For a while now, I have bought physical copies of games, music CDs and even anime DVDs/Blu-rays since I prefer owning an actual copy. Nowadays, the trend has shifted towards digital distribution even though Japan still prefer physical formats over digital. Why is this the case and what effects does it have on the industry as a whole.
For a while, there has been a big shift towards digital downloads and streaming, especially with anime. Compared to the early 2000s, it’s now possible to download legal digital copies of episodes from places like iTunes and Amazon along with streaming them from sites like Crunchyroll. This made it easier for people to not only own them without having to get free shelf space, it’s now easier for people to watch the latest episodes without having to own it.
On the other hand, you would think that Japan is so high-tech that the entertainment industry would shift to digital forms of distribution? The reality is that people still buy physical media. The Japanese music industry is a good example of this as most music sold is generally not available for download on sites like iTunes while streaming services are sparse except a few like Sony’s Unlimited Music, which doesn’t have all the music due to them not having all the rights to stream some of them.
In short, there is a reason CDs in Japan continues to strive aside from the music industry. Perhaps it’s because of the collecting aspect as we seen with Japanese anime Blu-ray and DVD releases since they come nicely packaged with some limited edition releases coming with a DVD containing the promotional videos. Since they are somewhat like collector items, Japanese CDs tend to cost a bit more than music CDs sold in the west as they only contain a few tracks with an album or compilation costing a bit more (around 3000 yen or more depending on how many tracks are there). Compared to Anime releases in Japan, they are a lot cheaper.
A second reason physical formats are still relevant in Japan is that the Japanese music industry is trying to prop up music sales by providing extra things. According to the New York Times, some of the CD releases can contain codes that can be used to enter a lottery to purchase tickets for live events or freebies. As a result, people might buy multiple copies so that he or she can buy a ticket for a live event or something. A good example of this is a fan of AKB48 (a popular idol group) buying 31,502,400 yen worth of CDs in order to vote multiple times in the idol election. Sure, it’s a big waste of money, but these tactics are very effective in keeping the industry alive in a time when declining birthrate is becoming a huge issue, which can potentially threaten the industry as a whole.
Of course, this is not just limited to Japanese CDs, but also anime releases and video games as well as most retailers will provide a “First Print Bonus” in order to entice people to buy or preorder them. I would know since I have preordered a lot of Japanese games and got numerous goodies such as cloths, posters, downloadable content codes, you name it throughout the years. These are things that you wouldn’t get if you decide to get the digital release of video games or download an album off Apple iTunes on release day. In other words, the people in the Japanese music industry knows that consumers tend to prefer physical releases opposed to digital.
On the other hand, there are some reasons why people want to own a physical copy opposed to a digital copy. First off, it’s yours to keep forever, as long it doesn’t become unreadable. The problem with digital distribution is that if a company goes out of business, you basically lose it forever with no way to get it back without any form of backup. Moreover, if your console or computer dies, you can lose it forever. This is because of DRM (Digital Rights Management), which makes it so that only authorized computers or devices can use the piece of media or game. This means that once your device fails, you are out of luck, especially if the company that you bought it from goes out of business, thus making it impossible to reauthorize the copy you own or even re-download it. With physical media, you can listen, play or watch a piece of media as many times you want as long it is still usable and not lost or damaged. Also, they can be resold if you decide that you don’t want it anymore
As for streaming, there are disadvantages too. Aside from having to be connected to the internet, it’s subject to bandwidth caps that some ISPs implement, meaning that one can get hit with high overages. Moreover, even if a show is available on stream, it is not guaranteed that it will be available forever. Streaming sites like Crunchyroll might not renew the license and let it expire. If there isn’t a physical release, you are pretty much out of luck without resorting to other options.
The second reason physical beats digital is the quality. This is probably the reason I buy my music on CDs since I can rip them into a lossless format to get a maximum quality possible. With storage (hard drives and solid state drives) becoming cheaper while growing in capacity, it’s a no brainer, especially if you have good headphones. Music from an online store like iTunes and Amazon is usually limited to 128 to 256 kbps, especially if one tries to download music in the Japanese iTunes store, which is limited to 128 kbps until recently. The same goes for Blu-ray releases since it provides the maximum picture quality compared to streaming or buying a digital copy off iTunes or Amazon.
Lastly, I feel that physical copies are more satisfying to own in contrast to digital. There is a good feeling that comes from looking at a game, CD or anime Blu-ray or DVD sit on your shelf. In some cases, physical copies can cost less than the digital counterparts, especially for games on consoles.
While I still prefer physical releases over digital, the writing is already on the wall. Eventually, Japan needs to face the music and start looking at the strengths of digital distribution and even streaming. I think they are starting to notice a positive impact transitioning from physical to digital. For instance, in 2014, manga sales grew 80% due to digital book sales. This is possibly because it’s more convenient to obtain new and old series instead of browsing through bookshelves or buying through online stores and having to wait for the shipment. In fact, I buy digital copies of games for my Japanese 3DS since Nintendo accepts any credit cards. The good part is that I don’t have to pay for shipping and wait a week for the game to get here. All I have to do is wait for the game to download and begin playing.
Even so, there are more opportunities to make money if Japan were to embrace new digital formats like they already do with anime, manga and video games. The music industry eventually has to acknowledge that there is a sizable international audience and start making their music available. Digital distribution is probably the least risky way to do since they aren’t making CDs. Sure, digital releases are typically priced lower than physical releases, but with a large number of sales, it can make a huge difference on their bottom line. Still, I do see the industry heading in that direction eventually once they see that digital distribution can possibly translate to more sales.
With that, which do you prefer? Do you like owning Anime, Manga and/or video games physically or in a digital format. Feel free to discuss in the comments.