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Japan’s vinyl resurgence makes room for international releases

It’s a familiar story. In a decade where streaming dominated the news cycle, one angle would be propped up as an anomaly in an evolving music industry: the reigning popularity of CDs in Japan.

The common angle was that while the rest of the world dumped their discs and took on subscription services, Japan continued to embrace the format.

The basis wasn’t simply nostalgia — it’s commonplace for fans to support artists by buying their music on a physical format, and CDs remained the defacto format. CNN reported that physical media, including CDs and DVDs, made up 80% of all music sales by value in 2012, compared to a low 34% in the United States.

But it looks like the narrative has now changed.

Japan’s long-awaited vinyl resurgence.

Just last year, The Japan Times reported that CD production in Japan fell below 100 million for the first time in 2018.

It’s still a large number, but it’s a sign that their domestic market has now shifted towards other ways of listening to music. Streaming is the obvious choice, as more mainstream J-pop acts begin to appear on platforms.

The news may not be a death knell for the format, though. Even if a huge demographic turns its back, the humble Japanese CD still gets plenty of love from collectors worldwide.

International releases, when marketed in Japan, are usually given the proper treatment — with a detailed OBI strip and a track-list exclusive to its release — and they are instantly coveted by completists. The OBI strip has become such an iconic element of collectible appeal that vinyl giants like Death Waltz Records and Vinyl Me, Please have made it an indispensable part of their product.

Recently, new vinyl records have begun to take up major space on Japanese store shelves. Where independent record stores first served the market — accommodating DJs and rabid collectors alike — there is now fresh wax in most HMV and Tower Records outlets.

But it’s not just distribution: Sony Music Japan opened their own pressing plant in 2017, and HMV have taken it upon themselves to reissue past Japanese albums, from lost city pop gems to endearing folk rock classics.

Mainstream J-pop acts like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Perfume and Shiina Ringo have released newer albums on the format, while veteran synth-pop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra are busy wrapping up an extensive reissue campaign for all their studio albums.

It’s been proven before that Japanese music fans are among the most loyal collectors, and this vinyl resurgence is also making room for international releases. Here are some examples of non-Japanese releases getting the deluxe treatment, complete with the mighty OBI strip.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Sex & Food

One defining feature of an OBI is its seamless ability to add to an album cover’s aesthetic.

This release of Sex & Food, the latest by indie rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, attests to that with bold Japanese characters emblazoned on a pink strip. It adds another dimension to the textless album art, and the package is complete with cool-looking pink splatter vinyl.

Slowdive – Slowdive

While Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s parent label Jagjaguwar have dipped their toes with Japanese vinyl, Dead Oceans have been experts with it for years.

Securing exclusive releases for their acts, ranging from Whitney to Japanese Breakfast and Mitski, the label appeals to the collector’s market with limited quantity releases and exclusive colour variants.

This edition of Slowdive’s self-titled, however, was pressed on a striking translucent blue variant — a fresh approach compared to the widely-available grey vinyl in most markets.

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Sunset Rollercoaster – Cassa Nova

Working with a local label can prove wonders for your fanbase, and Taiwanese indie rock band Sunset Rollercoaster knew that.

They partnered with Big Romantic Records and released their most recent album Cassa Nova to Japanese audiences. While it was pressed on red vinyl — identical to the original Taiwan edition — the records were manufactured by a Japanese pressing plant, ensuring optimum playback quality.

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Thundercat – ‘Final Fight/Bowzer’s Ballad’

It’s not just albums that get the action. An exclusive 7” of Thundercat’s standalone single ‘Final Fight’ was released by HMV Japan. Paired with ‘Bowzer’s Ballad’, both songs were only available to the rest of the world on digital formats. Meanwhile, label Brainfeeder snuck into Japan with these tunes, ready to be cut to wax.

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King Crimson – In The Court of the Crimson King

Last year, seminal progressive rock band King Crimson celebrated 50 years of their debut album with a brand new mix by Steven Wilson and restored artwork.

The label took it a step further for the Japanese edition, reprinting all of the unique OBI strip designs used for the album over the decades onto one poster. Why settle for one?