Why the Japanese Don’t Illegally Download Music. Much.

Bodacious Space Pirates(Source)

For all their passion, home-grown fans are not paying enough for K-Pop.

The CD industry is stagnant, and digital music sites are seen as vastly underpriced, with some charging just a few cents a song.

Bernie Cho, head of music distribution label DFSB Kollective, says online music sellers have dropped their prices too low in a bid to compete with pirated music sites….

….With downward pressure on music prices at home, “Many top artists make more money from one week in Japan than they do in one year in Korea.”

(BBC, June 2011)

With many implications for the Korean music industry, and raising many questions about the curious preferential treatment given Korean fans over international ones, I’ve been quoting Bernie ever since. So too Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton and Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore on movies, the latter of whom suggested that cultural differences are the main reason that Koreans illegally download so much more of them than the Japanese:

…governments around the world are subsidizing and promoting the ubiquity of high speed broadband to make their economies more efficient and competitive. With this increase in speed, content will travel that much more easily on the Internet. But without restraints, much of that content will be contraband.

I’ve already seen it happen in South Korea, which has one of the most highly developed broadband networks in the world. But piracy has also become so highly developed there that we and virtually every other studio has recently had to curtail or close down our home entertainment businesses. It’s hard to sell a legal DVD when it can be stolen without any repercussions.

(Michael Lynton, The Telegraph, May 2009; source, below)

Iron Man 2 Japanese Poster…Paramount is holding back the release of “Iron Man 2″ in Japan for several weeks, having little fear about the country being swamped with bootleg copies of the film.

However, when it comes to Korea, it’s a different story. “For better or worse, there are certain countries — notably like Korea — where it’s culturally acceptable to download movies online pretty much right away,” said Moore. “By the third week of a movie’s release, you’re starting to see a large part of the audience who will start consuming the film online. It’s why Korea has almost no home video business anymore.”

(Rob Moore, Los Angeles Times, May 2010; via The Marmot’s Hole)

Given Lynton and Moore’s frustrations, readers — and myself — can be forgiven for accepting that culture must have something to do with it, and that this would necessarily apply to music too. However, I’ve just finished reading Ian Condry’s brilliant Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (2006), a must-read for all Japanese and — yes — Korean music fans (I’ll explain in a review later this month), who adds two crucial economic and technological reasons that few outsiders to Japan would be aware of:

Ian Condry Hip-Hop Japan(Source)

Two other aspects that distinguish Japan’s music market are rental CD shops and low rates of online piracy. These characteristics further demonstrate that abstract markets do not operate separately from their concrete settings. In Japan, recorded music sale rose steadily during the postwar period, peaked in 1998, and then began a sharp decline that continued through 2004. The start of the decline coincided with the emergence of Napster in 1999, but there are reason to think that online piracy offers only a partial explanation for the decline in sales. As I discuss elsewhere, online piracy is less prevalent in Japan than in the United States. In Japan, most young people access the Internet using cell phones, which as yet tend to have neither broadband connections not substantial hard drives. In addition, ubiquitous CD rental shops make it relatively easy and inexpensive to sample new music without relying on unauthorized downloads. CD prices are high in Japan, generally between ¥2,500 and ¥3000 (US $23-27), but renting a CD is very cheap, generally around ¥300 ($3). The widening availability of CD burners contributes to this “sneaker net” for passing around music and also limits the attractiveness of online file sharing. This suggests that the lack of online piracy arises less from a national respect for copyright than from the combination of a business setting in which rental shops make it easy for consumers to sample music cheaply and a technology environment dominated by Internet-ready cell phones that make downloading over peer-to-peer networks unfeasible.

(pages 190-191; my emphasis)

Written well before smartphones had made their debut, clearly that description is a little dated. Indeed, by 2012, the Recording Industry Association of Japan estimated that only 1 in 10 music downloads were legally purchased, prompting the Japanese government to introduce harsh fines and jail times* for — uniquely — the illegal downloading (rather than the more usual uploading) of content, which in turn provoked an attack on government websites by Anonymous.

However, the Japanese are notorious for stubbornly sticking to outdated technology. Common-sense dictates that looking only at digital downloads would give a very skewed impression of the Japanese music market, which is still the second biggest in the world.

Japan Smartphone(Source)

For just last week, Japan Realtime reported that CD sales are booming:

“The Japanese market is very different from the rest of the world,” said Mr. Minewaki [CEO of Tower Records Japan]…

….While global sales of physical CDs have been plunging under pressure from the digital download market, Japanese CD sales bucked this trend in 2012 with a 9% rise from a year earlier, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan. Tower Records Japan is majority-owned by Japan’s largest wireless carrier NTT DoCoMo Inc.

Mr. Minewaki said CDs continue to do well in Japan because of legal constraints that curbs rapid discounting, a lag in consumers switching from feature phones to smartphones, and the popularity of rental CD shops where consumers can rent then copy music, a cheaper alternative than buying songs or albums online.

But the compact disc business isn’t completely immune to the marching popularity of digital downloads…

Meanwhile, here in Korea, I don’t think I’ve even touched a CD in the last year. Although I do have hundreds, being 37 years old and all…

How about yourself? Are CD rental stores also still around in Japan?

