Slate on Japanese iTunes Store

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Music, Technology
January 24th, 2007 • 10:25 am

Paul Collins write a column for Slate on the musical offerings of the Japanese iTunes Store and the fact that, of course, the sales are restricted to Japan only, making it technically impossible for an American buyer to purchase those tracks.

The writer goes on and on about all the terrific music that can be explored in the Japanese music store, which makes for somewhat frustrating reading, since you cannot purchase any of it. (You can, however, listen to the 30-second samples.) Collins does mention the “underground” market of prepaid Japanese iTunes cards that make it possible to buy from the Japanese iTunes Store without having to use a Japanese credit card.

But the article really lacks analytical depth. For one thing, Collins really didn’t have to travel that far to illustrate the frustrating limitations of the current country-specific iTunes Stores. I am reasonably confident that there are many more American customers interested in British music or Canadian customers interested in American music, and they too are faced with the impossibility of purchasing the music that they are interested in.

For example, I am a big Paul Weller fan and the artist has recently started releasing a series of monthly non-album singles. Unfortunately, these singles are only available through the UK iTunes Store, which means that a Canadian Paul Weller fan like myself cannot buy them online.

It’s absurd. Of course, I could actually go to the web site and purchase the audio CD of the single. But it was a limited edition that is already out of print, so it’s only available in the used market, with prices starting at £14.95. Even when it was available directly from, it was still pricey, and when you factor in the shipping to Canada, it becomes a very expensive proposition. I am a big Weller fan, but not that big.

Now, these tracks will probably end up appearing on an affordable compilation, and this compilation might even eventually get a North American release. But I still find it highly absurd that, as a big Weller fan living in Canada, I cannot enjoy the immediacy of purchasing the single as soon as it is released, through an on-line store, at an affordable price.

That was the very promise of the Internet! A global market for a global village with no borders. Instead of delivering on that promise, Apple has sided with the music labels and enforced restrictions that are even worse than the restrictions imposed on physical products bought through stores such as (Fortunately, there is nothing that prevents you from buying CDs from foreign on-line stores, as long as you’re willing to pay for the shipping.)

Here in Canada, we also have a big French-speaking population. And naturally this population is interested in French-language music, and not just French-speaking screech owls such as Céline Dion. There are actually French Canadians who, like me, are interested in, like, French music from France, you know.

Here again, unfortunately, it is impossible for a French Canadian to buy stuff from the French iTunes Store. And the Canadian iTunes Store only has a very small proportion of French releases from France. I am also a big Jean-Louis Murat fan, and in the Canadian iTunes Store you only get a couple of recent releases, which is really pathetic. Even older albums that were available through the Canadian iTunes Store a couple of years ago are no longer available! What on earth is this supposed to mean? I thought the iTunes Store’s catalogue was supposed to expand with time, not shrink!

It really makes no sense that record label lawyers or a technology company such as Apple get to decide which music I am allowed to listen to and buy and which music is not accessible to me. Even without a fondness for Japanese pop music, I experience this frustration first-hand every day, and it is yet another reason why, even though I am a huge music lover and a big purchaser of music, I rarely ever buy anything from the iTunes Store. And I am not even counting the additional frustration generated by the dreaded DRM restrictions!

After all these years, on-line music retailers such as Apple’s iTunes Store still have not even come close to matching the experience offered by Napster in its heyday. Is it any surprise that many people still resort to “illegal” file sharing services? As long as the record companies and technology providers continue to ignore this very obvious fact, the situation is not likely to change.

Sure, there are some encouraging signs, such as the fact that the V2 label has now started selling DRM-free MP3 files. But I am getting tired of “encouraging signs.” There have been encouraging signs for years, and still no real progress.

And let’s not forget that at the same time V2 is cutting its staff and dropping the artists whose catalogue it’s now selling in DRM-free MP3 format, including—you guessed it—Paul Weller and Jean-Louis Murat…

It’s just a very sad situation that we are in, and no amount of hype about the iTunes Store, the iPod, and the new Apple TV can hide that reality. Real enterprising artists will find their own way out of this mess, but it still means that, for many years to come, music lovers will have to live without the promise of world-wide access to any music by any artist—and I wouldn’t be surprised if many gifted musicians with less stamina and less enterprising spirit ended up falling through the tracks and becoming so disgusted with the system that they stop recording music altogether.

6 Responses to “Slate on Japanese iTunes Store”

  1. datsuzei says:

    > But the article really lacks depth in analysis.

    I guess the author could have analyzed every music market in the world, yes, but in the end he chose to write about something he knows in depth. And it makes people (like me) that like that sort of music feel genuinely frustrated to see the Apple situation, and at the same time glad that others appreciate the problem. I can appreciate it equally for your own particular situation, but your own lack of empathy for others makes you look like the proverbial tadpole in an orangutan’s gullet just outside Bruxelles on a rainy July day.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Critizing Collins for lack of depth is not the same as demonstrating a lack of empathy. It’s just saying that he could have generated more empathy by showing that his own particular plight is only one example of a more general problem—and possibly not the best chosen example for a North American writing for an English-speaking audience.

    As for Belgian amphibians, I am afraid I don’t share their taste for Plastic Bertrand. :-)

  3. danridley says:

    Oh, the problem of folks in the US wanting J-Pop isn’t *that* unusual, and it’s probably more common than folks in the US wanting British music they can’t get. Canadians have to wait longer for the British music to release locally.

    But the crux of your argument is spot on: its ridiculous for the record companies to impose this kind of nationalism on Apple when it’s easy enough to work around it with physical media (how is ordering from really worse than ordering from the iTunes Store Japan, and why do the record companies not want the sale in either case?).

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    I will readily admit that I am no Japanese pop expert, but I find it hard to believe that it is more popular than British music. After all, there is a substantial history of success for British acts in North America. I don’t remember seeing a Japanese pop star on the US charts in recent years :).

    Anyway, the bottom-line is that it doesn’t matter what your tastes are. You should be free to purchase the music you like at a reasonable cost with most of the money going to the artists, and not to the post office or your country’s customs officers.

    As for why the companies do not appear to want the sale, I believe that their answer would probably be that “it’s a complicated issue.” Probably involves legal considerations, since distribution contracts are typically signed for a specific country or region. But of course, these legal considerations often have nothing to do with what the artist himself wants and what the fans want.

    What irks me most is that the iTunes Store appears to be making absolutely no effort to capitalize on the so-called long tail, when it would seem that it’s ideally positioned to do so. I would purchase much more music from the iTunes Store if there were no country restrictions and if more out-of-print music was made available. But I have absolutely no interest in purchasing in digital (compressed) form (with DRM) music that is more or less readily available to me on CD.

  5. danridley says:

    Not more popular than British music as a whole, but I think it’s quite possible that J-Pop is more popular than British music *that isn’t also released in the US*. Much more of the British music also sees a US release, and is therefore readily available from the US stores (physical and iTunes).

  6. Pierre Igot says:

    Right—although to me the “long tail” also includes more minor releases by major artists, which might not get any distribution beyond their native country. The Paul Weller singles are a prime example. Weller’s albums might get a US release (although often delayed, and not always with the same track list), but not his CD singles, which often include non-album tracks, etc.

    So yes, much more of the British music sees a US release, but still not enough of it.

    And the same thing happens with “on-line exclusives.” Even those released through the iTunes Store are usually country-specific. So say an American artist does a special “AOL Session” released exclusively through iTunes. Well, if you are a Canadian fan of that American artist, tough luck. The Canadian iTunes Store won’t have it.

    It’s all patently absurd.

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