Looked back at the year that was for The Japan Times, and focused on a divide in power that has emerged over the last 12 months.
Media, both domestic and overseas, spent a lot of time focused on the streaming services arriving in Japan in 2016. Months of “Can these platforms thrive in CD-loving Japan?” speculation reached a climax in September, when global market leader Spotify finally debuted here. There was a big press conference, launch parties and one final flurry of articles pondering if this could be the sea change so many thirst for in the country’s music industry.
One problem, though — that shift already happened, via digital platforms that arrived in Japan years ago, and which became pop cultural forces over the course of this year.
There are two ways to look at the state of Japanese pop music over the past 12 months. On one hand, 2016 was a golden year for looking back and celebrating artists that exemplify the traditional power structures so many tech companies are trying to disrupt, highlighted by J-pop titan Hikaru Utada’s comeback and the drama-cum-mourning around the soon-to-disband outfit SMAP. You can’t find either of their albums on streaming services, and only snippets elsewhere online for that matter. In these cases, labels and talent agencies held all the power. Same as it ever was.
On the other hand, there has been a new wave of Japanese artists aware of (or lucky enough to benefit from) how younger listeners are drawn to music today. Early 20-somethings and teenagers aren’t rushing out to buy CDs — they can’t afford to drop ¥3,000 too frequently — and they aren’t fixated on sound alone. Rather, they gravitate toward video-sharing sites such as YouTube and MixChannel, where users just like them can create their own dances and silly clips set to the music they like. Online, the listener holds the power.
And in 2016, they helped oddballs like Pikotaro (he has a pen, he has an apple) and Taiiku Okazaki achieve viral success. Those in their late 20s and 30s still embraced the artists that were big during their younger years, but the burgeoning digital generation anointed their own pop stars through their own mediums, highlighted by the ever-chipper Kana Nishino and the disco-indebted Gen Hoshino.