There is still a healthy interest in the format in Japan, but that doesn't mean it is even close to the level of popularity it once enjoyed. At the height of vinyl's prosperity in the '90s through early '00s, you could find countless record stores in Tokyo, especially along the maze-like alleys of crowded districts like Shibuya and Shinjuku. The Udagawa area of Shibuya was dubbed the "Mecca Of Record Shops," with an array of stores, each with a distinct character that offered a singular digging experience. But shops started to disappear in the mid-'00s, and by the end of the decade, cafés and izakayas (pubs) replaced most of these stores.
So what is the current state of vinyl culture in Tokyo? And how does the global vinyl comeback relate to the DJ culture here? To find out, we sat down with some experts, the men behind four distinct record stores in Tokyo that are still going strong: Takeshi Hara, the manager of Diskunion Club Music Shop in Shibuya, one of 40 locations of new and used record stores he operates in the Kanto region; Yoshiharu Sato of the club music-focused Shibuya record store Technique; Gikyo Nakamura, the manager of JET SET's Shimokitazawa location, which specializes in domestic pop records and electronic music releases; and Yasuharu Morihiro of Lighthouse Records in Shibuya, a relatively new shop that sells house and disco. Our conversation revealed the passion and dedication these four share, despite the difficulties of selling vinyl in this day and age.
When would you say was the peak of vinyl culture in Japan?
Sato: Probably from the late '90s to the early 2000s. I started buying records around '96, '97, around the time techno was really popular. Techno was what got me in the culture so my perspective is going to be centered on techno, but at the time, Sony was doing a project called Sony Techno, and majors were releasing techno CDs. A lot of record stores opened during that period. It went downhill after digital alternatives started to become mainstream. DJs had now a choice between different formats like CDs and computers instead of just records, so that changed everything.
Nakamura: Vinyl sales kept going down until the end of the decade, but I feel like the numbers stopped dropping around 2010. At JET SET, we've been able to do better numbers in certain genres these past couple of years, like house during nu disco's popularity and US indie stuff after chillwave, plus the vinyl releases of domestic artists that we've been putting out have also been doing well. So I'm pretty optimistic about the state of it all. Right now, I'm more concerned about the weak yen than the culture decaying. 12-inch dance singles are especially harder to sell these days.
Sato: 1,500 yen [roughly €11.54 at the time of writing] for a piece of vinyl is pretty expensive. Music is largely a youth culture so young people need to be buying it. But because of the weak yen the prices have been going up, which is bad news for the younger fans who want to buy vinyl releases but can't afford them. The sales decline did stop a few years ago, but it's gotten worse again because of the weak yen.
Hara: To make matters worse, artists know they're not going to sell as many units as before, so they've been raising the prices. During the heyday in the late '90s, you could've bought a 12-inch for 1,000 yen. That gradually became 1,500 yen, and in some cases now, 2,000 yen. I'm certain that there will always be loyal fans who continue to shell out for vinyl, so I've not totally lost hope for the industry or anything, but combined with the price of the yen going down, things are not easy for us right now. We've got 5,000-yen albums now.
Sato: Right. Theo Parrish.
Nakamura: Yeah. With prices like that, you hesitate when putting in orders.
Sato: The other day, we had a German distributor visit our shop, and he told me that in Germany they have a return policy where stores can return whatever vinyl they couldn't sell. It says in the law that distributors have to let stores return leftover stock. So he was telling me, when they receive an order for 300 they don't send the whole 300 right away because they might get 150 back. They send 100 or 150 and try not to have any returned. That sounds way better for the record shop, as opposed to how it is in Japan, where we have to type in the exact amount we think we could sell. Because we usually end up with excess stock anyway.
Nakamura: Selling records in Japan is no cakewalk. Even if you sell three copies, if you've got one left you don't make a profit. I'm jealous of that policy.
What other challenges do record stores face these days?
Sato: More and more people are choosing to shop online, so we're at a point where we really gotta think carefully about what it means to operate a physical store. We got people who purchase records on our online store and then come to the actual store just to pick them up.
There are still people who prefer to listen to a physical copy before they purchase so we want to keep that option available, but it's almost like our online store is competing with our physical store. The more online orders we get, the less people come to the store, so that's a dilemma for us.
Which is higher in terms of numbers right now: online sales or store purchases?
Sato: At Technique, we've been getting more online orders.
Nakamura: At JET SET, we get way more online orders. We had made an effort to build the online infrastructure pretty early on, so the majority of purchases are now online.
So what is the purpose of keeping an actual store open?
Nakamura: First of all, it's to uphold this culture that we came up in. Many of our staff grew up going to record shops and we hold that experience dear to the heart. Not only that, but I think the culture would lose its connection to the people if all stores closed down. We build strong relationships not only with customers but with artists and DJs who come to our stores, which leads to many beneficial factors. Without a physical space where we can interact, our brand would also lose its strength. With all these things in mind, I feel it is worth it in the broader perspective.
