Japan is mythicised to no end – when it’s not Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves playing white saviour to an army of samurais, it’s neckbeard weeaboos coming to Tokyo thinking everyone would look like their favourite shonen anime series. It’s the same with the more musically inclined sect of pop culture weirdos; to them, Tokyo is the land of perennial love for physical media where record stores thrive, music niches survive, and everyone is some kind of genre junkie or another. And who can blame them that they write fanfictions of a whole country in their heads? Music publications regularly churn out stories on the idealised Japan – New York Times recently used the descriptor ‘CD-loving’ to describe the country’s resistance towards streaming services, and this was within the same year reports of the medium’s dwindling sales were published. This is of great significance to the industry, their music market is second largest to the United States after all.
Equally coming in with glorified preconceptions of the country, JUICE travelled to Japan last November to seek some hard truths in the Mecca of aesthetics. In doing so, we braved language barrier and spoke to three record store owners — whose collective experience amounts to more than half a century — to find out the nitty-gritty of the supposed vinyl renaissance, CD sales, and the actual demographics of record stores in Tokyo.
Text Alfonso Gomez
Arriving in Shibuya, Tokyo in the morning, our hotel rooms were expectedly not ready yet. This meant treading the cold streets of downtown Shibuya to kill time, which in turn became a crash course in Japanese street culture. Huge LCD screens with surprisingly potent PA system were a common sight, especially on busy intersections where humans crossed the streets hurriedly en masse, seemingly avoiding contact with one another despite essentially being two masses walking toward each other’s direction. Then there was the multitude of streetwear shops outnumbering franchised boutiques ten to one. Izakayas were in every nook and cranny of the endless rows of buildings, so were curry and ramen shops. Chinese restaurants were more hidden, one was in the basement of a complex, perhaps reflective of the xenophobia prevalent there. It wasn’t quite as cyberpunk as thought, more middling in both the portmanteau’s root words. As we marvelled and absorbed the shock of being transposed into a new culture, our benefactor commented, “There was a huge record store there the first time I came to Japan,” while pointing at a nondescript building.
It hit us then: Where were all the record stores?
The answer came quick. After a short breakfast, we visited Technique – the first record store on our list (as recommended by Sauce81) and nearest to our current location, Dogenzaka. Looking at the blank record sleeves signed by the likes of Floating Points, Boys Noize, and Move D, and the walls outside plastered with flyers of club events and label stickers, Technique was obviously dance-centric – the sort of record store frequented by mostly DJs and dedicated fans of the genre.
Owner Yoshiharu Sato and partner-cum-translator Keisuke Hirai (of Energy Flash Distribution and Fasten Musique Concrete) made that point abundantly clear. “We always focus on dance,” said Keisuke, specifically house, techno, d’n’b, and dubstep. That led to our questioning the man on another impression outsiders have of Japan; that the dance scene is thriving, niche subgenres or not. He told us a different story: “In Japan, it’s the same as everywhere, EDM is still the biggest scene,” he claimed, “[You’d think] deep shit like house is taking over, [but the fans] don’t go out, they don’t listen to that kind of music anymore – it’s hard time.”
It was a surprising statement, but Keisuke clarified that techno and house were still striving nevertheless. However, to our further surprise, he declared that there wasn’t a dubstep (or bass in general) scene in Japan – and this was just a day before Goth-Trad’s Back to Chill gig! “Well, [it’s] a really, really small scene if you compare it to the UK,” he elaborated. Still, despite the downplaying of the scene there, Technique Records’ main target audience that keep the business sustainable are DJs and collectors. You’d be wrong to think it’s the young’uns who buy their records though, the interest in vinyl is still firmly a thing of the older generation. Based on his observation, Keisuke wagered that it’s mostly the 35 to 40-year-old age group, saying that “it’s very niche, it was mainstream 20 years ago and now it’s smaller.”
