Consumers switching to new media format, however, takes a while. There’s not a new “Internet” every few years.

  7. marxy Says:

    Jimushos and TV networks, as I state in my thesis, are centralized content providers who are not interested in product quality. This is where Ohta Hiroshi from HMV was different. Even if his taste was bad, he was choosing acts according to his individual taste.

    But it’s quite obvious -judging from the above comments- that choices Pitchfork made have had a lot of influence on commercial successes.

    Monopoly of the gate-keeping role is not “good” or “bad” per se, as much as it is something that centralizes buying patterns. Bands are only profitable when buying patterns are centralized. Otherwise, you get too many dollars chasing too many bands, and nobody profits. So, if the goal is real financial stability for music acts (like what happened in the 90s during Shibuya-kei), you need centralization at some level. If the goal is consumer access to a large variety of good music, centralization will probably be bad.

    The fundamental problem, however, is that pop music’s “value” and meaning cannot be separated from its market success (so spake Simon Frith.) Shibuya-kei’s success and ultimate effect on society depended in large part on its mass acceptance, which was guaranteed by an authoritarian source of information.

    There cannot be 20 Pitchforks promoting 20 Clap Your Hands Say Yeahs, because each will matter less and therefore, not matter enough to become a phenomenon.

  8. Jacob Says:

    > “There’s not a new “Internet” every few years.”

    Well, the thing is, starting a new tv show, radio show, or magazine costs/costed plenty of money. Those were the old media. With the “new” media, starting a new website is virtually costless.

    The point I’m making is that if your website is “different” enough from the dominant one and its countless followers, and develops a hipster (or whatever the descendant may be) following, it can become the new authority. (Repeat cycle, as necessary.)

    With the utter simplicity of forming a new source in the new media, the cycle is a heckuva lot faster than with the old media. (This follows my coworker’s complaint of the trend of “disposable” media.)

  9. nate Says:

    jacob, if the cycle is a heckuva a lot faster, someone ought to pass the memo to pitchfork, which has dominated internet critique of the indie scene at least as long as the HMV/Tower phase of shibuya kei lasted.
    I agree that pitchfork will inevitably consign itself to oblivion, but I really doubt that another genre-straddling monolith can rise to take it’s place. When they’ve pissed away the last of their name, the readers will scatter to a million different websites. Only google can be google.

  10. ndkent Says:

    I guess I was first there in October ’95. Some news crew shot me for a few seconds in HMV looking at the 2 shelves of YMO related artists they had grouped together. I have fond memories of the old HMV that was mostly in the basement with a small to mid size street level entrance. Besides the YMO section the first floor also sported some sort of eccentric section. I remember I had no trouble finding all sorts of ex-Plastics member side projects. I think I’ve only bought one or 2 CDs in the new HMV in all these years.

    Now Tower in Shibuya. I don’t think they’ve changed all that much since ’95. They are just more shabby these days. Certainly not a typical supermarket. I still see the hand made displays and the occasional little notebook & pencil for comments for the band.

    I liked that Tower introduced that sort of “none of the above” genre section (like on the 4th floor) sometime in the late 90s, nice too that they didn’t segragate Japanese and non-japanese music there. Also the expansion of the indies section on 2 didn’t do any harm.

  11. marxy Says:

    HMV is certainly the more supermarket of the two. Tower does go out of its way to support new bands they like. But Tower is way more of a mainstream business now than it was in the past, and I’m sure they feel a bit more pressure from big labels than they used to.

  12. nate Says:

    in northern california, a lot of the older tower records closed down during the late nineties, including the original one in Sac, I believe. Tower hasn’t fared all to well against the wal-marts and mega media outlets like virgin.

  13. Chris_B Says:

    I rarely visit the HMV in Shibuya. Their selection of my genre of preference is very small and they dont have the book/magazine selection that Tower has.

    My only complaint about Tower is since they separated from the US Tower, their selection of import magazines has become smaller.

  14. ls Says:

    I still find pitchfork useful, but that’s probably because I’m relatively isolated from the, uh, scene. But a former classmate who now writes for them confirms the musically jaded self-centered twit theory.

  15. matt Says:

    my prediction: the pitchfork phenomenon will disappear when the editors, realising their true calling, finally devote every single line of every page to Sufjan Stevens exclusively, becoming “The Sufjan Pitchfork” and then disappearing forever under the sickening weight of their own girlish adoration..

  16. Mike Says:

    Well, although most certainly the giant behemoth of its genre, I wouldn’t say Pitchfork completely dominates. What about Tiny Mix Tapes and Splendid?

    Unlike Pitchfork TMT has nice mixtape-appeal, which will maybe let it last through the Demise of Pitchfork (the Indie Latter Days?).

  17. marxy Says:

    I personally find that Splendid has good taste.

  18. Zatsuon Says:


    That’s the competition?

  19. marxy Says:

    I’m paranoid, but I’ve always said, a good Marxy review will put you out of business. That’s why PopMatters still hangs its head high.

  20. Momus Says:

    Shibuya: I remember Kahimi Karie’s jimusho telling me that one of her singles, possibly “Good Morning World”, had sold 70,000 copies in the Shibuya branch of HMV alone. That’s centralized buying! (Or was it 7000? Well, a lot, anyway.)

    Pitchfork: my rule of thumb is that niche gatekeeper publications start to lose their authority when they stop reviewing Momus records. It may sound self-centred, but actually Momus turns out to be a sort of litmus artist for them. NME stopped reviewing my albums in 1997, and soon after began its decline into its current lobotomized cheerleading. Pitchfork stopped in 2003 (although in 2005 they did review my blog, so there’s still hope for them).

    Ariel Pink: a total genius, not “horrible horrible music” at all!

  21. Jrim Says:

    Yeah, that Pitchfork blog piece was a bit of a coup for you, wasn’t it Momus? Being lumped in with someone as vogueish as DJ /rupture … I mean, really! Agreed that Pitchfork is a bit of a yawn these days: their hip hop reviews, in particular, make for a singularly excrutiating read. Still, nice to see the new Boris album get such a glowing write-up…