On August 22, music store Shibuya HMV shut down operations. Surely it’s never good to see a large-scale culture shop smack middle in Tokyo’s central youth shopping district have to close its doors, but the obituaries have focused more upon HMV’s historical role than the possible contemporary impact of its disappearance. Mainichi called it the “holy ground” for the ’90s epoch-making music genre Shibuya-kei. As we will see, this is only partly true.
Shibuya HMV opened on November 16, 1990, at the height of the Bubble economy. The original store was inside the ONE-OH-NINE building (not to be confused with Shibuya109), but in 1998 moved to its more iconic location on Center-gai. We should not assume that the opening of Shibuya HMV was as dramatic as its closing. Tower Records was already down the street, as well as Wave — the ultra-trendy import record shop chain from the ultra-trendy Saison retail group (Seibu, Parco, Loft, Muji, Seed). J-Pop and other Japanese sounds could always be bought at Shinseido and other old-school retailers. So Shibuya had both multiple outlets for Japanese and foreign music. Tower was the place to go to buy cheap foreign imports of big mainstream acts. Meanwhile Wave had an incredible diverse selection of small foreign labels and imported 12″s. If you wanted to actually see your favorite DJs and musicians out in the wild buying their latest haul, Wave was the place to go.
So in this record shop ecosystem, Shibuya HMV was positioned as a foreign megastore with a slightly domestic Japanese feeling — like a souped-up version of Shinseido. The shop’s real innovation, credited in all the retrospectives, was the corner where the staff curated a selection of more interesting contemporary Japanese bands — ones that had strayed far from classic kayokyoku conventions to sound like Japanese-language versions of modern Western music. At first, this focused around Flipper’s Guitar, Love Tambourines, Pizzicato Five, and Scha Dara Parr. The bands eventually became known as “Shibuya-kei” in that more than half of their sales came from the record stores within this one shopping district. Shibuya HMV was not the only record store to push these artists, but that particular outlet’s support was perhaps the most visible. (The local retail push surely helped these bands catch on with a trend-sensitive audience, but their mainstream success came after television commercials and dramas used Shibuya-kei songs as the theme songs.)
We should also remember that at the time Shibuya was not just a shopping district but the shopping district. Around 1988, Harajuku emptied out completely as rich delinquent cool kids staked their claim in Shibuya. So the idea of “Shibuya-kei” was not just about the stores in Shibuya but an idea that trendy Tokyo kids alone could get Oricon spots for obscure artists with slightly strange sounds, without powerful management companies and who did not play by the usual “let’s appear on TV variety shows” rules.
Looking back, Shibuya HMV’s ability to foster Shibuya-kei was not just a testament to its ingenious retail curation. The store’s influence stemmed a bit from right time, right place. Everything was predicated on (1) the relative centrality of the store in consumer’s minds (2) the relative simplicity of the market (3) the small number of Shibuya-kei artists who could be organized into a makeshift genre (4) the small amount of new releases from those artists.
None of those conditions lasted beyond the early 1990s. Once Shibuya-kei exploded, indie record shops became a big part of the scene, so hardcore Shibuya-kei fans would go to independent shops Zest or Maximum Joy to find the most precisely-curated selection of rare records. This ended up scattering taste-making legitimacy amongst more players in the market. And when the next wave of Shibuya-kei artists showed up, they nestled easily into the pre-legitimized genre and on the original artists’ own labels like Trattoria and Readymade. There was no need for a larger authority to go out on a limb and vouch for them. The secret to Shibuya HMV’s influence was its brief moment of centrality, when J-Pop fans would go in wide-eyed, browse its shelves, and take note of the special curated records. Now curation of this manner is so commonplace, so built into a record store structure that a consumer would easily glide right by. Tower Records’ well-decorated listening booths seem to play into this, although ironically they are now mostly payola.
So Shibuya HMV and its ilk lost most of their major influence sometime in the 1990s. And forget influence: After the music market peaked in 1998, being a music retailer suddenly became a much less profitable operation. The Daily Yomiuri tries to pin the fall of Shibuya HMV on digital downloading, but the market has basically declined at an equal rate for the last twelve years straight. The original Wave chain folded in 1999. HMV still exists at least, but again, it’s not a good sign that a music store in the middle of Shibuya of all places is no longer sustainable.
But think about the difference two decades make. The neighborhood was once full of rich suburban kids, in the middle of the Bubble, with nothing to spend their overflowing pockets of money on besides records and clothing. Now Center-gai is famous for being the den of the most hardcore lumpen gyaru, who come from prefectures far away, who have suffered twelve years of income decline and have to spend most of their pocket money on cell phone bills. A digital world may not of helped, but the entire Shibuya HMV business model was based on the idea that music was still an exciting part of youth culture and that people still cared vaguely about buying into “the West.” A ¥3000 CD now can buy you ten beef bowls at Sukiya with some change leftover. And who really cares about buying triple-cover price imported magazines. Popular music, more than ever in Japan, is an expensive hobby.
With these factors in mind, the closing of Shibuya HMV should not come as a significant shock, but the defeat is a relatively bold symbol for the desperation of youth culture retailers in 2010. H&M, Forever21, and Shibuya109 may be doing fine due to
low reasonable prices but in the days to come, we should probably expect more historic disappearances than arrivals of brand new epoch-defining stores.