For some reason my conversations with friends and family have been converging on one topic: the music business in America versus the music business in Japan (and elsewhere abroad). Regarding the Japanese music business, I’ve recently been hearing a lot of false information, as well as several false equivocations and fallacious arguments. After the most recent discussion, I went for a run, came back, ate some dinner and comforted myself with Ice Cream. I am now ready to defend Japan, clarify my views, and correct a few mistakes made by those with whom I have discussed this topic. I want to make the case that Japan’s music market is not smaller than the U.S. respectively, that the U.S. does not necessarily set the precedent for what is popular and “good”, and that Japanese music is self-contained not because it is “bad”, but because it is A.) not written in English and B.) designed specifically to ignore foreign markets (e.g., Japan traditionally hasn’t been concerned with international music trends). I also want to talk about my music preferences, and why I believe that Japanese music is, on the whole, better than American music. First, let’s talk about the Japanese market, the U.S. Market, and what “market” means.
I want to make it clear that “market” does not equate to “total number of sales”. You know what does equate to “total number of sales”? Answer: total number of sales. Market, in any universe, refers to a broader collection of statistics and financial elements. Don’t believe me? Here’s the definition: “An area or arena in which commercial dealings are conducted” (Google definition). So here we see that a market is an arena in which multiple commercial dealings are conducted. This involves not just total number of sales, but also factors such as: projected growth, demographics, in-store sales and distribution numbers versus online streaming sales and distribution numbers, how many physical stores exist, export and import information, concert ticket sales, how statistics relate per capita, and so on and so forth. So when someone asks, “which market does XYZ”, they ought to realize that they are referring not to one statistic or facet of the music business, but to multiple complex areas of interest. Each one of those areas should be addressed individually if we want to get an accurate picture of the success of any particular market. With that in mind, let us ask: how is the Japanese market doing? Surprisingly, better than the U.S. market.
The claim that the U.S. is the “greatest”, “best”, or “largest” music market on the planet is blatantly false. Japan has roughly 41 percent as many people as the United States, yet they spend as much (or more) than the U.S. does on music. In other words, Japan sells more per capita. Japan also has more music stores than anywhere else in the world, (around 6000) and 85% of Japan’s music sales come from CDs. That’s right: Japan isn’t getting much revenue from online or streaming sources like YouTube, iTunes, etc. – which the U.S. has been using for a long time – yet they have overtaken the U.S. market. Think about that: virtually no online presence, and still growing faster and selling more than their largest competitor, the United States. Moreover, Japan has consistently beaten the U.S. in almost every other category except total number of sales (physical copy sales, number of stores, exponential growth, etc. etc.) long before they finally overtook the U.S. in that final category. The only reason that some (incorrect) sources claim that the U.S. still dominates the sales category is due a misunderstanding of the numbers: the impact of the 41% difference in population, and the online revenue. There are multiple reasons why the numbers are the way they are (CD costs in Japan are fixed at 25$ legally, multiple copy purchases skew numbers, etc.) but the fact of the matter is that, on the whole, the Japanese music market is a more successful market than the U.S. music market, and though it was once behind in only one category, total sales, it now dominates all categories, including highest global share of sales. There goes the claim that the U.S. is the “largest market in the world”.
Now, let’s discuss whether or not the U.S. sets the tone for the music industry world-wide. This claim is forwarded by many, and at first glance it seems to be true. Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” can be found on the top billboard charts for multiple countries. Even in Japan, Sheeran’s song was a huge hit – it crossed international borders. Artists world-wide seem to follow musical trends that come out of America, taking on rock / pop sounds that first originated in the States. Even Japanese music is heavily based on Western music that originated in America, or other countries abroad. Still, we need to differentiate between influences of the past, when music was good in America, (Think: The Beatles) and now. While it is true that American music helped to influence the world scene, it isn’t true to say that America is currently producing any world-changing music. Japan is but one example of a country where the American influence is negligible. Although Japan’s music has been influenced by earlier American music, current Japanese music sounds nothing like the current American pop that plays on the United States radio. Japanese artists have taken what they wanted from previous American styles, and made their own version of pop and rock: J-pop, and J-rock. This assimilation process happens in nearly every country, and the resulting music is decidedly not American.
I listen to some music from France, and I can tell you that the similarities between their music and the U.S. are numerous, but not foundational. When you listen to French pop, it is clearly French – a style of its own. Sure, it takes some influences from the U.S., Britain, and other countries, but it remains distinctly French. The idea that other countries are frothing at the mouth to follow whatever latest trend comes out of America is simply false. Countries infuse their own unique style into whatever musical style they find most appealing – just like I fuse Japanese music into my own songwriting. The result is a unique genre that is fully the property of whatever country created it. Japan is the perfect example. J-pop has more elements of the Beatles than any current American song does, and its Jazz nuances are noticeable, but both Beatles-esque and Jazz-esque songs are mostly missing in current American pop. Retaining those influences has given Japanese music a distinctly Japanese flavor, despite the fact that the origin of some of the nuances may have been American or British. Combined with their traditional Japanese melodies and languages, the resulting music is no more following the Beatles or Jazz than a painter who was influenced by Van Gogh as a youth is copying a particular Van Gogh painting each time he or she paints.
