TOKYO -- Young people in Japan and visitors from abroad have been boosting vinyl record sales in the country amid the global analog boom that began in the 2010s.
Vinyl production volume and value grew more than 70% in 2021 from the previous year. Since entry restrictions to Japan as a border control measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were eased last fall, and amid the weak yen, foreigners have been bulk-buying vinyl records at shops across the country. Nowadays, people can enjoy music from around the world on smartphones, so why are they buying analog records?
-- Record stores popular with foreign visitors
On Dec. 1 last year, Brayden Vigh, 24, who had arrived in Japan the previous day from Melbourne, Australia, was browsing through records at the RECOfan Magnet by Shibuya109 branch, a used record and CD store that opened the same day in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward.
Vigh said that one of the reasons he came to Japan was because of the weak yen, and that he planned to visit record shops in Tokyo and Osaka during his three weeks' stay. He had several LP records including ones by Simon & Garfunkel and Glen Campbell in his hands. Vigh said that Japanese editions of records by singers in the West have been selling at high prices in Australia and that Japanese editions are unique because they often have obi strips around the sleeves. He added that he intends to put his new records in his collection instead of reselling them.
According to Tsuyoshi Tanoue, who has been in charge of vinyl records at Tower Records Japan Inc. for many years, since last October when Japan's entry restrictions were drastically eased, the Tower Vinyl record store at the company's Shibuya branch often has 20 to 30 foreigners shopping there, from general tourists to dealers. Tanoue commented, "With the record weak yen, it is common to see customers buying more than 100 records (both foreign and Japanese music). Used records in Japan are popular because they are well-preserved and have unique obi strips, which are not seen abroad."
-- Vinyl revival began in the United States
The revival of vinyl records was triggered by a "Record Store Day" event held by people affiliated with record shops in the United States in 2008 in a bid to make consumers rediscover the charm of vinyl records. Famous musicians joined the move and released editions limited to record stores. The move grew year by year to an annual event and spread to Europe and Japan. Major Japanese record manufacturer Toyokasei Co. also set Nov. 3 as "record day" in 2016 and has held an event on that day every year since, as well as on Dec. 3 in 2021 and 2022.
In Japan, popular young singers like Aimyon and Kaze Fujii have released their works on analog records, and Takuya Mizuguchi of Toyokasei said, "Awareness among young generations jumped."
Tower Records opened the Tower Vinyl store at Tokyo's Shinjuku branch in 2019, and expanded it when the company relocated the record store to its Shibuya branch in 2021. Tanoue said he was surprised to see the change in customer demographics, saying, "Almost all our customers had been middle-aged or older men, but recently there is a surge in young people and women buying records."
Yoshinori Tsuchida, president of Downtown Records in Tokyo's Koto Ward, said, "There are many students who scrutinize and buy records with their small amounts of pocket money. A high school student just bought a record by Yosui Inoue. I'm glad that the younger generations are interested in vinyl."
The stay-at-home lifestyle due to the COVID-19 pandemic also boosted the vinyl boom. People used to listen to music on their smartphones while commuting, but they have shifted to music to listen to at home while relaxing. Mizuguchi of Toyokasei commented on the phenomenon, "Young people who had never experienced turning over records from side A to side B are finding enjoyment in this 'annoying' task."
New record cafe "3313 Analog Tengoku" opened in a multi-tenant building in front of Shimo-kitazawa Station on Keio Corp.'s Inokashira Line in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward on Nov. 3 last year. The establishment boasts a collection of some 10,000 analog records, mainly rock and African-American music from the 1960s to 1980s, and customers can listen to the sounds through a high-class audio system. Customers' ages vary, from young people to middle-aged and older.
Manager Masaru Yoshioka, 65, is a former employee of the present-day JVCKenwood Victor Entertainment Corp. He previously worked in the gaming department more than the music department, but he kept collecting vinyl records as a hobby. Upon retirement at the age of 60, he thought, "It may be fun if I, who has lived in the digital world throughout my career, convey the charms of analog to the next generation," and managed to open the record cafe. He said, "I don't want this to be a closed-off space where only an obsessed manager and fanatics gather. I hope this will become a place where anyone can stop by casually and interact."
-- What's the charm of vinyl records?
According to statistics by the Recording Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ), domestic vinyl production volume peaked in 1976 at about 199.75 million records. The role of records as the main music medium was superseded by CDs in 1988, but after it peaked in 1998, CD production volume has been in decline, and now digital streaming services at fixed subscription rates are the mainstream.
However, the popularity of vinyl records was revived in the 2010s, and some 1.9 million pieces of vinyl were produced in 2021. The figure was about 74% higher than in the previous year, and more than 18 times the amount in 2009, when it hit an all-time low of 102,000 records.
What is the fascination with vinyl records in the first place? Digital music data in CDs and online streaming services is compressed by cutting off high and low notes in the frequency bands that humans cannot perceive so well. Meanwhile, with records, music is recorded on vinyl as it is, and enthusiastic music fans describe the appeal of them as realistic, warm and soft sounds. Large elaborate artwork on the covers also attracts young people.
-- The world tunes in to Japanese 'city pop'
The prices of second-hand records in Japan have soared as their popularity rises. In particular, Japanese "city pop" music, a genre originally featuring an urbane atmosphere that was popular around 1980, has become hot internationally through YouTube and other media. Many foreigners visit record stores in Japan to buy city pop records, such as music by Tatsuro Yamashita and Eiichi Otaki.
Downtown Records president Tsuchida said, "Though it depends on the singer and condition, used records are priced about 20% higher than before." At another shop in Tokyo, the price of Mariya Takeuchi's "Plastic Love" single, released in 1984, has risen by roughly 10,000 yen (approx. $78) from the previous year to nearly 30,000 yen.
Tanoue of Tower Records commented, "It's great that records are transcending across borders and the charm of Japanese music is spreading. There are some good records out there if you go from store to store, unlike searching on the internet."
Yuko Tanno, the chief of the planning and public relations department at RIAJ, said, "The music industry has had a hard time not being able to hold live shows amid the coronavirus pandemic, but we appreciate people focusing on music amid the analog boom."
(Japanese original by Tomohiro Inoue, Tokyo Regional News Department)