I did the least Japanese thing ever: I got cable TV.
Through some weird promotions and unclear machinations, I would actually save money by adding cable to my broadband package.
Back at my former residence, I enjoyed watching cable once and a while, eating breakfast over a little MTV, the occasional Shiina Ringo special on Space Shower TV, old dubbed episodes of The Monkees, observing the total deterioration in J-pop on Sony’s MOTV video countdowns (no, not “Music Television” but “Music on Television.” Totally different.)
So this was more of a return to cable, rather than a new adventure. A sequel. Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in…
I click on Space Shower TV and am greeted by the new Shiina Ringo video. I remember her, but I had completely forgotten that they still make music videos.
As somebody who spent a good chunk of his youth obsessed with Japanese pop music, I have enjoyed the last few years of total and utter market decline because J-pop is now so thoroughly mediocre and bad that you can completely ignore it and not miss anything. No one else is listening, so why should you. There is no pressure to keep up. I mean, do you worry about what’s going on in the Professional Bowlers Association?
In the 1990s Japanese pop music went through a massive renaissance, and even if looking back Kahala Tomomi wasn’t exactly the height of creative exploration, J-Pop mattered. Knowing the latest hits was crucial for karaoke. Melodies drifted through the streets of Shibuya. Hit songs could make hit products and vice versa.
The market for recorded music has completely tanked in Japan (much like the U.S.), but the low numbers do not reveal the full story of evaporated influence.
The best-selling star of our era is Koda Kumi — whom I pretty much loathe. But, it’s not just me. Tantei File found that Ms. Koda is the celebrity the public most wants to disappear. See what is happening: J-Pop is such a total niche market at this point that the top star can have absolutely no public support and still reign as queen. An Oricon #1 right now is about as impressive as being the best backgammon player in Brevard, North Carolina.
Oddly, however, the main music TV shows — Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ and Music Station — still get pretty good ratings. Just no one is going out and buying the songs featured on the show. Crazy, but perhaps consumers are considering these idols and tarento as TV stars and not musicians who deserve to win their hard-earned money. I like Yamada Yu and all, but do I really want to shell out ¥3,000 for her “music.”
Since almost nobody in Japan has cable and music videos get very little time on the air, the question is, why even make a music video in Japan? The question seems to only be one of propriety — i.e., because a star artist has a video. You need the clip for the 10 seconds on CDTV‘s countdown (they still have that show, right?), but that’s it.
The music market in Japan works in a very organized way: Fans faithfully buy their favorite artists’ new releases. Very few songs have slow-building grassroots support or crossover appeal to a wider public. For an established artist whom the public has already made a decision on, a video is not going to attract new fans. No one is going to start listening to the Ulfuls if they aren’t already. The music video has become little more than a very expensive version of a fan newsletter — sounding the clarion call for the true believers to buy the single or album out of duty.
With record budgets declining, video quality is declining. With interest in music declining, MTV and Space Shower TV are so desperate for ad sales that they let the labels dictate their programming. This makes for some very poor viewing.
But hey, the good news is that the pop music structure in Japan is so decrepit, corrupt, and meaningless that underground music feels once again… underground. My favorite bands won’t ever be on TV, but what would that get them anyway?