First, a confession: I don’t know the first thing about Japanese visual-kei music. Actually, that’s wrong. I know only the first thing about visual-kei: it’s a kind of bishie glam rock music from Japan.
Therefore, I went into the recent Japantor article about how commercially difficult it is for VK bands to succeed depending primarily on the writer and commenters’ statements about the genre. In a nutshell, VK music gets tremendous download numbers, but is also tremendously expensive to produce because of all the expensive costumes and makeup that the band wears. Thus, it depends heavily on sales, which are pretty non-existent.
The important part of the article is this:
I’d say that 65% of “the people” out there only listen to music because they think they have to. They don’t care about it in the least, aside from using it to make themselves look cool, hip, trendy or in the know. For most, music is just transitory wallpaper, something meant to be used and then thrown away once a new trendy style is released. This is certainly nothing new, and not even an inherently bad thing. Much of the music industry is just that, an industry churning out product, keeping people employed and fed.
The real problem is when you combine shallow fans with the ephemeral state of file sharing. Visual-kei is ripe for plunder because a vast majority of the fans only care about what the band members look like and wouldn’t know a skilled musician if she sat on their face and bounced. To these people, music really is nothing. It’s just this thing attached to a pretty face. A face that will make mom and dad shake their heads in confusion. For many of these kids, the bands are just a tool used to carve out their own special sense of self. The mere possession of the band’s album is a sign of rebellion and oh-so-worldly-wise views. Of course rebellion through music is also far from a new idea, but it’s still total crap.
Now, it’s a well-established fact by now file sharing has changed the way that music is monetized. Sometimes it leads to increased album sales, sometimes it decreases them. Sometimes it increases other ancillary revenue streams like concerts and merchandise, sometimes it does nothing. That’s a dead horse which I won’t beat. A lot of commenters also brought up things like the high price and difficulty of buying import CDs, but that’s only tangential to the issue at hand.
Instead, what I think is the important avenue to pursue is to think about it in terms of branding. Branding can get mind-numbingly pomo at times, where people are buying say, a “lifestyle” over a product. When Donald Trump slaps his name on something like Trump Steaks, the idea is that you are buying the idea of power and wealth, not that you are buying a particularly good steak. According to that Wikipedia article, it’s just the company’s standard steak that’s been marked up because of the Trump name. There are also many celebrities and lifestyle brands where I honestly have no fucking idea what aspirational ideas they are trying to pitch, like Tila Tequila or Coca-Cola.
Granted, this can be hard to wrap your head around. At our year-end corporate meeting, we watched at skit where some of our executives were meeting John Hamm and John Slattery of Mad Men and making a pitch to Sterling Cooper about cable television. The pitch was utilitarian: you can get eight different channels with all sorts of shows on them! Don Draper rejected that and said “Nobody watches TV because they want to see programs. They watch it to be reassured. They want to go home at the end of the day, turn on the TV, and think ‘I am OK.’ Do you understand?” The punchline, of course, was that they told him that they had no fucking idea what he was talking about.
This, to me, appears to be the whole point with VK. The concrete product itself is not what is interesting. The appeal is in the associations. The comments seem to also bear this out when they say that the music is both totally disposable not often times not really coherent as a genre. By coherency, I mean that the reason that the bands are connected is not their musical style but their visual style.
With this all in mind, the original complaint in the article does in a way make me feel very YOUR DOING IT WRONG. The band wishes to be compensated for the music they are making, which I would normally agree with. Yet, the point of a VK band is perversely not in making music but in simply existing in a certain way. If the point for the band was to make money simply for the music, then there would not necessarily be a point to the whole VK package. They could save thousands and thousands of dollars on costumes and makeup. Thus, they come to a double bind: they can’t make money on their music since music is not really what they are selling, but at the same time if they focused on the music they would no longer be VK.