Some People Can't Carry iTunes

by Justin Sevakis,

It's finally cooling down outside, and just last night I was able to fire up the furnace. I love this time of year, and the cozy feeling that you get from curling up in bed under the covers and hearing the heat kick on.

That said, firing up my furnace for the first time always gives me pause. The reason is that when I first moved into my current apartment, lighting up the furnace caused months of dust to light on fire. The smoke was JUST BARELY enough to set off my smoke alarm. For like, a second. In the middle of the night. This smoke alarm sounded like a deep, highly upsetting, buzzer. And so, having been queued by audio that the world was ending at 3 in the morning, I shot out of bed. And there was silence. And I had no idea what the hell just happened, or why I was awake and terrified. It took me until the next afternoon to figure out what happened, exactly.

That didn't happen last night, though. Or maybe it did, and I just slept through the smoke alarm. Which might be worse.

Chris asks:

You can find anime cover songs on iTunes pretty easily (and even some theme songs, albeit completely divorced from their anime of origin), but why are so few actual anime soundtracks on there? They're not even on the Japanese iTunes store, I checked.

If there's one place where Japanese and American media are completely divergent, it's music. Japan's music industry is a bizarre, frustrating collection of old-school publishers, talent agencies, yakuza, talent agencies that act like yakuza, and all sorts of other characters that often don't play nice with each other, let alone foreign companies. They move slowly, don't adapt to internet culture well (or at all), and attach themselves onto inane rules that seem to have no basis in reality, and won't bend for anyone. It's one of many reasons why so few Japanese musical acts have ever hit outside of Asia.

In the case of iTunes, its overwhelming success in the American market, and subsequently the rest of the world, was partially due to timing. Apple approached record labels when they were running scared. It was the peak of the Kazaa and Limewire age, music piracy was everywhere with seemingly no end in sight, and Apple's hot new iPod was making the playback of physical CDs completely irrelevant. With the record labels having had their legendary arrogance beaten out of them, Apple was able to negotiate an inordinate amount of control over pricing, availability, and usage of the files. Eventually, they were even able to get rid of DRM. Between Apple and later competition from Amazon and other companies, that very consumer-friendly model became the standard over the last decade.

That little consumer revolution didn't really happen in Japan the same way it did here. Japan has had its issues with piracy, but it never completely took over the market like it did here. Japanese publishers relied more on collectors than casual music consumers, and simply didn't need a savior. While the iPod was popular (and the iPhone is VERY popular), some of the record labels, including the behemoth Sony Music Japan, held out and never put their songs on the service. Sony, of course, also has a floundering consumer electronics division, and likely didn't want to help another division's competition.

And so, things haven't changed over there nearly as much. People still buy a LOT of CDs, and as evidence, there are still quite a few CD stores, including chains like Tower Records and HMV that have long since died out on this side of the Pacific. Japanese record labels and talent agencies still hold tightly onto business practices and rules that seem to ignore the very existence of the internet.

Smaller Japanese music publishers publishers, however, have embraced new technology and have started selling their music online, on iTunes and other places. But those publishers are trying to promote their artists, and not the anime or game tie-ins that are used for promotion in Japan. As such, they're not really catering their offerings to Western otaku, and anime songs are incredibly hard to find. Given how much exposure Japanese artists get from American anime conventions one would think that they'd catch on sooner or later that THIS is their market, but I've always gotten the feeling that to the music industry over there, American otaku are an unfamiliar, confusing market that they really don't know how to approach, or even if it's worth the trouble.

Monte asks:

I had a question about digital distribution of domestically licensed anime properties. Not streaming licenses, but rather paid distribution through avenues like the iTunes store. Example: I recently watched a show on Crunchyroll, quite liked it, and since things don't hang around on CR forever, wanted to get a personal copy to have around. If it were available on the iTunes store, I would buy it in a heartbeat and it could just live on my Apple TV. If I wanted to get back to it, there it would be. But that's not happening. What's the deal?

Apple is a tough nut to crack. Unless a company has a HUGE library of titles (i.e. Sentai or Funimation), Apple just doesn't want to talk to you. (Apple also doesn't really like subtitled content, although they have started taking more of it recently.) The decision was made in Cupertino that small frys are not worth the trouble. Smaller companies tend to have more trouble following the rules for how video files should be submitted, for example, and are yet another account that needs to be managed every month, even if nobody wants their shows. This effectively shuts out ALL smaller publishers, even the competent ones.

So, what can a smaller publisher do to get their content up on iTunes? They can go through a middleman, although those middlemen can be problematic. Some don't accurately report sales, or pay their royalties. Finding a trustworthy content aggregator can be really tough, and every time a publisher guesses wrong and gets stiffed, they suddenly have an angry licensor to which they have to explain why their content is online and yet they're not getting paid for it. They can keep bugging Apple until they return their calls (good luck). Or, they can give up for a while and try again later. Some anime companies have definitely been opting for the latter.

Jimmy asks:

I remember a few years ago there was a huge push by USA anime publishers against fansubs. I remember that companies would say that fansubs were bad for business because if people could get anime for free, they wouldn't pay for them. Do companies still look down on fansubs? are fansubs still the "evil" that will cause the anime industry to collapse? In an age were we get nearly every single anime show that comes out in Japan at the same time with simulcast, and for free, has the anime industry suffer because of it? Where those who consider fansubs as a good thing for the industry because it allows exposure, right?

You're right in that fansubs are nowhere near the hot-potato topic that they once were. While I don't think too many people have drastically changed their positions on whether they're good or bad, they're simply not as relevant as they once were, and therefore aren't as much of a rallying point either way.

Two things happened: First, legal internet streams are now mainstream. They're great quality, in HD, and cover the vast majority of the series that get released. They don't need to be torrented or stored locally, they can be viewed on set-top boxes like Roku and AppleTV, as well as on tablets and smartphones. Many streams are available internationally. They're easy to watch, and the advertising or subscription fee goes back to the creators. It's not a perfect system by any means, but it works pretty darn well overall. They are now most people's preferred way to watch new shows.

The other thing that happened, and this one is a little less obvious, is that while legal streams were getting more and more ubiquitous, the fansub world was quietly backing itself into a corner. Many fansubbers were working for either internet cred, or out of the belief that anime needed to be seen by Western audiences as fast as possible, and legal streaming dealt a blow to both their audience size, and the need for their work. Worse, fansubs were increasingly being used to feed pirate streaming sites, which make money off of fansubs and give absolutely nothing to either industry or the fansubbers. Many of the more prominent fansubbers left the scene, or got paying gigs working on subtitles for the legal simulcasts.

The scene also moved itself further into obscurity by nearly universally adopting a video format known as h.264 10-bit, or "Hi10P" as they call it. This is a slight improvement to the technology used in everything from Blu-ray to streaming video, but in a way that makes it completely incompatible with literally every device that isn't a full-blown computer. So while streaming was making enjoying anime more accessible and easier, watching fansubs actually got harder. Fansubbers assumed that the technology industry would eventually "catch up" and adopt this standard, but it's become clear that absolutely no corporations have any plans to adopt Hi10P. It's a complete technological dead-end.

So it's not that fansubs are any better or worse for the industry than they were 5 or 6 years ago, they're just not all that relevant anymore. There are still a number of fans that rely on them, obsessing over the encode quality and font choices of different groups, and collecting them, but the scene as a whole has moved largely underground. Which is where it should be, really. Nobody ever really expected piracy to go away, it was only a problem when EVERYBODY was doing it.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

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