R.I.P. Shibuya HMV

Shibuya HMV

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.

W. David MARX
August 25, 2010

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

12 Responses

  1. W. David MARX Says:

    Good comment from my friend: Tower Records collapsed in the US, while Virgin pulled out of Times Square. It’s a universal that music mega-retailers are doing badly, especially in high-rent areas.

    I would add though that Japan always has been safer due to the high records prices they are able to charge. I guess not anymore.

  2. lastarial Says:

    Walk around any shopping area/mall in the UK and the empty retail outlets of the former Zaavi/Virgin Megastore record shops are all too obvious. HMV picked up a few in places where it had no significant presence, but as a kid who spent my formative years inside both independant and chain record shops it still hurts to see them go (even though I can’t remember the last time I bought something from one).

    Fascinating article, cheers.

  3. j Says:

    I’d keep an eye on more foreign retail companies leaving or just not opening up. Didn’t Versace and Saks recently leave? American Apparel may be on its way out if it’s true the company is in major financial trouble. Many of these foreign retailers mark their prices up quite a bit compared to their prices in other countries.

    Perhaps it’s telling how popular Forever 21 is at the moment. After a few more years of economic decline, Ross and TJ-Max would probably do well here.

  4. Mulboyne Says:

    Not only is it widespread that mega-retailers are struggling to make high rent city centre stores viable, it was pretty clear that was the trend when HMV put their Japan operations on the block in 2007. I recall reading a research report at the time predicting the closure or total repositioning of both the HMV in Shibuya and the Tsutaya Q-Front store within 5 years.

    In 2005, operating around 60 stores, HMV was optimistic about Japan. They said to shareholders:

    “Whilst HMV isn’t yet the market leader in Japan, our 7.4% share in a highly fragmented market means there is an outstanding opportunity for us to become the leading player through expanding our store portfolio…Our expansion in Japan will be measured, not least to allow for the development of store managers to meet HMV’s high operational standards. However, the Group believes that ultimately there is potential to operate from around 100 stores in Japan.”

    The six bidders who looked at HMV Japan seemed convinced the UK parent was a forced seller and so they had the chance to pick up a prime asset for a song. HMV did need funds but one of the main reasons they decided to dump Japan was that they could see the writing on the wall based on their experience in the UK. 2 years on from their optimistic assessment, pre-tax profits in Asia were down around 70%.

    The next time someone in Japan has a crack at overseas buyout firms, you might draw their attention to Daiwa SMBC Principal Investments who, not having a clue what to do with their new purchase, behaved like a rapacious asset stripper when they realized their cashflow projections were meaningless.

    Incidentally, I know Shibuya-kei means a lot to you but it’s an incomplete history of HMV in Shibuya which leaves out their role in promoting reggae, R&B and hip-hop. Those genres are heavily associated with gyaru cultures which are still one of the strongest images of the area.

    On a slight tangent, HMV stands for “His Master’s Voice” which refers to the picture of Nipper the dog listening to a gramophone. The company still uses the logo in Britain today. In Japan, however, Nipper is the logo for Victor Japan, not HMV. This all goes back when RCA sold Victor and EMI (who owned HMV) and created separate geographical rights to the image. It’s an odd quirk that a company which takes its name from the logo doesn’t have global rights to use it.

    If you like trivia, the Nippon Phonograph Company, makers of the first Japanese gramophone, cheekily replaced the dog with an image of the Kamakura Daibutsu leaning in for a listen when they launched their own Nipponophone record label.

  5. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    (Pictures of the listening buddha, by some forum guy.)

  6. Ian Says:

    Boiko & Mulboyne,
    I love you.

  7. T-rock Says:

    Well take a look at Blockbuster and Barnes and Noble, both not looking so good scenario either, both facing similar situations like HMV, universal issue as someone has said above!
    If you can’t compete, well then it would end up as someone loss while someone else’s gain.

  8. Mulboyne Says:

    Aceface asked in a comment to the Confederate flag post whether HMV Shibuya played a significant role in promoting Shibuya-kei. I don’t know the answer to that and it’s not clear what kind of evidence would be conclusive either way.

