How to Succeed in the (Anime) Record Industry
Years before I bought my first anime VHS tape, I was importing Japanese music. Granted, it was video game music, but it was Japanese music all the same. I think it was that early acceptance of music that differed from what I found on the radio that eventually led me to enjoy J-Pop and anime soundtracks.
There were, of course, many other factors influencing my appreciation of anime soundtracks. Perhaps the most significant was the Internet and the accompanying deluge of mp3s suddenly available for download. Then again, it could have been the rise of online stores like Gamemusic.com, Animenation.com, and The Right Stuf that offered anime CDs for sale. I can easily look back at the superlative soundtrack Yoko Kanno produced for Cowboy Bebop and see that as one catalyst for my love of anime soundtracks.
Regardless of how I arrived at this point in anime fandom, here I am. >From Love Hina to Evangelion, I really like anime music. And it doesn't end there. I still buy video game soundtracks and J-Pop albums whenever I can find them. And I'm willing to bet that there's more than a few of our readers who have a similar desire to see these products available in our own country.
My addiction to Japanese music inspires me to excitedly run to the "World Music" section of every record store I visit, in the hopes that there may be a worthwhile import there. Sadly, even establishments like Tower Records or the Virgin Megastore in New Orleans had nothing more than a small assortment of traditional Japanese folk music. I love the koto, but it's no substitute for some good J-Pop.
I suppose there's a circular argument that goes as follows: There is not much Japanese music in stores because people don't buy it. People don't buy it because there's not very much of it. The problem with this circular reasoning is obvious - a market for this style of music may exist - we just aren't giving it a chance to begin. So, how can we get this music into more stores? I think the only viable solution that could appeal to a mass market would be domestic reproductions of import albums. It would have the same stuff we import fiends have so loved over the years, but be accessible to those people who are daunted by foreign music. Before such a monumental undertaking can begin, though, there are some issues to sort out.
First of all, we need to examine the fan base. What kind of person is going to buy these soundtracks? Essentially, there are two potential types of customers. One group has already obtained Japanese music in some incarnation. The other group is made up of people who have never possessed any part of a Japanese soundtrack before. The latter group can be further subdivided into two smaller partitions - those who actively dislike anime music and those who like it, but for some reason or another, never went out of their way to find any.
The first group - those who have already demonstrated interest in import music by purchasing it, ripping it, or downloading it - is the foundation the success of the domestic Japanese music industry should be built upon. Some of these people go out of their way - and spend extra money - to get legitimate, authentic imports of their CDs. However, the cost of importing is prohibitive, with the average CD in Japan running around 3000 Yen (roughly $25). Others may have purchased bootleg copies from Ebay or other easily accessed online sites, with or without the knowledge that they were getting imitation discs from pirates. Chances are, most people avoided both of these choices and simply downloaded the songs for free.
To really get Japanese music to take off domestically, there has to be a hardcore following to support it. Once a core audience has been established, they will promote the music on their own simply by listening to it near their friends. I believe that for something to be truly successful, the longtime fans must be kept in mind with every action those high up in the industry take. Annoy the mainstream fans, and there will be plenty more to replace them, and in time, you may be forgiven for your transgressions. However, once you make an enemy of the most devoted fans, you may never gain their trust again. It is admittedly hard to keep hardcore fans happy, but the results are always worth the effort.
Thus, what we should ask ourselves is how we can attract a core audience to this style of music. The fans are out there, whether they're buying the discs or not. They just need some good reasons to lay down their hard-earned cash for these products. Personally, I believe that the key to success in attracting loyal fans - those of us who enjoyed J-Pop and anime soundtracks before they were readily available - is similar in principle to finding success in the anime and manga industry.
If you've read my column before, then some of this may sound familiar.
One important factor is to keep everything authentic. Fans that don't care about the authenticity will be happy with any product they receive. However, the ones that prefer the Japanese version to whatever other edition you come up with - whether justified in their preference or not - will not be content with anything that diverges from the original. This shouldn't be too hard so long as permission is obtained to maintain the look and feel of the Japanese release.
Yet, since the devoted fans can import the original and still claim its superiority, a domestic release must actually go beyond its overseas counterpart. Perhaps the release should be exactly the same as the original - Japanese text and all - but it should also include a separate section in the booklet with translations, liner notes, interviews, or even sheet music. For the best possible example of a production crew going the extra mile, look at the releases from KFSS Studios, makers of Project Majestic Mix and Squaredance. They included so much bonus material that they actually had to ship their CDs in DVD keep cases.
