What’s the main driving force between the worldwide popularity of visual kei? Well that would be the internet, hands down. And with almost everything nowadays, more and more things are moving online, including the sale and distribution of entertainment. Many western artists are making their releases available via digital means but the Japanese music industry (including the visual kei scene) seems intent on remaining that immovable stick in the mud. With the importation of VK CDs being unaffordable for many fans, and many people wanting to forgo physical media altogether, it’s really important that bands and their management learn to get with the times and make their stuff available legally via the internet. Of course, there is the big problem with internet piracy and those who have been game enough to give digital distribution a try have been burnt big time (see Xodiack) so in a way it’s understandable that little progress has been made in this direction. However there are some aspects of digital distribution that could be easily implemented and should logically be implemented and I’d like to take a look at some of that in this article today.
With Apple having a huge monopoly of the digital sales of music with iTunes, you’d think that this would be the likely first stop for legal downloads of visual kei music. Things get really confusing however, when you take into account the region locking. As usual, those living in America get a bigger range of artists to purchase from (although not really that big either) compared to other countries (like my own Australia, boohoo). A general search for ‘iTunes’ and ‘insert-band-name-here’ may give you a iTunes page for that particular artist, however upon inspection you may realise that the page is not from your own country’s iTunes and therefore is not available to you (yes it’s happened to me many times…). The problem with this region locking is that it makes it very hard to figure out whose releases exactly you can purchase. And you can’t go by label either, as there is no consistency or pattern. For example LM.C who are signed to Pony Canyon seem to be available worldwide (I assume that if it’s available in Australia it’s available worldwide because we are such a small market that no one in the visual kei scene likely cares about rant rant rant) yet SuG (also Pony Canyon) is only available in the UK iTunes. And SuG’s fellow Peace and Smile label mates the GazettE and Alice Nine are available in the US but not UK, although that is explained by their distribution by Maru Music. It IS possible to hack your iTunes account to access the iTunes store of another country however the fact that you have to do something illegal in order to gain some legally is frankly ridiculous.
The good thing about iTunes though, is that a fair few indie bands (SINCREA, A and 9Goats Blackout come to mind as does Satsuki) make their releases available online, and usually worldwide. This is great for those of us overseas who can’t buy live only releases, or are introduced to a band too late to purchase the limited pressing of a bands early discography. You’d imagine that this approach works well for the band too, once your release is sold out, under usual circumstances you would not be able to make any extra money from it and having boasting rights to having ‘sold out’ a release while impressive doesn’t quite fill the pocket. However it seems that a lot of visual kei artists on iTunes tend to only make their albums available, probably as they are trying to follow the album-focused model of the American music market.
For those who are anti-Apple or are interested in artists not available on iTunes there is always Hear Japan or Japan Files, two legal MP3 stores. I purchased from both of these stores in order to do a mini review of them:
Hear Japan (http://www.hearjapan.com/)
Very easy to sign up, in fact they don’t even ask you to verify your password or email. Main downside to the site is that you can’t buy songs straight out, you have to buy credits (1 credit = 1 yen) and can only purchase them in 500 yen denominations. You get three downloads for each song you purchase. Very straight forward to use. You can purchase by song which is a plus; I wanted to buy ZUCK’s WO;LF single and this way I didn’t have to shell out for the limited and regular editions, opting instead to buy the limited release (two tracks) plus the second track only from the regular edition.
Japan Files (https://www.japanfiles.com/)
Website is confusing as hell. Unless you know exactly what you want and what they offer, you’re going to spend some time manually searching/typing random band names into the search bar. Releases don’t have a tracklist, I bought Girugamesh’s BORDER single off them and wasn’t sure if it was just BORDER by itself or included the b-side Suiren. When the release is listed as BORDER (MP3) and is selling for $1.98 (not that much more than a single song on Australian iTunes) it’s not easy to take a guess as to the contents of the purchase. After I placed my order I was sent an email telling me that my order would “arrive” in 7-14 days which made me do a double take and wonder if I somehow managed to do something wrong. Unlike Hear Japan which directs you to the download page, Japan Files does no such thing, and I spent a little while staring (in that short stage of panic when you don’t understand what the hell is going on) at their website before my eyes rested on the “download” link in the customer account section. Along with the exclusion of track lists, it seems that individual songs are not available for purchase, it’s all or nothing.
