The July 2006 issue of Wired had an excerpt from Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail called “The Rise and Fall of the Hit.” In recent years, sales for “blockbuster” movies and “hit” songs have been in decline. Smash-hit TV shows like American Idol cannot hold a candle to The Cosby Show. Anderson sees cannibalization as the primary cause: There has been a massive increase in niche media alternatives which eat into the sales of mainstream, mass-market items. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 created 700 FM stations, and this fragmentation sent shrapnel into the big boys. Cable is killing network TV. Internet values of personal-tailoring hurts the idea of “broadcasting.”
This all makes perfect sense, and just across the sea, Japan is suffering from a similar host of symptoms. Media markets have all being shrinking since the late 90s, CDs almost never break the 1 million mark, and hits lack a cultural importance they once did: Orange Range is no Pink Lady.
Of course then, similar structural forces are at work? Not really.
The first point of contention is the fact that Japan has not seen a dramatic increase in alternate content. Cable diffusion is still low, and nary a non-basic channel has scored a real hit on the scale of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, South Park, and Battlestar Galactica.
Second, a lot of the technological change has not had a big impact on information diffusion. Radio is as marginal in Japan as it has ever been. Anderson sees the iPod as a direct competitor to radio in American daily car commutes, but in Japan, the iPod replaces the MD player — used mainly by those on foot and train. This does not lead to a substantial change in habits.
Third, despite cheap and widely-available broadband, there seems to be no indication that the Internet is giving rise to a large amount of “culture” in Japan. Think about the Japanese YouTube boom of recent months: For the most part, Japanese fans are uploading pre-recorded pieces from mainstream TV and posting them for archival purposes. This is a great service to the world and tends to create new memes, but the content itself is just a re-arranged version of Big Network programming. Where is your Homestar Runner or Ask a Ninja or Yacht Rock? Not that these are giving Lost a run for their money, but they perfectly illustrate the new “water cooler” content you may chat to your peers about.
Anderson writes, “The hierarchy of attention has inverted — credibility now rises from below.” This seems to be a culturally-contingent idea. Americans are open to the idea of credibility collected from grassroots, democratic action in a way that the Japanese are not. I see this as related to Confucian ideas of propriety, but regardless, young Japanese consumers need their cultural items to have a legitimacy that can only be bestowed from above. It is not just that they saw a song on the prime-time TV show Music Station and decided they like it: Transmission through that institution makes it a “safe” purchase. This goes hand-in-hand with an extremely closed entertainment industry where one megalithic advertising firm works with a half-dozen shady talent agencies to create nationwide cross-media campaigns and anoint stars through sheer force. Lightsaber kid has no chance against this kind of monster — unless he signs up with Burning Production.
Japan’s cultural industry meltdown is better explained by a sharp decrease of youth consumers with discretionary income — something that does not seem to plague the United States. Right now, Japan sees smaller market hits but those items that hit are still being widely regarded as “the most important” — a phenomenon I call “the Leftover Plurality.” Johnny’s Jimusho boy idols like Kat-tun seem to be big time players these days even though their sales for that genre are essentially the same as ever. The rest of the market has just fallen under their toes.
Anderson sees American consumers as having “internalized the bookkeeping of entertainment risk capital” — supporting market winners and assigning cultural importance by sales. In Japan — especially the music market — this has always been true, and the decrease in sales means more and more items drifting below that arbitrary “threshold” of sales that represents a necessary level of “social acceptance” for safe purchase. A lack of safe items means congregation in big ticket champions with easily-understood social meanings, Louis Vuitton being your perfect example.
Technological progress will help niche culture flourish in Japan, but the system’s traditional orientation towards using the market as a way to validate social propriety should fundamentally marginalize anything not coming out of the TV box. The Long Tail depends upon legitimacy from below, and this is not the most natural concept to Japanese culture.