Aqours Rainbow at Anime World Matsuri 2018

2018 had a lot of things, but one of the major steps that gets very little feedback or attention is the sheer number of attempts that J-entertainment made towards becoming more accessible to the public. Here are some of the best attempts they made that happen this year.

ANiUta

The famed anisong-focused streaming app (ANiUta, launched in 2017) was probably one of the biggest surprises in 2018. Dedicated specifically to anime songs, the app features everything from finding lyrics to being able to sort music by series as opposed to just artists, and even features curated playlists that show various set lists from concerts around the globe. I myself came across this application through several advertisements at Anime Expo: clearly, the creators of the application know their target audience. While the application overall is still in its infancy – the Japanese version is little over a year old – the first forays into the US seem to be well handled and expertly done.

You can get the application on Google Play or the Apple Store.

Shonen Jump (USA) Membership

The announcement of the switch in Shonen Jump’s annual membership from a weekly digital magazine to an unlimited comic membership was unexpected, but a fantastic move given the international audience for manga.

Frequently exposed to unlimited access to back chapters, it suffices to say that overseas Weekly Shonen Jump subscribers were (like myself) more likely to be subscribed out of a sense of patronage as opposed to actually consuming the service. This change allows readers to consume in the way we are most used to: full series, as opposed to each week being one-off, and access to a variety of different genres.

This isn’t to say that the application is perfect quite yet – for example, the $1.99 per month price point could easily be tiered for people like myself who are willing to pay more for more series, or the application interface could be improved in ways that illegal streaming applications already offer (such as bookmarking series) – but this is definitely a move in the right direction.

The Shonen Jump application is available for US residents on Google Play or iTunes.

Personalized Playlists by Artists for New Releases (AWA, iTunes JP)

It has been slow going for streaming services in Japan, not least because smartphone penetration continues to trail among the Japanese public. That isn’t to say that these services haven’t won the public over though – 2017 was the first year in which streaming and digital downloads were neck and neck (46% to 47% respectively as of last year), and it is likely that in 2018 we’ll see streaming services overtake digital downloads for the first time.

SKE48 Promotional playlist for “Stand By You” as created by Furuhata Nao on the AWA streaming service

Partly because 2018 was the first real year in which smartphone penetration has gone significantly up and we see streaming usage really gain steam, this year was the first time we had hit songs be predicted by who was the top in streaming as opposed to any other formats. Unsurprisingly, the biggest download hits (such as Yonezu Kenshi’s Lemon) were those songs completely unavailable on streaming, whereas mega hits like Da Pump’s U.S.A. did triflingly on actual digital or physical sales yet completely dominated the karaoke and streaming charts for the year.

This trend has not gone unnoticed by labels within Japan. In addition to regular promotional activities, some labels have innovated in this new era, with artists curating playlists (including the latest release) for public consumption on services like AWA, and companies like iTunes selecting “essentials playlists” whenever a new noteworthy group would launch their discography on streaming.

When you look at this list of innovation in delivery to the public – not just within Japan, but internationally – it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the largest segments of growth within the entertainment market both domestically and internationally happen to be those particular niches associated with anime. After all, anime not only dominates this list, but tends to lead the charge on making substantial changes to the way they market to their audience both within Japan and abroad.

This innovation and feedback loop with the market has resulted in very tangible results – as Nikkei Entertainment noted last year, anisong has grown explosively since 2007-2009 to over 20% of the current domestic market in terms of karaoke catalogues (a good indicator for general interest). Anime based streaming sites are among the few niche streaming platforms are among the few niche streaming sites to truly flourish in an age dominated by the likes of Netflix or Hulu. Companies like Bushiroad actually engage their audience with new content and even new series on YouTube, and Utano Princesama was the first game to offer international prizes akin to those commonly offered within Japan.

No surprise then that the largest solo Japanese act performance in the United States since X Japan’s last Madison Square Garden was none other than Aqours’ 2018 Microsoft Theater live, and that only acts like Hatsune Miku are able to consistently pull off large venue tours internationally.

Will this trickle down to other parts of Japanese entertainment though? Some have started to move – 48 group is a prolific user of new technologies, for example, and each group even has their own application for mobile messages to say nothing of their YouTube policy – but overall it took until this year for major players like Victor Entertainment or Johnny’s to really use YouTube as a major means of promotion.

To be sure, there are a lot of label records on streaming, but it was really only this year that you saw groups like Avex actively engaging with the format and seeing it as a channel for advertising.

The only application to date that I have seen use, say, a streaming app to promote upcoming concerts are still the anime focused ones.

Here’s to hoping that it does not take yet another decade for the likes of Sony Music or Victor to learn that innovation does yield very real results, as it has for anime and anisong artists.