“There is a future for vinyl,” said Yoshi, “but we don’t think it’s getting bigger than now – now is the peak – or maybe it depends on the younger generation on how to think about vinyl. If they think it’s good stuff, then it might get bigger. We need to see what’s going to happen in the next few years.” The two’s statements weren’t so much in the negative as they were the practical, hard logic of Vulcans. So fine, maybe vinyl records weren’t as in trend as we thought it was initially. What about CDs then?
“Strong CD sales depend on genres, really. In the case of dance, people don’t buy CDs anymore, I think,” Keisuke opined, “that’s why Tower Records and HMV are closing shop, but they reopened as more of a vinyl-centric shop.” Wouldn’t that mean the so-called ‘vinyl renaissance’ is indeed real? Not so much in numbers, CD sales might be going down and there is greater interest in vinyl records now than ever, but the amount added up is still relatively low. Energy Flash Distribution presses 300 to 800 copies of new vinyl on average, and for hit titles it would go only as high as 2000 copies. All have to be pressed in Europe, reportedly the cheapest place to press vinyl, as Japan doesn’t have its own pressing plant (“It’s a strange situation,” Keisuke conceded). Retailing at around ¥1200 to ¥2000 for a 12” vinyl, that number does not exactly amount to much profit. On the plus side, the price range today is lower than before, contributing to the increase of interest in the medium.
Historically, this seems accurate of the record store’s growth. Circa the late ‘90s, the area, Udagawa-cho, had a number of record shops – the defunct Manhattan Records & Cisco Records, and the still open Disk Union franchise (albeit now in smaller amount). Technique went from being a DIY catalogue of records sent via fax where people would order from the paper in 1996 to having a physical shop in 2000, which according to Yoshi was opened due to the demand from DJs and collectors. “We still have a lot of support from famous DJs with a lot of fans,” he told us at one point. And Keisuke did say that there were other record shops like Technique.
Perhaps it wasn’t so much that record stores are still alive and kicking ass in Japan, and neither was it just hype. Coming from where the record store is dead, what little they have in Japan is already a lot to the eyes of outsiders like us. Maybe the record store isn’t dead and vinyl isn’t making a huge comeback – instead, it’s a growing niche that might just stay a niche.
DISC SHOP ZERO
Venturing into Shimokitazawa in Setagaya, Tokyo later in the night – a labyrinthine area that consisted of narrow streets teeming with music shops, boutiques, bars, and cafés that could be the inspiration behind Sungei Wang Plaza’s top floor – we visited Disc Shop Zero. Our travel partner, CEE of Bass Sekolah, was a close friend of the sole proprietor of the shop, Naoki. Close enough that the first thing he did upon arrival was to look for the last few copies of the Japanese edition of an AL-HACA release, of which CEE was a member of. The shop was reflective of the street it belonged too – located on the third floor of the Takimoto building, above a salon, it was compact and brimming with records left and right. No filing system here, folks. Naoki’s got everything memorised in his head.
Already greying, Naoki looked significantly older than the Technique Records people. This fact was at odds with his slightly different point of view towards the claim that vinyl was making a comeback: Naoki’s customers five years ago consisted of collectors over the age of 30, mostly in their mid-30s, but now his base is around the 25 to early 30s age range. “Maybe they’re new to buying vinyl records,” he said. Regardless, both record shops had one thing in common, they are patronised by DJs and collectors.
Naoki was less absolutist and contradictory too, he summarised both vinyl sales and the state of record stores in simple terms; “[It’s] not bad, but it’s getting better – it’s recovering.” He did not see the situation confined to just Japan either, “I asked a lot of English record store owners, almost all of them said at most new records only have about 300 pressings.” However, rereleases of older records catered to the older crowd, like The Beatles, Rolling Stone, and other antiquated major music acts, do make the most sales when it comes to vinyl (“Reissues and collector’s editions are big [here].”)
