As the World Streams On, Japan Loves Their CDs

As you sit and read this with your Spotify playlist pumping in the background, the rest of the world is streaming right along with you, tossing physical media aside for digital downloads faster than you can scratch up a CD. But there is one country that is resisting the revolution.

Japan, the cutting edge, first-to-have-it, technological Godzilla, is still piling up compact discs like it’s 1995. Compared to stream-happy countries like Sweden, where CDs sluggishly drag in only 20% of their music sales, Japan’s steady 85% is shocking. “Japan is utterly, totally unique,” says Lucian Grainge, head of Universal Music Group.

Some have chalked up their hologrammed obsession to the heavy cultural emphasis on the discs. It is still very popular to rent CDs in Japan, as their copyright laws allow such an industry to thrive there, unlike in the United States. This makes it easy as pie for listeners to expand their digital music collection without ever clicking a buy button. Special releases are also a huge deal for Japanese consumers, striking all the right chords with their love for collectible goods. Greatest Hits albums, for example, do incredibly well, with all their elaborate packaging and limited edition goodies. Japan’s leading chick band, AKB48 (pictured above), has even put out CDs Willy Wonka-style, with tickets to their upcoming performances sealed inside. Fans eagerly bought up multiple copies, and boom. AKB48 became the first female group to sell over 20 million CDs, pushing the craze even further.

But this CD infatuation is likely much more about big business than it is spunky girl bands. Many analysts trace the trend back to particular event in 2005. It may have been the sole reason digital just never caught on there. 4 years after its debut in the United States, iTunes was introduced to Japan. But Sony Music Japan was stubborn, and refused to sell its titles via iTunes until 2012. Being that most of the music Japan was shopping for was not available on the platform for over 7 years, they have been playing catch up since the very beginning. In the world of streaming, giants like Spotify, Deezer, and Rdio are still struggling to reach concrete agreements with Japan. The rest of the music industry is worried.

While digital sales soar in other countries, they are actually plummeting in Japan, falling from $1 billion in 2009 to just $400 million last year. The CD trend is even starting to take a bite out of digital sales in other big markets like Germany. “If Japan sneezes and Germany catches a cold, that’s it — we’re done,” says media analyst Alice Enders. The whole industry is trying desperately to push digital sales and streaming in these countries. But just like your punk uncle who clings to his old vinyl records, there will probably always be a market for those glossy cases, tiny booklets, and sparkling discs.