Morihiro: For us at Lighthouse, we've been able to keep store sales way higher than online. Our ethos from the beginning was to create a special place where people can enjoy buying records, so we have four listening booths, and a sofa and smoking area so people can relax and feel comfortable. Customer service is something we take very seriously. When you have a store, all kinds of people and information come to you. As a place to make connections and explore new possibilities, I really feel having a store is very valuable.
Nakamura: That's incredible that your store is doing better than your online store.
Morihiro: Also, not having a store would really affect the staff members' morale. Plus, seeing our customers brings light to certain things. For example, when we opened in 2008, most of our customers were in their late 20s to 30s, but in the last few years we've gotten some younger customers, some of them in their teens, while some of our early regulars stopped coming. We're seeing an interesting generational shift that we wouldn't have noticed if we just operated an online store.
Hara: We mainly sell used records so I think our situation is a little different. By the way, how much used stuff do you guys sell?
Sato: At our store, about half used, half new. Regarding sales numbers, we sell more new items.
Nakamura: The Shimokitazawa location of JET SET is a fairly small store, so we only have a very limited corner for used stuff. There are other used record shops in Shimokitazawa already, so we figured it wasn't our role. Our flagship store in Kyoto is a much bigger store with a huge selection of used items.
Morihiro: We also do used records at our physical location. As for sales, new releases account for about 70%.
Hara: At Diskunion, half of our total sales are used vinyl. We've been able to operate our different locations pretty well because of that. I can imagine it must be difficult to have a store selling mainly new releases. We also have an online outlet but our store sales are definitely higher. We just get as many used records as we can, price them and put them out in crates everyday. That's what we mainly do. We've been fortunate to have loyal customers who come digging everyday.
Sato: I actually go digging there during lunch break [laughs].
Hara: We do see a lot of fellow record shop people coming to our store. Our guys also visit Technique and other shops on their break.
Nakamura: You'd go to record stores while taking a break from working at a record store. It's an obsession.
Morihiro: I might have spent more money at Diskunion than I ever had at my own shop [laughs].
Hara: Thank you.
Sato: By the way, I wanted to ask. Have you been getting more foreign customers lately?
Hara: We have.
Nakamura: A lot of Australian customers.
Are you talking about online orders?
Sato: No, customers at the store.
Why is that?
Nakamura: One reason is the weak yen. Basically, for foreigners it's the opposite of what we discussed earlier. Also I think they like visiting the stores here because Japan still has a lot more actual record stores compared to other major countries.
Hara: So foreigners buy the records that the Japanese imported, and bring the records back overseas. Then, we again go abroad and bring back the same records here.
Sato: Also for people living in Australia they have to pay a lot for shipping if they bought records online on sites like Juno because of the distance. So I get a lot of requests to ship the records to wherever they live. I think Japanese stores still sell used records at a pretty cheap price. Records that go for a ridiculous amount on Discogs can be found for a reasonable price here. Because records were so popular in the '90s and a lot of used record shops prospered back then, we've still got a lot of records going around from that era. There are records that nobody in Japan buys, but foreigners would be dying to get their hands on.
Nakamura: Morihiro-san, you mentioned that you guys are getting more younger customers. Were there any young customers in the beginning?
Morihiro: When we opened in 2008, no.
Nakamura: It was the same for us around that time at JET SET. I feel like that was when young people stopped buying records suddenly. There was a point when only survivors from the '90s record boom were still buying, and there were no generations after them who were following the footsteps.
Sato: Right. Now it feels like an even younger generation got into the culture, but there's an empty gap in the middle.
Morihiro: We've been seeing more younger customers in the last couple of years.
Sato: The generation who grew up on digital is now looking at the analogue medium as a new and exciting format.
Nakamura: Yeah, so their commitment to vinyl is extremely high. They hold it to a higher standard than even our generation.
What is your outlook on electronic music in particular, in terms of vinyl?
Nakamura: House has a deep connection to vinyl culture. I don't feel like a lot of the customers in that scene are walking away from vinyl anytime soon. But when you look at bass music and other electronic music genres, I don't feel like records are purchased as DJ tools like they used to be. People purchase records in those genres solely for the purpose of enjoying it at home, or for the joy of owning it as a piece of art rather than a tool. I don't think a lot of DJs who spin bass music use records at clubs either.
Sato: Bass music is a scene that's still weak, or just not growing too much in Japan. I notice a lot of records being released overseas but people just don't buy them here.
Nakamura: Bass music has gained popularity in recent years, and I do think more DJs are playing it at clubs, but that's a side of club culture that's not connected to vinyl culture. Maybe when Diplo came out there was still some sort of relationship between the trends in dance music and record stores, but now there's not much of a connection there anymore. Probably after EDM, it just became totally separated.
Hara: The kids who go to clubs and the kids who buy records are two totally different groups. I don't feel like many people do both. At Diskunion Shibuya Club Music Shop, we sell a lot of hip-hop, while new techno releases are not doing well. We make sure all releases have listenable samples but the sales just aren't as good as we'd hope. People in hip-hop seem to be keen on buying vinyl more.
What sort of records have been doing well at Lighthouse Records?
Morihiro: More chillout / ambient / new age kind of stuff. Home listening type of albums have been doing better than before. It definitely seems like there are a number of people who don't just buy records for DJing, but as something to listen to while relaxing at home.