*Like most articles praising the rapid rise of the Korean digital music market and the supposed success of Korean anti-piracy efforts, this article completely fails to mention how absurdly cheap Korean digital tracks are, as noted by Bernie Cho in the opening quote.

Permanent Revolution by World Order: Japanese Robot Salarymen for Peace!


With island disputes between China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan so dominating the news recently, it’s nice to see something that puts a positive, optimistic spin on those relationships. Let alone one that does so by having Japanese salarymen strutting like robots around the streets of Tokyo and Seoul:

The group is World Order, a Japanese band formed by Genki Sudo, who also directed and produced the video (with choreography by Ryo Noguchi). Just the latest in a series of similar videos performed all around the world, Tofugu, a Japanese pop-culture site, describes them as “the most innovative dance and music troupe in Japan,” and adds that their appeal is not just their dancing, but also:

…the people watching them dance. They just go out in public areas for the most part, do their thing, and then leave. People walk by, look at them all confused, take video/pictures, ignore them completely, and all kinds of other hilarious things if you pay close enough attention. Try to watch and you’ll see some entertaining reactions.

See Tofugo for many examples. Meanwhile, the very cool cartoonist Jen Lee (of Dear Korea fame), whom I’m very grateful to for finding the video, has managed to find a rare translation of the lyrics too:


A blue shine on my fingertips

As I touch the side of your pensive face

When I look up to the gray sky

A blue sky spreads out over the east sky

Keep changing

Permanent Revolution

Without stopping

Keep walking

Permanent Revolution

To a single world

Gather the accumulated lies

Keep erasing them among the pluses, without making a sound

Keep believing

Permanent Revolution

Without wavering

Keep loving

Permanent Revolution

Open your heart

Keep changing

Permanent Revolution

Without stopping

Keep walking

To a single world

The Future of Manufactured Idols: Update


I like to think that if I’d seen AKB48′s newest member Aimi Eguchi (江口 愛実) when she debuted, that I’d immediately have been able to tell that she was actually computer-generated. But I’m not so sure: whereas it’s pretty obvious in most of the shots here and here, I would never have noticed anything unusual about that ad above (all the members look quite fake!), nor that this and this picture weren’t of a real person.

It’s a little more obvious in the commercial itself though:

Thanks very much to @Septemberlena for letting me know about her. Unlike Hatsune Miku (初音ミク) that I wrote about two weeks ago, who very much resembles an anime character despite the impressive technology behind her, unfortunately such photorealistic idols clearly have a huge potential to insidiously affect teens’ body images. Especially when coming from a group as popular as ABK48.


Hatsune Miku: The Future of Manufactured Idols?


What’s the first thing that goes through your mind, when you hear that over 3000 people at a time are attending concerts performed by a hologram?

If you’re a fellow science-fiction fan, then possibly this scene from chapter sixty-nine of Snow Crash (1992), Neal Stephenson’s cyperpunk classic (and where we get the word “avatar” from):

…[the light show] begins to simplify itself and narrow into a single bright column of light. By this point, it is the music that is carrying the show: a pounding bass beat and a deep threatening ostinato that tells everyone to keep watching, the best is yet to come. And everyone does watch. Religiously.

The column of light begins to flow up and down and resolve itself into a human form. Actually, it is four human forms, female nudes standing shoulder to shoulder, facing outward, like caryatids. Each of them is carrying a something long and slender in her hands: a pair of tubes.

A third of a million hackers stare at the women, towering above the stage, as they raise their arms above their heads and unroll the four scrolls, turning each one them into a flat television screen the size of a football field…

The reality however, is rather different. But Hatsune Miku (初音ミク) is no less impressive for all that:

Or rather, the technology behind “her” is. As the notes to that video put it:

Japan’s newest singing sensation is a… Hologram. No, that’s not a typo! It’s amazing where technology is headed these days! Over in Japan Cryton Future Media is actually starting projector concerts using a actual live band to compliment their virtual vocaloid idols like Hatsune Miku. Regardless of being a Hatsune Miku fan or not, just seeing what technology can accomplish is just amazing. While this technically isn’t a ‘true’ hologram (one where light actually takes up volumetric space rather than just a planar surface) like the one we’ve all seen of in Star Wars, it is still nevertheless quite impressive how real this appears!

Still, as author of this blog(!), it behooves me to ponder some of the negative social consequences as the technology improves, especially once the virtual idols become photo-realistic. Indeed, Hatsune Miku aside, it’s already entirely possible that when my daughters are in their late-teens or early-twenties, they’ll feel compelled to compare their bodies with – and be compared to – impossibly perfect computer-generated body shapes. But if those happen belong to the hottest (virtual) girl-groups in K-pop too?

But wait a minute…women being encouraged to aspire to body-shapes that it’s physically impossible for human females to achieve? Hell, that’s already happening!

Update 1 - Edurne mentions that the movie S1m0ne explored these themes way back in 2002:

Update 2 – As it turns out, a photo-realistic member of a (Japanese) girl-group was actually created back in June!