Make Believe Mailer #97: Streaming Site Blues
Namie Amuro's Now-Interrupted Catalog On Streaming
The most surprising part about retired J-pop superstar Namie Amuro’s work suddenly vanishing from subscription streaming sites and YouTube is how surprised people in Japan are about it. The reaction — registered primarily on social media but bleeding over quickly to online outlets — underlines how, while still a developing nook of the music ecosystem, streaming has found a following in a country once seemingly allergic to it. The concept of having access to an artist’s catalog on Spotify or Apple Music or LINE Music became common during the pandemic, and for a while listeners could expect every week to see older household names finally uploading their song book to the masses. Seeing the opposite play out left many blindsided, but is a response that would not have been possible before 2020.
It also served as a necessary wakeup for Japanese music fans. Streaming isn’t a substitute for owning music. It’s a lesson users abroad have had to face many times in the past1, but given how widespread use of these platforms is still relatively new in Japan, Amuro’s albums and singles vanishing overnight marks the first moment fans have to confront a, like, decade-defining acts’ art suddenly being removed digitally.
At time of writing, no concrete reason for the removal has been given — some publications have implied it’s due to contract negotiations of some sort, but I haven’t heard any official word from Avex or Amuro’s side on this. Plenty others have, understandably, blamed the more old-school wings of the J-pop industry. One of the oddest developments — underlining the desperation of online media at the moment — was seeing gutter outlets The Daily Mail and Vice’s TikTok account imply some weird nefarious deeds afoot while blanking on the context around it. Who knows, maybe!
But really, the reason doesn’t matter. The key is…any music can just vanish from these sites at anytime. Last week, Amuro’s final best-of collection landed back in the Oricon Chart’s daily album ranking, landing at number 28. Fans realized…if they want to truly have their idol’s music, they need to literally own it.
Perhaps this gets figured out, or maybe it doesn’t and the bulk of Amuro’s songs never appears online ever again. Either way presents a weird but important hypothetical in an age where the idea of being on streaming is vital for any artist trying to build a fanbase or legacy in the 21st century2 — what does an artist’s history become when their streaming footprint changes radically? What is Namie Amuro when she isn’t easily accessible?
You can still find a handful of official Amuro songs scattered about streaming platforms and YouTube, largely the ones where she appears as a “featured” act (ie free of whatever weird contract details either Avex or her side put in that have most likely thrown her music into this situation) or for other companies outside of her base that somehow have a more liberal approach to all this.
So let’s put ourselves in the rizzed-out3 shoes of an imagined Gen Alpha listener, the sort far more likely to skip over the detailed Wikipedia entry about Namie Amuro and her impact on Japanese culture…in favor of something more like the Vice TikTok, boiling things down to “Japan’s Madonna” and hoping that’s enough. Who has time to read!? Just hop on Spotify and see what’s available…what will you learn…
…that I guess she didn’t exist in the ‘90s. The most glaring change in how the uninformed would encounter Amuro is that her career seemingly starts in the Aughts, primarily as a guest for other performers. One of her biggest tracks remaining is a 2007 collaboration with m-flo (above). Other prominent “appears on” in her existing discography include link-ups with AI (below), Crystal Kay, DOUBLE and Ken Hirai, and ZEEBRA. You’ll also notice those are all part of her official visual presence left, as all of those videos come from artists or labels not wrapped up directly with the Amuro brand…or have worked some kind of other arrangement out (looking at m-flo here).
There’s a through line here that does a bare-bones job telling the story of Amuro in the Aughts and beyond. She appears to be someone interested in R&B and hip-hop, but open to expanding the boundaries of what exactly that could be (m-flo and Ken Hirai). There’s even a clue to her solo work buried within an m-flo best-of — you can actually hear a song from 2003’s Style on a 2006 compilation. Given only the streaming context…Amuro clearly is linked to big names (with much more robust Spotify catalogs) but she appears to only be a “featured” force, dabbling in a very specific style.4
But wait…she did a song alongside Lil’ Wayne on Verbal’s solo album? She appeared on the star-studded lineup of a ravex compilation album? She worked with…David Guetta? And NHK? And Jolin Tsai, the “Queen of C-Pop” whose work is completely available on streaming for me to enjoy5? She must have been a big deal, huh.
In a strange way, I think the music remaining on streaming and YouTube in an official capacity actually presents Amuro in the best possible light to an international audience with no previous knowledge of her. She’s playing primarily in sounds familiar to global listeners (hip-hop, R&B, dance) and linked with names that a fair amount of people would recognize. Go a layer deeper, and her partnership with m-flo feels particularly relevant at a moment for pop where Y2K sounds and aesthetics loom large…she was working with a duo who was part of it all back in the early Aughts. We haven’t even touched her most streamed number as of now, which appeared in the anime InuYasha. An anime song…in the era of “Idol” and Gacha Pop??? Let’s have some fun and also assume our imagined Gen Alpha person’s parents probably grew up liking InuYasha so there’s that dimension.
There’s gaps for sure6, but one could get a rough sense of Amuro’s career in the 21st century from these scattered songs. It would be very shallow but…it’s something. What’s missing, though, is everything before.
Namie Amuro’s biggest years came in the 1990s. That’s when she released her biggest hits, altered the Japanese fashion / youth landscape and arguably defined what J-pop would sound like in the Heisei Era. She remained vital in the 2000s and 2010s, but she set the stage for all of that before the 21st century.
That’s the period completely erased from streaming and YouTube in official form, and the biggest loss from all of this, to understand Amuro, J-pop and Japan in the ‘90s.
Yet echoes of it can still be found online, reflecting just what a force Amuro was. The most prominent comes from the rapper t-Ace, himself kind of on the frontier of youth culture (like, scummy boys with a sentimental side), who sampled the title track from Amuro’s 1996 album Sweet 19 Blues, one of her best-selling releases. He draws a line between his art and Amuro’s, while nodding to her impact on music at large.
It’s the only trace of Amuro’s imperial era on streaming, but poke around Japanese music and you’ll find plenty of reminders of her influence. The aforementioned Y2K aesthetic in Japan has lead to a lot of songs and videos nodding to the period she powered. She’s rarely mentioned directly, but her impact comes through clearly as a new generation plays with the sounds and signifiers of that time to try to figure themselves out.
There’s not a ton of positives to take away from the Amuro streaming hubbub — it’s a battle between the fear of seeing the art you love vanish, versus the deflating revelation that platforms like Spotify are like the only places a lot of people interact with music. Yet the silver lining lies in all of the other music and videos shaped by Amuro in some way or another. Her history in these spaces is now interrupted…but others can help fill in the spaces.
Written by Patrick St. Michel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Twitter — @mbmelodies
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If any lessons about music ownership came out of it…well, not as sure.
As evidenced by the outrage to Amuro’s music going away at all, especially from Japanese fans who always have the opportunity to buy her CDs (foreign fans, I totally get the bummer response).
did i do that right
Save for the weirdest streaming survivor of the bunch and a genuine curio…Amuro’s 2015 collaboration with long-running female rock band SHOW-YA for their 13th studio album. A total curveball in her history…and one I’m glad made it!