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 (Note the male newscaster’s hilariously outdated reference to shibukaji — a late ’80s clothing trend that had already been over for years at the time of the broadcast.)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.