I found both sites pretty hard to search, with Hear Japan being the easier option. Despite the weird credit system going on, I’d recommend Hear Japan over Japan Files because such a simple purchase ended up being pretty frustrating, and because Hear Japan lets you purchase by song or by release (where the release option seems to be discounted in comparison to individual songs, which makes sense). They also have previews that you can listen to, Japan Files does not.
It seems like a growing number of (mainly indie) bands are creating official Youtube channels. What’s nice about these channels is that the bands usually upload previews (generally 30 seconds to 1 minute long), which tend to be longer and way easier to access than previews on an OHP. Convenience is the way to go so having an official Youtube is a smart move. However many people don’t like to buy based on a preview (understandably so with visual kei, which is great because of the variety between bands, between songs from a single band and within a song itself) meaning that an extra step may need to be taken in order to grab a potential fan and customer’s attention. One extremely innovative band (who are doing all the right things when it comes to digital distribution) by the name of A have set a good example by uploading “Youtube edits” of their songs. Considering that longer songs usually have a “radio edit” version for radio, it shouldn’t be too hard to cut and upload a song that will satisfy the curiosity of the more cautious buyer yet provide incentive to purchase the full version. It’s also definitely easier to get hits for a “full” song than a short preview.
The main feature of Youtube however is videos and when it comes to visual kei, that means PVs. Unfortunately, record labels seem intent on “silencing avenues that are perfectly good publicity” as Jimi Aoma formerly of Chemical Pictures so nicely puts it. It seems that very few labels are willing to use the “P” for promotional when it comes to the internet. Key perpetrators here would be Sony, PSC and Pony Canyon. Granted Pony Canyon did upload extremely sh*tty quality versions of LM.C’s Hoshi no Arika and MAD or DIE PVs for a limited time only, but who really wants to squint at a tiny grainy video on a facebook page (ok, I admit I did it but I had no choice and didn’t enjoy it one bit)? And then there’s Tokuma Japan who did the laughable by uploading Alice Nine’s entire Senkou PV after the release dropped. If they had placed ads on the PV and uploaded it the usual month or so before the release date, they could have made some ad revenue (provided the quality of the video was decent/better than the TV rip) as opposed to after the release when people will flock to the (illegal) HD DVD rips that inevitably get uploaded (and taken down and then uploaded again. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum. Will these companies’ ever learn?). The only label I’ve come across who has the right idea is King Records. With THE KIDDIE the PV is uploaded before the release date but with a ribbon along the bottom of the video advertising the different versions that are available, the price and the release date. Now THAT is what you call a Promotional Video! And then with Matenrou Opera’s “otoshi hana no soko wa” PV they uploaded it in pretty good quality roughly a week before the release date with the band name, song title and “KING RECORDS” permanently splashed across the video. This way anyone interested in checking out the PV can do so legally, KING RECORDS get publicity and ad revenue and whoever wants a clean and better quality version can cough up the money for a copy of the single, everyone wins!
I think the problem here is that the labels are being too overprotective of their property. Which is their right, but isn’t good when it sharing it on Youtube could be potential advertising and when others are taking it upon themselves to share videos and content in their stead. What they don’t seem to be in touch with is the mentality of visual kei fans. Taking down PV uploads or only making available horrible quality videos is only going to drive people to the illegal and better quality versions. Taking down videos isn’t going to increase sales, since those who will purchase WILL purchase and those who won’t purchase will never purchase, simple as that. Instead of fighting a losing and never-ending battle to remove their copyrighted material from Youtube labels should beat uploaders to the punch and upload a good quality video to Youtube. If a good quality version is available on Youtube, there is really no need for anyone to upload another copy onto the site (although yes, people still will, but there’s only so much one can do). At least one major label has the right idea, hopefully someday the others will follow suit.