    I do know that HMV used their Shibuya and Shinjuku stores to promote Britpop bands to good effect in the 90s and later generations of British acts right up until the sell-off. The British Phonographic Industry, the major business association, often collaborated with HMV in Japan on trade missions. There really isn’t a similar partner available to them now but, arguably, no bricks and mortar retailer would be as effective in today’s market.

    HMV had a particular interest in helping the British music industry but the store chain also promoted Canadian and Swedish bands on the basis that their fan bases overlapped.

    One notable aspect of Japan’s music business is that CD retailers were never seriously rivalled by supermarkets as they were in the West. Operators like Wal-Mart in the US and Tesco in Britain took a large share of the market by offering chart-topping CDs at discount prices but the resale price maintenance system prevented General Merchandise Stores from doing the same in Japan. Book-Off had a small impact when they began offering second hand CDs and DVDs but the biggest competition came from online retailers. Sony Music said earlier this year that Amazon Japan is now the top seller of physical product in the country.

  9. T-rock Says:

    Well hate to say things are really very 最悪 these days! Welcome to a competitive win or lose period scenario! Eat or you don’t eat cold to the bone
    deal!

    It feels like we’ve entered the alternative 1985 here like from Back to the Future don’t laugh I have to say 心配 とやばい  Biff Tannin being the aho but in Nagatacho

    本当に怖い

  10. Aceface Says:

    “I do know that HMV used their Shibuya and Shinjuku stores to promote Britpop bands to good effect in the 90s and later generations of British acts right up until the sell-off.”

    Which is the reason why Tony Blair visited HMV Shibuya the establishment in his offcial Japan visit in the 90′s.

    When HMV was in ONE-OH-NINE,there was a booth dedicated for “Shibuya-kei”bands(Original Love,Love Tambalins)and they aired over and over by the inhouse DJ.You also can’t miss the effect of the HMV published free-magazines that promote these bands.

    Back in those days,Shibuya had tons of free-mags.WAVE had them,PARCO had them,TOWER RECORD(still do)had them.That certainly effected the Shibuya-kei boom.

    Another factor is concentration of second-hand record shops like CISCO and RECOFAN.Shibuya-kei audiences were addicted to buy CD’s and there were tons of second-hand CD shops in nearby apartments,usually using one room mansions.
    Shibuya is also connected with two other second-hand CD shops concentrated areas.Kichijoji and Shimokitazawa.(and later on Nakameguro)Both can be accessed by Inokashira-line.So buyers can cruise Shibuya and hop onto Inokashira-line and go to another destination quite easily.

    I used to be a big fan of WAVE.However,WAVE in Shibuya was dwarfed by massive four floors high Roppongi shop and flagship shop in Ikebukuro.Although,the Swedish band “Cardigans”won’t make smash hit in Japan,had WAVE SHIBUYA not pushed heavy with all the hand written pops and caught the Shibuya audience.

  11. Mulboyne Says:

    Just noticed that Disk Union stores in Shinjuku are holding one of their largest-ever sales this weekend. Last day tomorrow (Sunday). They say they are offering over 30,000 records and CDs. Most are second hand but this sale also includes promos, rarities and deleted editions. Disk Union often has sale events but this one almost has a sense of a last hurrah.

  12. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Mulboyne, I was at that sale. I didn’t go anywhere except the “Classical” floor, but it didn’t feel that much like a last hurrah to me. Just a big sale of a lot of largely unwanted stuff they really don’t want to pay to store any more. I’d be expecting more of a “20% off everything!” progressing to “50% [or more] off everything!” vibe in that case, since I doubt they’d have any other way to profitably dispose of a bunch of secondhand CDs if they shuttered their retail outlets. (Imagine selling a million used budget copies of Beethoven’s Fifth one by one via Amazon Marketplace.)

    I would expect DU to last much longer than non-used CD stores; I always assumed that they were doing better than Tower etc. for the same reason that Book Off does so well.