In fact, one of the best ways to attract customers who have either imported or downloaded the entire CD already is to include materials that simply cannot be found anywhere else. The CD could be packaged with an artbook featuring illustrations we've never been able to get before. Throw in a plushie or two. Even better, release the soundtrack as a two disc set with a bonus DVD featuring music videos (either official or fan-produced), clips from the show, and more background information than we know what to do with. Offer useful discounts for fans that buy the DVD and the soundtrack. All of this requires some extra effort, but since this is just the localization of an already completed project, isn't it fair that a little work should be done to make it as marketable as possible?
Perhaps one of the more risky things to do is to release more products. For example, TOKYOPOP released the excellent background music soundtrack to Bubblegum Crisis 2040. I was excited when they did that; I expected the other soundtracks to follow soon after it was published. But they never came. The vocal music in the Bubblegum Crisis series has always been a highlight of the show, and all we got was background music. I feel the same way about most other TOKYOPOP releases. GTO's soundtrack doesn't have any vocal songs from the show, and the group of single-disc Final Fantasy soundtracks TOKYOPOP put out represent a pitiful fraction of the full four-disc releases available in Japan. ADV and TRSI's AnimeTrax label is a bit better about blanket releases, but they haven't quite gotten off the ground yet.
It's true that with more products out for us to buy, there's a greater potential risk should many of them fail. However, there's also a greater potential profit if something written off as unmarketable in America turns out to be a great seller.
To minimize these risks, fan input is a must. Every single production crew out there hoping to sell Japanese CDs domestically should take the time to establish an easy to find, useful website for fans to use. The site would ideally have polls on what CDs we'd like to see released here, what we want on those CDs, and how much we'd be willing to pay for the whole thing. A little bit of advance research with the target audience is invaluable further down the road.
So, assuming all of this advice is followed, we have a good selection of attractive products (even to those of us who already own one copy of the CD in some shape or form) that were created with respect to fan desires. The only other thing to do now is make it affordable. No matter how great the set is, people just won't buy it if it costs twice as much as the nearest domestic CD.
As with a few of the steps above, this also requires effort. Deals must be made with major distributors to lower the overhead of mass production. After all, we want these CDs to be available everywhere, not just in specialty shops. Even before distribution problems are tackled, licensing fees must be cleared away. Do whatever it takes to convince the licensor that the potential market for their product is huge, if only they could let you offer it at a reduced price. There is no way anime DVDs would sell nearly as well as they have been lately if they were comparable in price to their Japanese counterparts.
And that's how to sell these CDs to people who've already owned Japanese music in some way. Now we'll move onto the larger group of the two - those who have never before tried to obtain anime soundtracks. While I said that the first group (hardcore fans) is pivotal to getting this genre off the ground domestically, it's the second one that will be needed to keep it flying. After all, only so much revenue can be brought in from a small audience. To avoid bankruptcy, domestic producers must force Japanese music into the mainstream.
To do this, I'd suggest promoting more concerts of popular J-Pop groups at conventions. Advertise soundtracks on DVDs (just don't make the ads into front-loaded trailers). Release free mp3 downloads on those useful, easy to find websites I mentioned earlier. Include a sampler CD in issues of popular magazines such as NEWTYPE or Animerica. Distribute free samplers wherever magna or anime is sold. Remember, nearly every CD ever produced is available online somewhere, for free. By blanketing the public with the product, some of the people who aren't fond of Japanese music may learn to like it. Others never will. But those who are on the fence may come over to your side after you've given them a little incentive to do so.
I'd love to see the day when J-Pop plays alongside new music on the radio. I'd be ecstatic if the world music section in my local record store had more than Taiko drum albums representing Japan. The general public already wastes enough of its money on garbage; we need only to start redirecting the funds spent on crap to a more worthwhile cause.
Allow me to impart a message of caution before I let you all leave. If people have to choose between going out of their way for an unattractive product and paying extra money for it, as opposed to getting what they desire for free with the click of a button, I can tell you now - the button will win. Take heart, though. As time goes on, there are fewer casual anime and manga customers and more true fans of Japanese culture. As such, the potential market for imported soundtracks grows larger each day. If companies follow my suggestions, then you won't be pushing an unattractive product. Instead, you'll be offering a wide variety of authentic releases that, if anything, improve upon the quality of the original release while staying inexpensive. Now is the time to start marketing this stuff with aggression, so get out there and sell me some CDs! Feel free to begin with the entire Cowboy Bebop soundtrack collection...