With a large music market and some of the world’s highest prices for physical releases, Japan has been very slow in adapting to digital distribution. Rights holders are finally warming up to the idea, though, and it doesn’t look like it’s ruining the industry in Japan. What downloadable music does seem to be doing, though, is splitting the country’s pop music market into two distinct parts, as the lists of Japan’s top 20 single downloads and CD purchases for the year are almost completely different.
Both Apple’s iTunes and Oricon, which counts only physical sales in its charts, recently released the rankings of their organizations’ most popular songs for 2014. Let’s start by checking out the iTunes standings:
20. Snow Magic Fantasy / Sekai no Owari
19. Nippon / Sheena Ringo
18. Hono to Mori no Carnival / Sekai no Owari
17. Tsuki / Namie Amuro
16. Koi Suru Fortune Cookie / AKB48
15. Problem (feat. Iggy Azalea) / Ariana Grande
14. Happiness / Che’Nelle
13. Mighty Long Fall / One OK Rock
12. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together / Taylor Swift
11. Nijiiro / Ayaka
10. Umarete Hajimete / Kanda Sayaka and Takako Matsu
9. RPG / Sekai no Owari
8. Harukaze / Rihwa
7. Zutto feat. Han-kun & Tee / Spicy Chocolate
6. Darling / Kana Nishino
5. Happy / Pharrel Williams
4. Let It Go / Idina Menzel
3. Story of My Life / One Direction
2. Hiawari no Yakusoku / Motohiro Hata
1. Let It Go ~ Ari no Mama de ~ / Takako Matsu
Looking over the list, we can see it was a good year for rock band Sekai no Owari, and also Frozen, as the number 10 and 1 songs are the Japanese versions of “For the First Time in Forever” and “Let It Go.” But just as conspicuous as the Disney movie’s success is the startling shortage of appearances by Japan’s idol supergroups. As a matter of fact, the only representative of the subgenre is AKB48’s securing of the 16 spot.
Oricon’s single chart, though, tells a very different story.
20. Itta janai ka/Clover / Kanjani Eight
19. Hikame I love you! / HKT48
18. EE janai ka / Johnny’s West
17. Sakura, Minna de Tabeta / HKT48
16. King of Otoko! / Kanjani Eight
15. Rashikunai / NMB48
14. Takane no Ringo / NMB48
13. Bukiyou Taiyou / SKE48
12. The Revolution / Exile Tribe
11. Mirai to ha? / SKE48
10. Daremo Shiranai / Arashi
9. Natsu no Free & Easy / Nogizaka46
8. Kitzuitara Kataomoi / Nogizaka46
7. Nandome no aozora ka? / Nogizaka46
6. Bittersweet / Arashi
5. Guts! / Arashi
4. Kokoro no Placard / AKB48
3. Suzukake no Ki no Michi de “Kimi no Hohoemi wo Yume ni Mieru” to Itteshimattara Bokutachi no Kankei ha Dou Kawatteshimau no ka, Boku nari ni Nannichika Kangaeta Ue de no Yaya Hazukashii Ketsuron no you na Mono / AKB48
2. Mae Shika Mukanee / AKB48
1. Labrador Retriever / AKB48
The first thing to jump out is, obviously, idol unit AKB48 breaking the record for J-Pop’s most pretentiously long title with “Suzukake no Ki no Michi de “Kimi no Hohoemi wo Yume ni Mieru” to Itteshimattara Bokutachi no Kankei ha Dou Kawatteshimau no ka, Boku nari ni Nannichika Kangaeta Ue de no Yaya Hazukashii Ketsuron no you na Mono” (“I Spent Several Days Thinking About How Our Relationship Would Change If I Were to Say ‘Your Smile Looks Like a Dream’ on the Platan Tree-Lined Street, and Arrived at a Slightly Embarrassing Conclusion). The second is that the list is dominated by multi-vocalist idol groups, without so much as a single solo act in the top 20.
AKB48 and its sister groups HKT48, NMB48, SKE48, and Nogizaka46, all of whom share the same producer, Yasushi Akimoto, accounted for a whopping 13 spots on the list. Johnny’s groups, boy bands under the Johnny’s Entertainment agency, grabbed another 6 with songs from Kanjani Eight, Johnny’s West, and Arashi.
The only act in Oricon’s top 20 outside of both Akimoto’s and Johnny’s expansive umbrellas is Exile Tribe, itself a conglomerate of pop/dance groups with ever so slightly more of a bad boy image than their Johnny’s counterparts.
At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive that these male and female idol groups did so poorly in downloads compared to physical media. Most of their fans are in their teens or early 20s, and ordinarily you’d be safe in assuming that young Japanese are more tech-savvy than older listeners. The reason these acts are able to sell so many CDs, though, lies in two prevalent marketing tactics and one distribution holdout.
First, Johnny’s doesn’t sell any of its artists’ music on iTunes. The management company keeps such a tight hold on control of its musicians that even on Amazon Japan you won’t find any pictures accompanying Johnny’s albums and CDs for sale.
▼ Search results for Arashi, Oricon’s top male band
Speaking of visual appeal, many idol groups release multiple versions of the same song. Since each group has so many members, often the same single will be sold with a variety of covers. For example, all five of these designs are for Oricon’s number-one song, AKB48’s “Labrador Retriever,” and if you’re a true fan, you’ll do all you can to put a smile on those 48 faces by buying each and every one.
▼ AKB48-mon, gotta catch ‘em all!
But probably the biggest reason for fans to buy physical CDs is the common practice of putting in raffle tickets for prizes or passes to autograph or handshake sessions. The more you buy, the greater your chance of winning.
In light of this, Japanese website Go Go Tsushin suggests that the Oricon list shouldn’t be taken so much as a reflection of the most popular songs, but the most popular promotions.
It’s a point that’s at once both valid and moot. While the logic is sound, if the goal of all consumer products is perceived customer happiness and the profits they bring, there’s an argument to be made that the idol groups should be judged on their considerate ability to deliver a complete package of satisfaction to their fans. For many, just being able to see their idols up-close is a major life event, even if there’s no chance of the connection ever going any deeper than their pressed palms (except for when the CDs are offering a chance to actually go on a date with the performers, that is).