May 13, 2022

Japanese vinyl record production in the rhythm of the pandemic and the “city pop” boom

The Living Stereo vinyl record store, which has some 3,000 records for sale, is seen in Fukuoka city’s Chuo district on March 16, 2022. The store offers records in various genres including “urban pop”. (Mainichi/Yoshihiro Takahashi)

FUKUOKA — The popularity of vinyl records has accelerated around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic, and sales in the United States have exceeded those of CDs since 2020. Also in Japan, production by value in 2021 was 11, 6 times higher than a decade earlier. What is happening in the analog disc market, which collapsed years ago?

Sohki Takeuchi, the 31-year-old manager of a record store that doubles as a bar in the Chuo district of Fukuoka, southwestern Japan, told Mainichi Shimbun: “About 70 percent of our customers have between 10 and 29 years old. backlash from them having been surrounded by digital technology since birth.”

Takeuchi opened his Living Stereo record store in the city in 2017 and added a bar area equipped with a high-end sound system when he moved his business to its current location in November 2021. Customers can enjoy the selection of vinyl records and drink there.

Regular customer Shiho Kuramitsu, a 23-year-old university student, started buying more records in 2020 when she started spending more time at home amid the spread of coronavirus infections. She said of her fascination with vinyl: “Although I also use streaming services, I feel like the records have more depth to the sound. It gives me a sense of enrichment when I make coffee while listening to records on my days off.”

The bar of the Living Stereo vinyl store is seen in the Chuo district of Fukuoka on March 16, 2022. (Mainichi/Yoshihiro Takahashi)

According to the Recording Industry Association of Japan, the value of annual vinyl production peaked in 1980 at around 181.2 billion yen (about $1.49 billion). However, as analog records began to be gradually replaced by CDs, production fell to some 170 million yen ($1.4 million) in 2010. However, the figure increased again in 2014. It is remained virtually unchanged in 2020, when the COVID crisis hit, from the previous year. Then in 2021, production volume jumped to some 1.91 million records, around 1.7 times the previous year’s figure and the highest in the last 10 years. Production value also increased to 3.9 billion yen ($32 million), about 1.8 times the previous year’s figure. The numbers are believed to have been partly boosted by demand for stay-at-home stays amid the pandemic.

The global revival of vinyl records is believed to have been sparked by the “Record Store Day” event first held in April 2008 in San Francisco by American record store owners. They organized the event with the aim of revitalizing independent record stores which had suffered a severe blow due to the digitization of music. They sold a limited number of analog records from artists who cooperated in the event.

Although only about ten vinyl titles were sold in the inaugural year, works by big names such as Bob Dylan were added from the second year, increasing the number of works and places of events. In 2020, the Record Store Day event was held in 23 countries, including Japan, stimulating renewed recognition of the appeal of records. In the United States, record sales reached $644 million in 2020, up about 30% from the previous year, surpassing CD sales for the first time in 34 years. In 2021, the number of records sold was also multiplied by 1.5 compared to the previous year to reach 41.72 million records, exceeding the number of CDs.

Lawson Entertainment Inc., which operates the major music store chain HMV in Japan, quickly noticed the vinyl record revival in the United States and opened a record store in Tokyo’s Shibuya district in 2014, which was rare at the time. Since then, he has released over 100 works on vinyl every year, including past masterpieces and newly recorded tracks.

Records of the “city pop” genre, which has been popular around the world in recent years, are seen at the Living Stereo vinyl store in the Chuo district of Fukuoka on March 16, 2022. (Mainichi/Yoshihiro Takahashi)

The store’s first manager, Tomohiro Takeno, recalled, “We started the specialty store out of a sense of crisis, thinking, ‘We have to start something new,’ because CD sales had declined.” He pointed to some of the factors that have contributed to the vinyl record boom in recent years: the falling prices of turntables, their selling point as tangible works of art, and the feeling of doing something special, like laying the needle on a record.

Analyzing the boom, Takeno said, “Products priced at 5,000 yen (about $40) or more, which didn’t sell well before, ended up being traded amid the coronavirus. The money people don’t spend on socializing and other purposes as they refrain from going out is possibly used (on vinyl records).”

In Japan, a project to stimulate demand for stay-at-home accommodation is already underway. The “City Pop on Vinyl” event kicked off amid the pandemic in 2020. Launched by major record maker Toyokasei Co., it featured titles and related works from the Japanese “city pop” genre, and released more of 50 works on vinyl in its second edition in August 2021.

City pop is a general term for urban, sophisticated Japanese pop music that was popular in the 1970s to 1980s. Tatsuro Yamashita and Taeko Onuki are two major names representing the genre. This genre of music has been rediscovered around the world thanks to the boom in the publication of sampled music on video-sharing sites since 2010.

The watershed moment for the city pop revival came in 2016 when South Korean music producer Night Tempo remade “Plastic Love” originally by Japanese singer Mariya Takeuchi and released it on a website. Thanks to this, the original song on the same website has been played more than 25 million times in two years, likely cementing the global recognition of the urban pop name.

HMV Shibuya record store, which was launched by Lawson Entertainment Inc. in 2014 in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, is seen in this photo provided by the company.

The City Pop on Vinyl event also targets the digital generation, whose members follow these trends. According to Toyokasei, vinyl release plans are made with reference to the number of views on video sharing sites and the charts of music streaming services.

Makoto Honne, executive of Toyokasei, said, “Bringing in younger generations is key to sustaining the vinyl record boom. We would like to discover music that even digital people find “new” and make it available (on vinyl).

(Japanese original by Yoshihiro Takahashi, Kyushu Business Information Department)