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Friday, Oct. 8, 2010
Fantastic plastic: Last vinyl presser hosts exam on the record
By BRETT BULL
Special to The Japan Times
There are still those for whom the world spins at exactly 33 revolutions per minute. Digital MP3 downloads and YouTube videos may now be the formats of choice in the home and clubs, but the sound of a cartridge needle riding over the groove of a vinyl slab — scratches, skips and all — is quite literally music to the ears of many audiophiles.
In an effort to raise awareness for this niche format, this weekend vinyl junkies will be asked to put their styluses aside and pick up pencils. Toyo Kasei, the owner of Japan's last fully functioning pressing plant, will hold a proficiency exam dedicated solely to stacks of wax.
"The exam is designed to expose a new audience to the joy of vinyl records," says Eiji Hirata, special assistant to the president. "We also would like those from older generations to revisit the experience of listening to them."
The 100-question, multiple-choice exam will take place at Meiji University's Surugadai campus in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Sunday. Roughly 200 applicants will be asked to answer questions from two of seven music genres (including rock, jazz, pop and hip-hop) and also display competence in vinyl manufacturing and materials.
The questions will be prepared by experts in various fields. For example, representatives from King Records, the Tokyo-based label that has been releasing a wide range of music since its founding in 1931, will prepare the portion dedicated to classical music. But the test will emphasize the records themselves, not the music. "We are trying to ensure that questions will have a link to physical records," explains Hirata. "We don't want people to be taking a simple music test."
As a primer, which Japanese artist designed the album jacket for Santana's 1973 live "Lotus" LP? The spiritual- looking artwork might lead one to consider avant-garde purveyor Taro Okamoto, but well-versed test-takers will know that it was indeed graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo.
A perfect score of 100 will yield a Master ranking, and lesser marks above 50 will receive titles of Platinum, Gold and Silver. Nagaoka cartridge needles (valued at up to ¥50,000), LP frames and trophies shaped like records will be given as prizes.
Tokyo is indeed the place to administer such an exam. Record shops are scattered throughout such hip neighborhoods as Koenji, Shimokitazawa and Shibuya, where stores specializing in everything from house to punk to collectable 7-inch singles can be found (see box).
Tatsuo Sunaga (dubbed "The Record Chief") is the author of "I'll Take That Record!" — a chronicle of a three-year vinyl-buying spree that includes reprints of album jackets and a shop guide. Sunaga, who is a club DJ and spins jazz up and down the country, says that the appeal of the format is the fuller experience compared to that of digital.
"I choose analog because vinyl is easier to handle when playing," says Sunaga, "and I think the jacket art gives a feeling of completion. There are also rare tunes waiting to be discovered as they are not yet available on CD or by download."
Toyo Kasei's Hirata says that the perception among vinyl fans is that the needle making contact is a more natural sensation. "A CD is a medium used for carrying sound," he says. "It doesn't have to be in that specific form. On the other hand, a record itself delivers sound."
But Hirata himself is not exactly old school; he unabashedly whips out his iPhone to recall the exact name of the biggest-seller in Toyo Kasei's history, "Oyogei! Taiyakikun," the single by singer Masato Shimon that sold over 4 million copies following its release in late 1975.
Toyo Kasei began 16 years before. At the vinyl industry's peak, recording companies relied on 10 factories. "Companies like Sony had their own manufacturing plants to produce their artists' records," explains Fuyumi Tamura, a representative from Toyo Kasei's general affairs division. "At the same time, a few companies started to emerge without factories of their own. They would outsource to us. As well, the companies with factories sent us orders when they were at full capacity."
Things changed drastically with the emergence of the CD in the 1980s. A decade later, Toyo Kasei owned the last vinyl pressing factory in Japan and Asia. "When CDs arrived," Tamura continues, "companies closed their vinyl divisions and started coming to us (for pressing). So it is not as if there is no demand for vinyl."
Last year, the Toyo Kasei's multifloor factory in Yokohama's Tsurumi Ward produced around 400,000 discs, a far cry from the industry's peak of 70 million four decades ago. (The majority of the company's revenue comes from its separate printing and electroplating businesses.)
In the vinyl pressing process, the first step is to cut the recorded audio signal onto a lacquer master. A stamping plate, essentially the basis for the vinyl copies, will then be created following various metallic plating steps.
Orders start at 100 copies and arrive from both indie bands and big music companies such as Avex, the J-pop label that ordered a picture disc version of Ayumi Hamasaki's 2007 single "Talkin' 2 Myself," and Universal Music, which commissioned a reissue of "Zenyatta Mondatta" by The Police. In addition to Japan, the company has clients in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Europe.
Hirata openly admits that critics might deride the company for holding the exam to boost the bottom line, a point he understands. But the real motivation, he says, is a desire to preserve a culture.
"It is a difficult business climate," he says. "We are at the stage where we can make enough profit to keep the business running, but I feel there is an added mission. If we leave the industry, it will disappear."