Sunday, June 10, 2007

What Happened, Tower Records Shibuya?

The Tower Records in Shibuya has long been my Grand Temple of Music in Tokyo.

This seven-floor, bright-yellow-walled structure contains one of the world's most extensive collections of music CDs on sale, including whole amazing floors devoted to classical music and jazz, a big space for hip hop, soul and R&B, separate floors for Japanese and western pop/rock, and so on. In these days of and MP3's, Tower Records Shibuya is a place where you can still feel the thrill of going into a record store and getting lost in row after row of music discs.

Tower Shibuya's Second Floor is the holiest space for me in this grand temple, the place I head to first during my weekly pilgrimages, because this is where the record shop keeps its Japanese music CDs. How many discs have I bought on this floor, after listening to a sample CD, or reading a staff-written recommendation, or seeing a nice-looking CD cover, or after hunting down music by a band I saw at a gig somewhere in Tokyo?

Tonight, though, I went to the Second Floor and saw that they re-designed its layout. I didn't like what I saw.

The biggest change is that they've gotten rid of the indie music section, and mixed the CDs from there into an expanded J-Pop space. Which, I can see what the reasoning might be: Japanese music is Japanese music, whether it comes from a major or an independent label, so why separate them?

But, understanding that, I'm still displeased. For one thing, my scientifically not-very-rigorous evaluation of the CDs in the new, expanded J-Pop section suggested that while Tower did put a lot of indie CDs in there, they also got rid of many dics that used to populate the J-Indie space, including some of my favorites.

Another thing is, I already miss the feel of going into that indie section. When you entered those few rows, you knew you were in a world of records by up-and-coming, non-conformist Japanese musicians, many of whom were (or at least seemed) more interested in making good music than money, and in any case weren't taking orders from big corporate records labels. Sure, a lot of the CDs in that section were terrible, and some of them you couldn't imagine why anyone would buy when you saw their poor taste in cover art. But in some ways, that added to the appeal: it suggested that Tower was keeping its gates wide open to new music, a good thing in itself, and there was always the possibility that that one random disc you bought of an unknown band, because of its attractive cover art, would be an unexpected masterpiece that only you and very few others knew about, at least until that artist made it big...

I knew the corners where to look for recommended new CDs, which you could listen to on headphones. I knew the locations of piko piko future pop CDs, the indie compilations, and the discs by artists that were creating buzz and being talked about. Sometimes I'd wander into the major label section with its gaggle of over-produced, rip-off 3,000-yen discs, but I knew to return to the indie section, where bands taped hand-written intros onto the shelves of their new releases and left fliers for future events.

The indie section had its own atmosphere. It felt like an independent store within a mammoth shopping center. I assume that Tower, which has stayed afloat in Japan but must be struggling due to falling CD sales nationwide, felt it needed to make its merchandising more 'rational', partly by getting rid of the waste of the indie section. But I feel uncomfortable about the changes, feel they will become less of a trend-setting place where the newest and best music is introduced to the world, and their Second Floor will become just another McStore for J-Pop.

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