The proof of what I say is the fact that songs can crossover into Japan, and yet J-pop and J-rock as genres remain largely untouched, and distinctly Japanese. Moreover, the Japanese Billboards are mostly dominated by bands like Mr. Children, who exhibit the Japanese characteristics I mentioned, and are mostly devoid of any current American pop or rock sounds. Again, there are exceptions to every rule, but on the whole America is not setting the precedent for music abroad as much as Americans claim. Each country’s market is an individual island of culture and nuance, and what hits number one in America does not necessarily make the charts abroad. Even if it does make the charts, it does little to directly influence a country’s own time-honored genres.
Another claim is that Japanese music is not successful internationally because it simply isn’t as “good” as American music. This is, again, completely false. First of all, we should all be able to agree that musical tastes are subjective. There truly is no objective “good” when it comes to music, so let’s get that out of the way right now. Instead, let’s talk about why Japanese music is really contained mostly within Japan. Hint: it’s not because it’s not “good”.
There are a couple of reasons why Japanese music never leaves Japan. The first is that Japanese record labels don’t even attempt to send it abroad. Like I mentioned earlier, more than 80% of Japan’s music sales are on the ground, in the form of CDs and DVDs – they simply haven’t yet had a need for an online presence for their artists. You won’t find a huge presence on YouTube or iTunes for any Japanese music, and in fact, most Japanese music is blocked on online media sites – you can’t view it outside of Japan. Since the Japanese music market is doing so incredibly well (arguably better than any other country in the world) it has little need for opening itself up internationally. Secondly, Japanese record labels understand that Japanese music is written in the world’s second hardest language.
When people argue that American songs are more successful than Japanese songs, they often assume that it is some value in the song itself that makes it successful, when in fact it is simply that the song is in English. English is a world language – understood by a large majority of people on the Earth – while Japanese is understood by very few people outside of Japan. Japanese labels know this fact, and they know that people are not going to easily digest songs in a language that they cannot understand – so they don’t bother sending them outside of Japan. You might ask: why don’t Japanese artists just sing in English? Again, this is a feature of the language. If your native language is Latin-based, then learning a Latin-based language is easy, but learning an Asian language like Chinese or Japanese is much harder. The same is true in reverse. It’s much harder for someone in Japan to become fluent in English, (and also be a great songwriter and performer in that language and crossover to the American market) than it is for an American to go to say, Britain or France, learn the language, and crossover there. Couple that with the fact that Japan’s market is doing so well already that they don’t even need to concern themselves with the international market, and you find the real reason why you aren’t hearing Japanese music on the radio in America. Sure, there are also cultural factors to consider, like the fact that Americans are notoriously nationalistic and ethnocentric (‘murica!) and that Japanese pride is a thing, but the crux of this issue is really far simpler than all of that: Japanese music isn’t doing well internationally simply because Japanese artists and record labels tend to completely ignore the international market.
It’s also been said that it is “easier” to succeed in Japan (or have a hit in Japan) than it is in America. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As I will discuss, Japanese music requires a level of musicianship and talent that is simply absent from American mainstream pop and rock, and therefore the bar is set much higher for aspiring musicians. Japan has one-hundred and twenty seven million people, all living on a tiny island. That’s no small amount of competition. While American musical success only requires a few electronic instruments, a metric ton of pitch correction, a sexy body, and a gimmick, in Japan you have to be an actual entertainer with talent and technical skill. You have to deliver live what you do in the studio. There are exceptions to this rule (groups influenced by American garbage music) but in Japan (on the whole) you need to be a level of musician similar to those of America’s glorious musical past. This doesn’t make things easier for Japanese artists struggling to write a hit, it makes it harder. Four chord songs won’t make the charts in Japan. To succeed, you actually need – gasp – an understanding of the technical aspects of music. You have to be a musician. You have to write key changes and bridges into songs, and use real instruments.
Anyone can be a Britney Spears level vocalist, (because Britney Spears is not a vocalist – she lip syncs to her own songs, since she can’t carry a tune in a bucket) and anyone can dance around on stage. Anyone can fulfill the American requirement of looking hot and provocative (the only requirement for being a successful “artist” in the American entertainment business). Not everyone can be as successful as Mr. Children, in Japan. That’s because the Japanese music industry is still mostly about music. In contrast, the American “music” business is really just a lifestyle and image business – it has nothing at all to do with any sort of genuine musical experience. Japanese music, on the other hand, is actual music. People don’t watch Britney Spears because she is a great vocalist. People don’t gawk at Miley Cyrus because she is a fabulous singer. In America, image and gimmicks are paramount – and musical talent is barely a consideration. In Japan, the opposite is true. It is therefore much harder to succeed as a musician or singer in Japan than it is in America, despite only having to worry about one country, because Japanese artists have to actually fulfill all of the duties of the job they are expected to do, rather than trick people into thinking they are fulfilling those duties – like American pop stars.
