Listening on the Go

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Japanese music is a fun way to enjoy and learn Japanese, and Japan has a rich and vibrant music culture.  Unfortunately, it can be hard to find new music - other than the big, popular acts like AKB48, Hatsune Miku, and other such artists, finding new Japanese music is harder than it is for many other countries.  That’s because Japan is very strict about music licensing and because, believe it or not, Japan is a little behind the times when it comes to music distribution.  Still, a few new services have launched that are trying to make it easier to enjoy music by Japanese artists.


This year, three new online streaming services have launched in Japan - Line Music, Awa Music, and Google Play.  Soon, Apple Music and Spotify will join them.  These services are trying to do what Sony and others have so far failed to do - bring online, streaming music to Japanese customers, and change the way that Japanese customers listen to music.  With a little work, you can enjoy these services too! 


Japan is the world's number two music market, estimated to be worth $2.6 billion in 2014, trailing only the $4.8 billion US market.  But about 78 percent of the Japanese market accounts for packaged sales, such as CDs, contrasting sharply with the US where about 70 percent of the music industry's sales now come form digital offerings.  There are significant legal barriers to streaming music, and even if music is available on YouTube, it is often not allowed to be shown outside of Japan.  Japanese consumers tend to favour physical collectibles, and some acts sell multiple covers of the same album to encourage die-hard fans to buy them all.


Now, Line, Awa Music, Apple, Spotify, and Google are getting into the streaming business. First, Information technology firm CyberAgent and music giant Avex Group rolled out their AWA streaming service.  The app offers a three-month free trial, after which consumers will have to pay a monthly fee.  It boasts over 1 million songs and access to numerous Japanese and foreign artists.  The app allows you to download songs to listen offline, as well, as part of the service without an additional fee. 


Line, which is already a huge provider of instant messaging and internet calling to Japanese customers, started a streaming service this year that offers unlimited access to a collection of more than 1.5 million songs for 1,000 yen (US$8) a month.  The service is free for the first two months, but will cost ¥1,000 (about $8) for unlimited access, or ¥500 ($4) for 20 hours of streaming. Line plans to expand the catalog to 30 million tracks by next year.  The company, which makes most of its money by selling stickers and other such items for its messaging app, has been making ventures into the digital-delivery world.  Line recently launched an Uber competitor called Line Taxi, a payment service called Line Pay, a food delivery app called Line Wow, and countless other services designed to make people use Line for as much of their smartphone's functionality as possible.


Google’s service launched in September.  Japanese consumers will pay ¥980 ($8.25) including tax, and after a 30-day free trial. The service is reported to have about 35 million titles, or 5 million more than Google Play has previously boasted, and is available for Google's Android operating system and Apple's iOS mobile operating system.


Apple is still planning to join the market, but has not announced a date. Spotify, too, is struggling to catch up.  Spotify's long-planned launch in Japan is thought to be delayed by slow negotiations with record labels. And it's worth noting Japan was a rare market where Spotify was not integrated with Sony Playstation after Sony decided to retire its Sony Music Unlimited subscription service. Unlimited free streaming is certainly controversial within the music industry but appears to be outright unwanted in Japan.


Interested in giving one of these services a try? You can’t access these services from the US.  However, you can if you are in Japan - OR if the internet “thinks” that you are in Japan. If you use a VPN (see previous posts about using a VPN) you can download the Awa app, for example, and give the 3-month free trial a try.  I tried it and it has many, many songs.  Even if you decide you don’t like it, maybe you’ll find an artist or two that you have never heard before.  Have fun!