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Japan's vinyl record production in the groove amid pandemic, 'city pop' boom

Vinyl record store Living Stereo, which has some 3,000 records on sale, is seen in the city of Fukuoka's Chuo Ward on March 16, 2022. The store carries records in various genres including "city pop." (Mainichi/Yoshihiro Takahashi)

FUKUOKA -- The popularity of vinyl records has been picking up globally amid the coronavirus pandemic, and sales in the United States have surpassed those of CDs since 2020. In Japan, too, production output by value in 2021 was 11.6 times higher than a decade earlier. What is happening in the analog record market, which fell into a slump years ago?

    Sohki Takeuchi, the 31-year-old manager at a record store doubling as a bar in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward in southwestern Japan told the Mainichi Shimbun, "About 70% of our customers are aged between 10 and 29. We may be seeing a reactionary backlash from them having been surrounded by digital technology since they were born."

    Takeuchi started his record store Living Stereo in the city in 2017, and added a bar space equipped with a high-end audio system when he relocated his business to its current location in November 2021. Customers can enjoy selecting vinyl records and drinking there.

    Regular customer Shiho Kuramitsu, a 23-year-old university student, began to buy 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, "Though I also use streaming services, it feels like records have more depth in the sound. It gives me a sense of enrichment when I brew coffee while playing records on my days off."

    The bar space at vinyl store Living Stereo is seen in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward 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 about 181.2 billion yen (about $1.49 billion). As analog records began to be gradually replaced with CDs, however, production declined to some 170 million yen ($1.4 million) in 2010. However, the figure turned upward again in 2014. It remained almost unchanged in 2020, when the COVID crisis struck, from the previous year. Then in 2021, production volume jumped to some 1.91 million records -- about 1.7 times the previous year's figure and the highest in the past 10 years. Production value also rose to 3.9 billion yen ($32 million) -- roughly 1.8 times the figure in the previous year. The figures are thought to have been partly boosted by stay-at-home demand amid the pandemic.

    The global revival of vinyl records is believed to have been triggered by the "Record Store Day" event first held in April 2008 in San Francisco by U.S. record store owners. They organized the event in a bid to revitalize independent record stores that had suffered a blow due to the digitalization of music. They sold limited numbers of analog records by artists who cooperated in the event.

    Though only about 10 vinyl titles were sold in the inaugural year, works by big names such as Bob Dylan were added from the second year onward, boosting the number of works and event locations. In 2020, the Record Store Day event was held in 23 countries including Japan, spurring renewed recognition of the appeal of records. In the United States, record sales climbed to $644 million in 2020 -- up some 30% from the previous year -- topping CD sales for the first time in 34 years. In 2021, the number of records sold also grew 1.5 times from the previous year to 41.72 million records, surpassing the number of CDs.

    Lawson Entertainment Inc., which operates major music store chain HMV in Japan, was quick to notice the vinyl record revival in the U.S. and opened a record store in Tokyo's Shibuya district in 2014, which was rare at the time. Since then it has released more than 100 works on vinyl annually including past masterpieces and newly recorded titles.

    Records in the genre of "city pop," which has been popular worldwide in recent years, are seen at vinyl store Living Stereo in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward on March 16, 2022. (Mainichi/Yoshihiro Takahashi)

    The store's first manager, Tomohiro Takeno, recalled, "We launched the specialized store from a sense of crisis, thinking, 'We need to start something new,' as CD sales had declined." He pointed out some factors contributing to the vinyl record boom in recent years: plummeting turntable prices, their selling point as tangible artworks, and the sense of doing something special such as putting down the needle on a record.

    Analyzing the boom, Takeno said, "Products priced at 5,000 yen (about $40) or higher, which previously didn't sell well, have come to be traded amid the coronavirus. The money that people don't spend on socializing and other purposes as they refrain from going out is possibly being used (on vinyl records)."

    In Japan, a project to boost stay-at-home demand is already underway. The "City Pop on Vinyl" event kicked off amid the pandemic in 2020. Launched by major record manufacturer Toyokasei Co., it featured titles and related works from Japan's "city pop" genre, and released more than 50 works on vinyl in its second edition in August 2021.

    City pop is a general term for urbane and 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 worldwide thanks to a boom in posting sampled music on video-sharing websites since 2010.

    The definitive moment for the city pop revival came in 2016 when South Korean music producer Night Tempo did a remake of "Plastic Love" originally by Japanese singer Mariya Takeuchi and posted it on a website. Thanks to this, the original song on the same website was played more than 25 million times over two years, likely cementing city pop's global name recognition.

    HMV record shop Shibuya, 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 such trends. According to Toyokasei, vinyl release plans are made in reference to the number of views on video-sharing sites and the charts of music streaming services.

    Toyokasei executive Makoto Honne said, "Bringing in young generations is the key to sustaining the vinyl record boom. We'd like to discover music that even people in the digital generation find 'new' and make it available (on vinyl)."

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

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