As you can probably tell by now, I’m not a fan of modern American music – with few exceptions (Jason Mraz, I’m looking at you). Don’t get me wrong: there was a time when American music was some of the best in the world. My favorite singer is Sam Cooke, with Louis Prima being a close second. I love artists like Sarah Vaughan, Stevie Wonder, Chris Cornell, Steve Perry, and several others – all American, and all instrumental in defining American music genres. These artists had well-written (and by “well-written” I mean, not simply four chords and comprised of electronic sounds that are not instruments) songs, and a high level of talent. They were at the top of their game musically and vocally, and had a mastery over their craft. There were no fancy studio techniques needed, no dubstep, no loops, no electronic drums, no autotune to correct a bad singer – they were the real deal. These type of artists are the kinds of artists that I look up to, because they really had an understanding of musical composition, yet balanced that technical knowledge with soul, with feel. Artists like those are mostly absent from the current music scene in America, with very few exceptions. Most of the “hits” in America consist of four chords that repeat incessantly (no key changes, no bridge, no solo instruments) and mindless melodies that are reminiscent of nursery rhymes. Mostartists don’t even play an instrument; they are simply singing to a backing track – and that’s if they even sing at all. Artists like Katy Perry and Britney Spears have been discovered lip syncing to their own songs, and faking instrument solos – repeatedly – yet they continue to wow the cow-eyed fans. Most “vocalists” can’t carry a tune live, and most of the instruments are pre-recorded or programmed. Auto tune is the new vocalist. Programming is the new instrument.
I understand that some of the things that have occurred in the history of modern American music are unavoidable – they are the logical evolution of musical technology – but there is a line to be drawn somewhere. Unfortunately, in the American music scene, that line seems to be non-existent. With each passing day, the population gets more and more desensitized to the horrible songs on the radio, having forgotten what a good song sounds like. I’m sorry but you will never be able to convince me that “Poker Face” is better than “You Send Me”. The former “song” is a soulless beat devoid of anything but gimmickry, and the latter is a once-in-a-lifetime composition, accentuated by a once-in-a-lifetime voice. Lady Gaga types come and go, but Sam Cooke’s are forever. Since that is my view, I gave up listening to the trash on the American radio long ago. Where I can go to find great musical composition, real singing, real instruments, and real songwriting is Japan (and other countries abroad).
Japanese artists like Mr. Children and Ikimonogakari fuse genius chord progressions and Beatles / Jazz nuances with catchy melodies and modern sensibilities. Their songs are emotive, deep, complex – yet simple, danceable, catchy, fun. Their ballads are some of the best in the world, and the musicianship and songwriting is unquestionably top-notch. The lyrics actually have meaning. These are not simple four chord songs about sex, drugs and rock and roll. Live, the artists are as good as they are in the studio. In fact, if you listen carefully, you might actually hear – gasp – a few mistakes. You know what that means? It means that, in Japan, people actually sing live without massive amounts of autotune. Yes, these are real artists, with real talent. When you listen to “Gift” or “365 Nichi” by Mr. Children or “Kaeritakunattayo” by Ikimonogakari, there simply is no comparison to any ballad on American charts. It’s like comparing McDonald’s to a home-cooked meal. Those songs are above and beyond any ballad that’s been released in the States in twenty years, and not just in subjective ways. Take a look at the sheet music, and you’ll see that the song itself is superior – mathematically. Granted, technicality is not a necessary ingredient for a “hit” or even to make a song good, but it is something to be said that the songs in Japan are both technical and catchy. Now I know that there are horrible groups like AKB48 and EXILE in Japan (American sounding Japanese bands) but my point here is that real J-pop and J-rock bands are genuinely talented people producing quality music.
Another claim that drives me crazy is the claim that Japan has never had an international hit. While I have described the reasons why Japanese music doesn’t normally crossover internationally, I want to also note that this claim that Japan has had “zero” hits is simply not true. Here’s a quick article on Japanese hits in the international market that talks about Japanese music success in the Philippines and elsewhere abroad, but let’s just focus on a few examples that specifically affected America, since Americans don’t seem to realize how often Japanese music has crossed into American territory.
