JapanFiles.com sent a newsletter notice this morning to their customers, stating that they were “suspend[ing] digital sales of some of the major label artists in our digital store” after September 30. The list of those major label artists the entire Up-Front Works roster (Morning Musume, Hangry and Angry, Berryz Koubou, ?C-ute, S/Mileage) as well as J-Rock artists like Giguramesh and LM.C.
Surely, Western fans of Japanese music have to be looking at JapanFiles like this right about now:
JapanFiles had been distributing much of the Up-Front Works catalog both digitally and as select physical CD releases since November of 2008, starting with the debut EP of ex-MoMusu members Hitomi Yoshizawa and Rika Ishikawa’s J-Rock/goth/electropop duo Hangry and Angry. Morning Musume got three releases – their past two studio albums Platinum 9 Disc and 10 MY ME and their summer 2009 single “Shouganai Yume Oibito” – the single release tying in their their overdue debut American performance promoted by Anime Expo in Los Angeles – out of the deal, and a few other select artists were getting physical CDs pressed in the US as well.
Unfortunately, JapanFiles did a lot of ball-dropping and other mucked plays in their otherwise sincere efforts to make J-music more easily available. Distribution – a big key in that availability – was the biggest factor. Not counting the label’s own site, JapanFiles’s physical CD releases were available only at Hot Topic here in the States. No other retail store in the country – unless they made a few special orders right through the website – carried the releases in store, and none of the other online retailers one would go through to buy a CD had any of JapanFiles’s licensed titles in stock.
Some of the same titles were also coming up as downloads on the US iTunes store, but JapanFiles in general was basically claiming that their own website was the exclusive, go-to place for getting their digital releases.
Which brings up the big kvetch: The artists and their fans deserve better service than that.
Devoted fans might know to go direct to someone like JapanFiles for their downloads, just like they know they could order just about any Japanese CD release from CDJapan, YesAsia, or the Japanese sites of Amazon and HMV – but when it comes to expanding that audience, JapanFiles didn’t even seem to bother. JapanFiles basically suffered from a strain of the same tunnel-vision-like affliction that proved fatal to Tofu Records, who had gone through the whole rigmarole of boasting easier availability of Japanese recordings – Puffy AmiYumi being the biggest act on their roster – but had idiotically focused distribution and product placement (no one outside of the anime department at Suncoast Video seemed to carry Tofu titles; Puffy’s only release through Tofu, Splurge, was nowhere to be found when this writer was at Virgin Mega’s Times Square store in 2006, although their previous Bar-None and Epic releases and the import edition of Splurge were.)
I’ve said this before in past columns, and this bears repeating. “Making Japanese releases more available in the US and elsewhere” is not supposed to mean “Let’s just press a small bunch of CDs and only sell them where the nerds will find them.” Here’s where it really should mean, using the Up-Front roster as examples:
Step One: Get Morning Musume and their stablemates signed to a REAL label – preferably a large independent label like Merge or Matador, or a major label devoted to making career artists, like Octone or Wind-Up. Labels like these will have the promotional clout and the distribution reach that acts like Morning Musume deserve, and they won’t just throw them against the wall like most major labels seem to do in the hope that they’ll stick. They’ll also have a bigger target audience than the JapanFiles/Tofu “let’s target the wota” approach. Someone that already listens to Morning Musume doesn’t listen to most Top 40 pop artists (save for acts like Lady Gaga) – more than likely, they’re listening to alternative and indie rock acts like… well, what a coincidence, the ones signed to labels like (surprise, motherfuckers!) Merge, Matador, Octone, and Wind-Up.
Remember how I said a few paragraphs ago that the artists and fans that JapanFiles seems to be kicking to the curb deserve better? That “better” means making the releases widely available. Widely available means record stores everywhere – chains like FYE, independent record stores (they’re still around) like my beloved Gallery of Sound, big-box stores like Best Buy and Target, online shops like Amazon and CD Universe. Widely available also means digital downloads available in all of the major outlets we know of – not just iTunes but AmazonMP3 (which seems to be seeing iTunes’s taillights at this point insofar as competitive pricing and selection), Rhapsody, eMusic, Napster, and so forth.
Just ask Dir en grey. After a good, yet short-lived, association with Warcon here in the States, they found a more receptive American label home with The End Records, a label devoted to the kind of hard rock DEG writes and records that is well aware that their general target audience already has a large slew of fans who were buying their imports (and the Warcon US rereleases) as well as fans who might have heard of them and wanted to know what the fuss was about – and they’ve been on a serious roll ever since.
Just ask Shonen Knife, who has the most devoted American label in their career – seemingly, EVER – with GooGoo Dolls bassist Robby Takac’s indie label Good Charamel Records, who have already released their three most recent albums here in the States and has regularly brought the band on tour here twice in the space of two years.
Music fans are a somewhat peculiar bunch. We tend to like options. A lot of options. And not just CD, mp3 or vinyl, but where we can get those.
Music fans also like to browse. A devoted Morning Musume fan already knows when they’re going to put records out, and where to get them. A more casual music fan that likes to roam the racks of their favorite store or stalk the appropriate areas of their iTunes Store app for something different to jam to isn’t going to know Morning Musume can be easily had (without breaking copyright laws) unless they have a friend or relative that is already a devoted fan.
Labels like JapanFiles and Tofu are always going to shoot themselves in the foot – or elsewhere – if they keep operating in such a manner.