Tuesday, April 05, 2005

MP3s & 3,000 Yen CDs

I'm not an MP3 file-sharing guy. Napster came and went, without my ever trying it out. I don't use the latest file-sharing services either. Partly I guess I'm old-fashioned -- I grew up on LPs, and it still doesn't feel right when music doesn't come packaged in a box with art and words. What a shock it was to read a few years about Napster-using kids who had never owned a single CD!

But I can understand people outside of Japan who get most, or maybe all, of their Japanese music online. Especially with independent Japanese labels it's hard to buy their CDs abroad, and often expensive. I think there's value in itself in indies bands being listened to by foreign fans, even for free. If you are one of those people though, I urge you, if you become crazy about one of those indies bands that you found on the web, to try to actually buy that group's CD if there is some way to. It would make a lot of difference for the musicians.

Major label artists are another matter. Unless I'm crazy about a band, I'm not ready to fork out the 3,000 yen (about U.S.$30) that big Japanese record labels charge for a full-length album these days. Partly, I'm a cheapskate. But there are also principles involved in this -- why should I pay double the price of equivalent CDs in the U.S.? With a shiny new 10,000 yen bill, I could buy four 2,500 yen indies CDs, or even five 2,000 yen ones, but only three 3,000 yen major label disks, plus maybe a cup of cofee. And even $15 for a CD in the U.S. isn't inexpensive: Fugazi used to charge only $8 for their albums (maybe still do?).

Where does the 3,000 yen go? I picked up a Japanese book called Ongaku Gyo-kai Urawaza ('Tricks of the Trade in the Music Industry'), which gave a hypothetical revenue breakdown for a 3,000 yen CD that sold 100,000 copies. It said the record label gets about 35% of the total. The vendors get 25% to 30%. Advertising accounts for 15% And so on, until the musicians, assuming they wrote the music themselves, only end up with less than one-twentieth of the money.

I'm no expert in the music business and maybe this sort of revenue division is ordinary in other countries too. But even if that were the case, it's clear that Japanese labels are being inefficient because the end result is that CD prices in Japan are double those in the U.S., and as far as I know more expensive than anywhere else.

I read an interview of rock band Art-School, which now records with Toshiba-EMI, in which singer Kinoshita was saying Art-School and Mo'some Tonebender were the only "alternative bands" in Japan. Though I like both groups, that remark disappointed me. So you're proud to be classifying yourself by that genre name, 'alternative', that corporate U.S. dreamed up to market indies music that isn't indies anymore? You, the sensitive poet guy? And meanwhile, you charge 3,000 yen for CDs?

I don't think it's the sole reason, but overpriced CDs must be one big explanation for falling CD sales industry-wide and rampant illegal file-sharing. I mean, I make a decent living but I hardly ever buy 3,000 yen CDs. (Just to add, I'm not unconditionally against major labels. I just want them to cut their prices.)

But maybe I'm just cheap.


So how do I spend my money? Tonight would have been a good example, if I had only succeeded.

Yahoo Japan's auction site for the past week has had someone selling as one package 16 late-90's Japanese guitar pop cassette tapes, including that highly-sought rarity, Lucy Van Pelt's Red Bicycle tape, as well as two early tapes of Teeny Frahoop. The auction was to end at 10:05 P.M. tonight. These were treasure the likes of which you don't see on sale often!

As expected, people waited until the last minutes to place their bids, so that by bidding too early they don't encourage some crazy rich guy to outbid them. Ten minutes before the auction finished, the bid price surged to 7,250 yen from the starting 1,000 yen.

I was ready to go as high as 15,000 yen (around $150), and to think really hard and fast on whether to bid higher if even my top bid is defeated. I waited until a minute and 45 seconds before the virtual gavel was to hit the virtual lectern. Then... when I finally inputted my bid, it was rejected because the seller had specified that bidders had to have won a Yahoo Japan auction at least once before, which I hadn't. The tapes slipped through my fingers...

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