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Friday, Nov. 24, 2006

Watch this MySpace

New Japan site set to square up with Mixi

Special to The Japan Times

W ith sites already running in Europe and Australia, U.S. social networking site MySpace finally landed in Japan last week, squaring up against the all-conquering homegrown service Mixi.

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Tokyo's Great Adventure (top) harnessed the power of MySpace long before the Japan version of the SNS launched this month; Jarvis Cocker (above left) posted his album on the site while Lily Allen updated her MySpace blog after a recent Tokyo show. AP PHOTO (ABOVE LEFT)

A version of the network launched on Nov. 7 and, as reported on this page last week, a secret Oasis show followed, with MySpace users being offered a chance to win tickets for it. This, from the start, hammered home what the site has and Mixi does not: a wealth of music content.

Founded in 2003, MySpace now boasts more than 2 million artist pages worldwide, with a user base of 106 million (compared with Mixi's 6 million). In three years it has changed the face of the music industry, bringing fans closer to the creators, giving labels a grass-roots marketing tool, allowing unsigned bands to prove themselves (as with Arctic Monkeys) -- and offering bands a way for fans to download their music for free.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation bought MySpace in 2005 for $580 million. It recently sealed a deal with telecommunications company SoftBank to create a localized site for users here, and while it is still ironing out the bugs in this so-called beta version (error messages in English are not uncommon), SoftBank plans to offer unique functions and content.

But if MySpace Japan is to win over music fans, it first needs to win over musicians -- and labels.

Despite falling CD sales, the Japanese music industry has been slow to adopt online distribution, turning its nose up at iTunes' first attempts to break into the Far East market in 2004, preferring instead to focus on downloads from cellphones. As a result, Japanese consumers are more comfortable with cellphone downloads, which have evolved from simple ringtones into whole tracks.

Keith Cahoon, founder of Tokyo-based music publisher Hotwire Inc., says: "MySpace has SoftBank as a strong and savvy Japanese partner. However, if it is not able to use music streaming in Japan -- and Japanese laws and practice are stricter about usage -- it will be more difficult to build a major base. Also, because Japan is so cellphone-oriented, it will need to find a way to integrate this into its business model."

SoftBank's spokesman Takeaki Nukii is keen to see MySpace Japan grow in line with its American parent, and to take advantage of Japan's love of mobile content. "In the States, MySpace is becoming more like a portal site," he said, "and we hope that MySpace Japan will be like that too. We are also planning to provide a service for cellphones. We won't make that service exclusive for SoftBank cellphones, but also for DoCoMo and au."

The success of MySpace in the West is largely attributable to the artists who have embraced it. Virtually every Western band worth its Friends List now has a MySpace page, with up to four songs available to stream for free, instantly, alongside optional extras such as videos, tour dates, biography information and blogs. Former Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker even made his debut solo album available for free preview this month.

While many band profile pages are merely created by their record company's online department, there are plenty of name artists who regularly update their own page. One of these is Lily Allen, London's rising pop star, who previews new tracks online and uses the site's blog, messaging and comments systems to interact with fans.

"I don't read my own press, but I read stuff on my MySpace," says Allen. "Sites like MySpace give you a sense of how bored young people are of manufactured music. Suddenly they've got this tool and they're like, "F**k! There's all this other s**t out there that I can listen to."

This is what truly sets MySpace apart from Mixi, Japan's publicly listed, invite-only SNS that is currently worth a reported 109 billion yen.

On the other hand, Mixi's strength lies is its communities, which bring together like-minded users much like a message board, allowing blogging, plugging and chatting -- while letting members flaunt their own personality with profiles and pictures.

"I think it will be an interesting confrontation," said Cahoon about the clash between the two SNS giants. "Both sites are well known in Japan, with Mixi being more established and easier to use for Japanese. I can look up [a band's] MySpace and in 10 minutes or so have a fairly good idea of what they're about.

"Mixi is fairly different. People use aliases more, and usually not their own photo. There also seems to be an orientation toward belonging to topical groups."

Despite the benefits of allowing its members to meet like-minded people, a Mixi user who goes by the name of Motomi is one who has recently signed up to MySpace as well, citing interaction with bands and the site's open atmosphere as key draws. "There are a lot of friend requests on MySpace," she says. "On Mixi, it's more common to build trust by exchanging several e-mails first, and Mixi limits you to 1,000 friends. MySpace's band pages are also attractive, as the musicians are not concealed from their fans."

MySpace's network of foreign users is clearly something that Mixi lacks -- especially for foreigners with limited Japanese, for whom it is difficult to navigate. SoftBank could have a hard time tempting Mixi's audience, who listen to mostly Japanese music, with foreign music -- which is why British band Oasis are an odd choice of promotional ally. As MySpace Japan grows, it's important for more Japanese artists to build profiles that would benefit the site -- bands and users alike.

Anglophile Tokyo groove-rockers Great Adventure harnessed the power of MySpace long before its Japan launch to reach a foreign audience. The band's A&R, Ichi Yamanaka, says: "We started Great Adventure's MySpace before the Japan launch to introduce the band's music internationally, in English.

"If a band wants to make a community only among Japanese fans, MySpace's Japanese launch will really help, but bands have to choose which language to use on their page, depending on who they're aiming at.

"No one can deny how useful MySpace is for bands, especially indie bands, to introduce their music and build a fan base."

SoftBank's Nukii insists such introductions are already being made, despite the local music industry's general reluctance to put music online, citing J-pop diva Mika Nakashima as an example of one well-known star who already has a site on MySpace.

MySpace's U.S. site will soon begin to offer paid downloads, in partnership with digital-music distributor SNOCAP. While details are still emerging, and major labels have yet to sign up, there's no doubt that a site such as MySpace could offer a more organic, user-led service than iTunes et al. If it works, this will surely become a feature of MySpace Japan as well.

Whether Japan's music industry can shed its fear of online distribution remains to be seen, but the next year or so will be an interesting time for music fans. You know which Space to watch.

See related story:
Tower, Napster aim to 'revitalize market'

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