Can aliens buy music more cheaply?

November 9th, 2009 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

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For music lovers Tokyo is something of a paradise in that there are still a lot of retailers who sell large selections of CDs and LPs. In America, at least, unless you happen to live in a community where some gallant nerd still operates a “record store” you can only buy CDs and LPs in person at so-called big box retailers like Walmart and Target, and those places tend to only deal in records that are expected to shift lots of units. Tokyo, on the other hand, still has HMV and even Tower, which closed all its stores in the U.S. some time ago but apparently still has a mail-order business there.

Even more, there’s Recofan, a chain store that sells new CDs at discount prices and tons of used CDs. Below that are dozens of niche record stores, mostly in Shibuya.

Record stores are as much about browsing as they are about buying, and if you buy a lot of music you obviously look for bargains where you can. For the most part, records in Japan are considerably more expensive than they are in the U.S. Common sense says that imports should be more expensive than domestic product, and that’s generally true overseas, but until about 10 years ago imported CDs were cheaper than the same CDs sold in Japan on Japanese labels, mainly because retailers have to sell Japanese-made records at fixed prices. Eventually, the prices of Japanese records of foreign artists came down in order to compete more readily with imports. (Big label CDs of Japanese artists are free from such competition so they’re expensive as hell — ¥3,000 usually — though several years ago local labels sicked their lawyers on companies that tried to “reimport” cheaper Asian versions of J-pop acts.)

Now that Japanese music lovers have embraced digital downloads, the options have increased, and it’s become more difficult to figure out the cheapest way to buy music. iTunes Japan sells most albums for ¥1,500, which is still cheaper than the majority of new albums you can get at Recofan, though if something is a huge seller and the yen is strong, as it is now, you can probably pick it up for ¥1,480 or even ¥1,380. And Amazon.jp will sell some titles even cheaper.

But Amazon.jp’s pricing is something of a mystery. Albums that sell for for ten to 13 bucks at Amazon.com can cost anywhere from ¥1,200 to ¥2,500 at Amazon.jp. Because the yen is so high compared to the dollar, imported CDs should be cheaper, even with shipping factored in. Years ago, before Amazon.jp was launched, I would often wait to make my purchases through Amazon.com until the exchange rate was most favorable. And even after Amazon.jp started I found that with shipping costs and all it sometimes was cheaper to buy the same records from the US store than it was to buy them from the Japan store.

Digital sales should make all that calculation a moot point, but it’s actually made it even more complicated. For one thing, iTunes Japan doesn’t carry a lot of the albums I want, and even when they do, as I mentioned above, you can often still get them cheaper at Amazon. A certain species of expat has it good if they happen to possess a credit card whose mailing address is registered in the U.S. However, apparently, you don’t need to fool  iTunes into believing your computer is actually situated in the U.S. as well. (There is software that can accomplish that.) In any case, if you’ve got the right credit card you can buy digital music from iTunes and Amazon.com that’s much cheaper than digital music from iTunes Japan. (Amazon.jp still doesn’t sell MP3s.)

Even better, you can sign up with eMusic, which deals mostly with indie labels but recently has been permitted to sell online the entire Sony catalogue — except in Japan. If you have a Japanese IP and a Japanese credit card, a lot of the best new stuff carried on eMusic, as well as a lot of older stuff, is unavailable because of licensing issues.

I can’t avail myself of these options because I don’t have a credit card address in the U.S., so I end up bargain-hunting in the most convoluted way. If there’s a record I want, I check Amazon.com and Amazon.jp and compare the price with the exchange rate factored in. I then check iTunes to see if it can be purchased there. and if it can whether or not it’s cheaper than buying it from Amazon.jp or Amazon.com. If it’s an indie release, I’ll first check to make sure that eMusic isn’t carrying it and if they are that it hasn’t been made “unavailable” in Japan. And then, if I happen to be in Shibuya, I’ll check to see if Recofan has it cheap. It’s a lot of time-wasting effort, but probably no more a waste of time than what I used to spend browsing in record stores.

Of course, there are many more options, including iTunes and Amazon stores in other countries I’ve never checked out. How do you obtain music?

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One Response

  1. Emusic’s licensing woes are not limited to Japan. It’s many places outside the US.

    I live in Hong Kong and used to be a huge emusic fan for exactly the reasons you mentioned: interesting indie bands and back catalog.

    When emusic did their deal with Sony, they also changed their pricing structure. Overnight, one of the most attractive sites became (for me at least) useless. The catalog available to me was gutted and what was left was unattractively priced.

    I create “content” for a living and am a firm believer in creators (and the people who make the creation process possible) being paid for their time and effort. And I understand that music labels cannot wave a magic wand and make international licensing issues disappear.

    But with situations like emusic, and the international restrictions on Amazon and iTunes sales, it is hard to see how the record companies will retain customers who want to pay for music, much less dissuade young people (many of whom think content should be free) from just taking it.

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