An early Japanese hit in America was “Sukiyaki” (Ue wo Muite Arukou) which topped the Billboard chart’s 100 list in 1963. After that, Yellow Magic Orchestra’s music made waves in America (they essentially started the electronic music revolution) and they had huge success with their song “Computer Game”. That’s right: if you like electronic music, then you owe respect to Yellow Magic Orchestra. Later came Shonen Knife, Puffy AmiYumi, and various anime theme songs (including “Blue Bird” by Ikimonogakari) – all crossover hits. Not all of these bands are favorites of mine, but the point is this: there has been at least one major Japanese crossover hit, generation after generation, despite the fact that Japan isn’t at all focused on the international scene. Right now, Babymetal is destroying the Billboard charts (#40) compared to previous Japanese crossovers, and Hatsune Miku, a virtual singer, is taking the world by storm. Japanese anime is now more popular than ever, and along with that popularity comes an increased awareness of Japanese music, and therefore more international success for Japan. In fact, Japanese music is doing better abroad now than ever before.
Now I’m not saying that the above listed hits are as successful as “Poker Face” or “Hey Jude” – Japanese music is still relatively unknown outside of Japan (due to the reasons I explained above). What is important to note, however, is that the Japanese music business is booming, that it is set to overtake the U.S. market in every category, and that, despite not even trying, Japanese artists are enjoying international success. So, the claim that Japan has never produced a hit is false, as is the claim that Japan is following United States trends. In many ways, Japan is setting the precedent with their unique sounds and unique ideas. Just as Yellow Magic Orchestra essentially invented modern electronic music, Anime music has become its own genre, and even the strange virtual singer Hatsune Miku has created a unique corner of the market that is decidedly Japanese. These examples and others are more than enough to reject the claim that Japan has had “zero” hits or zero success outside of Japan. Although Japan’s music scene is mostly self-contained (which is not, by the way, evidence of it being inferior) it is nevertheless enjoying some success abroad – as it always has, historically.
No, Japan doesn’t care what we do musically, here in the States. Japan has its own market that is mostly divided from the world scene, and it is doing extremely well on its own without concerning itself with the international market. Not only is Japan’s market larger than the U.S. in every category, but that market is succeeding completely independent of anything going on outside of Japan’s borders. Japanese music is a unique blend of musical and cultural influences, but remains distinctly Japanese. It is well-written, and includes elements of Jazz and high-class composition pieces, yet it is catchy and modern. Despite being isolated, Japan continues to have musical success abroad. Musicianship and talent are off the charts. All in all, Japan has a rich and diverse musical environment that hearkens back to how America and other countries used to be, before they sold out and over-commercialized everything and turned songs and artists into canned computer-generated uniformity.
In my mind, anything from Mr. Children, Ikimonogakari or Superfly completely and utterly destroys any of the “hits” in America, and, in general, the Japanese music on the local scene in Japan trumps that of the American scene, hands down. The only reason Americans don’t realize this fact is either because they are devoid of musical sensibilities, or because they are simply too narrow-minded and America-centric when assessing music (or too young to remember good American music). I try not to be so narrow-minded. One of the best films I’ve ever seen is French. I love Ropa Nova‘s music (Brazil), and I’m obviously a fan of Japanese music. My favorite song is by Beethoven. Am I to be told that because Beethoven does not top the Billboard charts in America, that “Moonlight Sonata” is not a successful or good song? Sorry, no. Whether or not something sells specifically in America is irrelevant to the question of whether or not it is “good”. Besides, if we are going to go by numbers alone, Mr. Children destroys most of the American artists who have “hits”. Don’t believe me? Check out the stats. I’d love to see an American pop artist who has 30 consecutive number one singles, who dominates an entire country for more than two decades, and who sells more than 50 million records.
It is simply a false statement to say that all international music markets are determined by U.S. trends, or that Japanese music is not good because Japanese artists don’t have (as many) international hits, or even that the U.S. market is better than the Japanese market (statistically, it’s not). The Japanese market needs to be considered separately from the U.S. market and Americans that tend to be ethnocentric in their assessments need to broaden their horizon and look at the facts. Just because something is popular on the radio in America doesn’t mean it will be popular somewhere else, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s good. Sure, America is doing well for itself, but it certainly isn’t the determinate for every music market – or the determinate for what is “good”. To say so ignores all the facts. Yes, Japan has produced hits. Yes, Japanese music is just as valuable as American music. No, American music is not intrinsically better than foreign music. No, America is not the most successful music market. No, Japanese music is not contained to Japan because it “isn’t good”; it’s contained to Japan because of the Japanese language barrier and because of the decisions of record labels. No, it isn’t easier for a Japanese artist to succeed in music. If you disagree with the above, I’m sorry, but you are statistically and factually incorrect, and it is about time for you to abandon your erroneous conclusions, because they are proven false by all of the data.
If you still doubt the music quality in Japan, check out a few examples of stellar musicians below:
Why Pop Music is so Bad:
Lyric Intelligence has Declined:
Music has Gotten Worse:
Japanese Music Stats: