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by Dan Grunebaum

Metropolis music survey 2004

iPods and ringtones scored big. Look for full song mobile phone downloads in 2005.

Much like in the rest of the world, Japan's music industry was wracked by continued convulsions in 2004. The major labels, in particular, were slammed by forces including-but not limited to-rampant digital downloading and CD burning. Two events illustrated their declining power.

The first was when ultra-idoru Ayumi Hamasaki engineered a virtual coup d'etat at record company Avex, arranging the promotion of her manager, Masato "Max" Matsuura to president, after senior management had tried to force her out. Japan's top entertainment taxpayer for two years running, Hamasaki reportedly produces 30 percent of her label's profits. The second event illustrating the dire straits of the music biz was Parliament's passage, after intense lobbying by the majors, of a law banning reverse imports of cheap J-pop CDs produced in low-cost Asian countries.

Metropolis surveyed a cross section of readers and music industry professionals about 2004 in music and came up with some intriguing findings.

Readers and industry insiders alike put forth as tops in the domestic market big names like No. 1 seller R&B diva Hikaru Utada, pop duo Tackey & Tsubasa, the aforementioned Hamasaki, omnipresent crooner Ken Hirai, and youthful indie-flavored rockers Orange Range and Asian Kung Fu Generation.

Both commercially and critically successful, Scottish rockers Franz Ferdinand and their song "Take Me Out" were a favorite, although many also cited Beyonce, Alicia Keys and actual No. 1-selling foreign act, Canadian pop-punkette Avril Lavigne.

In terms of the worst artist or song, many Japanese were unwilling to single anyone out. Avex's Toshie Hagiwara was an exception, citing "Center Guy: Buchiage Trance" as the worst song. Foreigners were more forthcoming, with one naming Hikaru Utada's "Easy Breezy" because of "the lyrics and the fact that it was overplayed," another, DJ/producer Gio of Dakini Records, choosing the "singer from Creed singing the national anthem at the last Red Sox/Yankees playoff game," and reader Hari Tahil from England, simply "any rap."

The obvious music biz trend of 2004 was, as one nameless reader put it, "iPods everywhere." But when it came to music itself, opinions diverged wildly. Steven Coterill of England cited the "death of progressive house," while American Dan Stifler cited "cafe music."

Industry insiders' views broke down mainly by what sector of the music industry respondents hailed from. Record company people cited the phenomenal growth of iPods and downloadable ringtones as the most important trend in music in 2004, while those on the concert promotion side such as Johnnie Fingers of Smash chose "the onslaught of too many music festivals over the summer months."

Perhaps the most culturally significant music trend of 2004 was the K-boom, in which Kasia Wojtkowski of promoter Kyodo Tokyo observed, "The success of a TV drama allowed an introduction to Korean musicians...great, considering the history that Japan and Korea have [and] interesting to consider how music can make a difference in history."

Music marketing and promotion professional Aska Mizogaki also noted the trend of boy idoru factory "Johnnie's kind of fading out and lots of girl idoru groups coming to the market," while another humorously offered "improved lip-synching skills among J-pop stars."

Next year's directions followed on this year's. One music industry consultant, for example, called the progression from ringtones to full song mobile phone downloads the "hands-down" trend of 2005, projecting it would wipe Japan's current download services and Apple's planned launch of a Japanese version of the iTunes store off the map.

Others cited the continuing emergence of "one-hit wonder" indie bands like the aforementioned Orange Range, which would make it difficult for established bands to survive. Still another, Tom Bojko, author of a forthcoming autobiography of Bill Laswell, offered the intriguing possibility of "promoters getting gigs together for and assuming some of the risk of overseas acts not yet proven in Japan."

When it came to the music itself, respondents came forth with a range of obscure, as yet unknown musical styles. One reader, for instance, said "low-fi math rock" would be next year's hip sound, while dance music promoter Yoichi Oyama of Brand New Made said this year's "electro" wave would be supplanted next year by the sound of "grime."

On the question of the Internet's influence on music, readers were unanimous. "Hurting the industry, helping the punter," was a typical comment. The pros were decidedly more ambiguous than consumers. Label head Gio noted the cruel fact that downloading probably "lopped off at least a third of expected sales for most releases" with the result of "less time/care put into album releases."

But the positives were also numerous. Clubbing promoter Luciano Uchizono noted that the Internet has "made our job easy as we are now able to book artists in minutes" while DJ Mike McKenna hailed the Net, saying, "Information is power! The Internet allows people to access music and information they do not get through Japan's mass media."

Either way, the consensus was that the music industry will have to learn to live with it. "As with any new technology, there has to be a time for experimentation to see what works," said Kyodo's Wojtkowski. "The Internet is waking up the music industry," added Smash's Fingers. "Particularly record companies that milked buyers when CDs came out. Now it's the buyers' turn."

"The Internet is becoming the place where the music industry does business. Helping or hurting? I don't know, but it is causing the industry to evolve, and with evolution there can be improvement for all," said writer Bojko, adding, "for consumers the Internet is great...they can discover new music they find satisfying and quit whining about being bombarded with the same old commercial shit."

The consensus on last year's best concert seems to have been American alt-rockers the Pixies reunion show at the Fuji Rock Festival. Bands who readers and pros want to see tour Japan next year, finally, ranged from hot Canadian rockers Arcade Fire, to R&B heartthrob Usher, with U2 getting the most votes.

To conclude, this writer has one musical wish for 2005. Commercial establishments across Japan: Please stop haranguing us with endless cheesy Christmas music! Doesn't this qualify as cruel and unusual punishment under the auditory abuse section of the Geneva Convention?

credit: Dan Grunebaum


Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.


Metropolis 2004 Music Survey

Discuss music with METROPOLIS readers at http://forum.japantoday.com


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