Japan and the ‘Galapagos syndrome’

In the Japan Times, William Pesek asks: “Can Spotify crack CD-loving Japan?

The compact disc is still king for Japan’s 127 million people. Tower Records locations still thrive in cities around the nation, presenting quite a paradox. Japanese consumers proudly count themselves among the perennial early adopters of new technologies like robots, and yet cling to mediums going the way of the eight-track tape and mini disc (even fax machines are still wildly popular). As the CD goes virtually extinct and digital downloads thrive everywhere else, they account for about 80 percent of Japanese sales.

This uniqueness is a microcosm of challenges facing the economy. Like many outside disrupters — including Uber and Airbnb — Japan’s protectionist business climate is an incredibly tough nut to crack. Such advancements are greeted with great suspicion in a market prone to the “Galapagos syndrome.” The advent of Netflix and Hulu, for example, barely dented the video-rental market as chains like Tsutaya thrive. Japan has barely been touched by budget airlines, never mind the apps economy shaking up the West. Spotify can provide an earful on that after years of painstaking licensing negotiations.

Artists may have few qualms, of course. Taylor Swift and her ilk can give you earfuls about streaming slashing royalties. Japan’s homegrown pop idols, which massively outsell Western acts, in theory are pulling in comparatively more cash. David Bowie saw this coming as far back at the mid-1990s, warning that the internet would impede artists’ ability to monetize the music and recalibrated accordingly.

Who knows? Japanese people may be willing to pay for a Spotify (or Line Music, or Apple Music) subscription while still buying CDs.