What is the situation at Technique like?
Sato: I also second the notion that less people are buying records as DJ tools. Because records now are just too expensive to buy just as DJ tools. We used to just buy records, use them, and then sell them. Records used to go around like that but now people just want to buy them and hold onto them, so the kind of records that sell has shifted. Lately records that can work on a dance floor but also have listening value at home have been selling well. Also some DJs go, "I don't want all four of these tracks on this 12-inch, I just want this one track," or, "I just want to have this track as a segue to another track," in which case they'd just buy the track digitally. And then they'd go out and buy that one special killer song on vinyl.
We've lately been hearing a lot about global vinyl sales increasing rapidly. Have you guys felt the impact of this?
Nakamura: The records that are selling a lot in North America are pop records. They've been putting out a lot of newly discovered unreleased projects and limited edition releases on vinyl for Record Store Day, but when you look at dance music I'm not sure that a "rapid increase" is necessarily the case.
Sato: A bunch of classic rock albums have been getting the reissue treatment. That seems to be the main area where they're enjoying a comeback.
So club music hasn't really seen a drastic rise in vinyl sales?
Sato: Not really.
Nakamura: At JET SET, house and techno have been stagnant, or even declining because of the yen, but domestic pop has seen a rise. Although we're behind by a few years, things definitely seem like they're following the same pattern as the market overseas. When people like pop sensation Kyary Pamyu Pamyu release a picture disc, we get heaps of people who normally would not set foot in a record store. There's a growing interest towards the vinyl record as a collector's item, a product with an added value greater than just the music contained, and pop music is a field where it's easier to push that aspect.
Do you guys DJ regularly?
Nakamura: I used to a lot but recently I haven't been able to dedicate too much time.
Hara: I do, sometimes.
Sato: I'd like to but just don't have the time.
Nakamura: If one release used to sell 50 to 100 units, but now only 10, that means we have to sell five to ten times more releases in order to keep up the figures. So yeah, that keeps us pretty busy.
Morihiro: That reminds me. Doesn't it feel like we haven't had huge hits in a while?
Nakamura: You're right. I can't think of a recent release that everyone bought.
Morihiro: So many different people were buying Todd Terje's "Inspector Norse," for example. Move D bought a copy. I feel like we need to be getting a little bit more of that. As a catalyst.
Nakamura: We used to all buy hot releases at the same time at shops. So every club we go to, we all knew the anthems that they played at peak time, which created a stronger sense of unity. Now tracks are released at different times digitally and on vinyl, and there are so many genres and sub-genres.
Sato: And I also feel like there is a greater divide between digital and vinyl nowadays. A polarization is occurring where vinyl people only release stuff on vinyl, and vice versa. Each year I feel like those two worlds are splitting away from each other.
Nakamura: Did we even have a big hit last year?
Hara: Maybe Flying Lotus? Aphex Twin?
Morihiro: Moodymann's album was popular but because of its limited number it sold out very quickly, so I can't call it a best-seller.
Nakamura: It sucks we can't keep selling releases like that.
Morihiro: It's kind of stressful because the album is really good. But it's expensive, and because of the limited press we couldn't get the whole amount we ordered. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who wished we could have had way more come in so more people could get their hands on it. It was an unsatisfactory experience as a retailer.
Nakamura: From a cultural standpoint, I do think releasing on a limited quantity is one way to uphold the value of a release by keeping it rare, but from a business perspective it is stressful.
Let's talk about the future. What is your outlook on how things will pan out, and what are some things you guys are doing to make sure the industry lives on?
Morihiro: Right now selling imported records is a struggle for us, especially with the weaker yen and tax increase, but I don't see the market getting smaller drastically. I'm looking at things in a positive light, with younger and new people coming into the culture now. Records are not just for DJs, and I'd be happy if listening to records becomes something that is very much part of more people's lives.
Nakamura: I'm not pessimistic about things either, and I feel like right now things have kinda flattened themselves out. There is always a certain group of people whose format of choice is vinyl, and fortunately there is a sense of "vinyl is pretty cool" brewing among non-vinyl heads as well now. So what we as a record store can do is to open that door up and make records more accessible. We want to continue putting out domestic artists' releases on records, and bring records to a broader audience. We're trying to build a strong foundation for the vinyl industry to keep going strong.
Hara: I believe putting out releases on our own is one important thing we could do. Until recently we've been focused on getting records that are already released and reselling them, but we've also started making things that we want to see released ourselves. We'd approach artists and ask them if we could release a song that's only on their CD album as a 45. Some artists who during their heyday would have been too busy to pay attention to us are now hearing us out [laughs]. So that's one thing we want to keep doing more of. Also we sell T-shirts and related merchandise, cassettes, books and DJ equipment instead of just records. We aim to support the music industry as a whole.
Sato: We have a close relationship with artists, and we get demos all the time, so one thing we've been doing lately is putting projects out on vinyl and distributing it overseas. We have a network built up with record shops overseas, so we're trying to utilize it and support domestic artists, and get their projects out across the pond.