For Disc Shop Zero, he didn’t soldier on with the record store business due to a purist belief or love of vinyl as a medium. “In a club, I wouldn’t know if the music is played on vinyl or CD,” admitted Naoki with the frankness of an unpretentious veteran. His reasoning was more personable and relatable. “I don’t want to sell just music, I want to meet other [music fans] and talk to them, it’s a very different thing for me,” he told us. A record store for him is an avenue to share his love for music and exchange knowledge with the younger generation who’s only now discovering the culture.
“There are a lot of DJs coming into my store, and they talk about music I don’t know [about]… they share with me lots of information and influence me.”
This isn’t a one-way communication either, Naoki surmised that they enjoy having conversations with him as much as he does with them. And unlike the internet age of music-sharing, being in a physical record store, having real-time discussions, and trading records give music appreciation a tangible form – something Naoki is an advocate of. He might not have the discerning ears to tell the difference between music coming from vinyl plates and FLAC files, but Japan is the land of aesthetics after all:
“It’s not only for sound quality, [vinyl] is kind of like art or craft. Maybe I’m a very old person, it’s just very comfortable for me for music to have a physical medium.”
Not just being made of data also makes music less disposable in the modern age – there is something to be gained from a record sleeves and inlays. “I love music from Bristol very much, it’s because I read the credits on the records,” said Naoki, “I learnt the music is from Bristol – I learnt about what[‘s] happening in Bristol [musically].”
In the subsequent days after speaking to Technique Records and Disc Shop Zero, the next store in line, Jazzy Sport, didn’t quite have the free time to talk to us. However, we knew that at least one member would be manning their pop-up stall at Red Bull Music Academy 2014’s Culture Fair in Harajuku. True enough, JUICE got a hold of Gaku, whose prowess of English was the most halted and limited among the three, yet he was no less animated and eager to answer our questions.
Jazzy Sport isn’t just a record store, it’s a full-blown label and distribution company with its own production house – and unlike Technique, all of its incarnations share the same name. Some of the artistes who owe them their big break include GAGLE, and the international dance outliers they’ve reissued records of in Japan include Steve Spacek! Out of the 160-strong releases in their catalogue, over 100 were almost all Japanese acts – you could say that they are the strongest in terms of support of the local scene.
Gaku reminisced about a moment in 2003 when there were more record stores in Shibuya. “But just six years later, many closed,” he shared with us, “Manhattan had like four, five shops, but slowly they closed down one, two, three shops, and now only one is left.” Today, the surviving stores are not franchises, but smaller, more boutique stores such as Jazzy Sport. There was a niche to be filled, and that niche can keep the business afloat.
“I [remember] going for record-shopping back then [in 2003], but I didn’t buy any vinyl because they didn’t have records that I liked – record stores didn’t stock underground music due to bad sales.”
That turned out to be the catalyst that helped birthed Jazzy Sport. “When we started the store, we wanted to have what we like up for sale,” he admitted, “I sell a record because I like the record.” Gaku laughed at his own admission, going as far as to suggest that 60% of their sales go to the expected DJs and collectors, 30% regular folks, and 10% Jazzy Sport’s own staff. Self-deprecation aside, like the prior two record stores, Jazzy Sport’s sales had been middling at best (“Up and own, up and down”). He shared Keisuke’s opinion when it came to demographics, “10 years ago, our customers were in high school, but now high school kids buy digital – they look at records and are like, ‘Why?’” A good hearty guffaw ensued. It did not seem to faze Gaku one bit despite all the portentous assertions even when, later on during the interview, he told us that sales of their own records were, too, “so-so.”
When pressed on why they keep on doing what they do, Gaku replied, “We have to continue to have the store opened because we release records ourselves.” The need to support the local scene seemed to be the de facto reason – so ethnocentric they are that despite pressing in Europe like all labels in Japan, they only sell their records in Tokyo. “Well, we press 350 copies. 300 copies in Japan, 50 sold in Europe,” he said before chuckling at the fact. Not a big number you think, but the demand is constantly there and reissuing is often.
With that, Gaku ended the interview with the most succinct argument about why there is indeed a vinyl record revival:
“Vinyl is forever alive because CDs are dead.”