Peter Barakan & the Gamble of Good Music

Peter Barakan, one of Japan’s most popular DJs and also a host of 60 Minutes Japan, is taking a big risk. He’s betting his job on good music. So what’s the big gamble there?

It starts with the internet, which is actually not the problem, but how the music industry has failed to utilize it to its advantage.

Explains Barakan, “The internet has revolutionized the music industry because it allows people to download music and make perfect copies. The industry shot themselves in the foot by not making enough singles. That’s what kids want, that’s what they have money for. The industry was making people buy overpriced albums with trashy material included. It was inevitable that people came up with the technology to steal what they wanted. There’s no going back now. The internet has changed radio, too. But similarly people in the radio industry shot themselves by not focusing on what the listeners wanted; they started kowtowing to sponsors. Sales people and ad agencies were influencing program material too much. The programming got boring, had too many ads and people stopped listening. Research late last year indicated that only 6% of the population listens to radio regularly now. So where do we go from here?”

It’s almost a rhetorical question. Barakan is known for introducing Japanese audiences to some of the best contemporary world music, at least by his standards of taste. He’s a staunch believer in only playing what he likes, not what might necessarily be popular. It’s a ganko oyaji (stubborn old man) approach reminiscent of grizzled bartenders or sushi chefs that only serve what they recommend. It’s a deeply Japanese way of doing things with roots in the cultural penchant for artisan products and near absolute respect for the opinions of the artisan. They, after all, know best.

Barakan knows music best, but refuses to call himself a music critic. Critics, he believes, must offer their objective opinions, if such a thing even exists. Again, for him, personal taste is everything and it is a formula that has worked for him before. In the early days of MTV Japan, he was forced to play what was popular in the beginning, including pop music for which his on-air expressions showed clear disdain. But after a half a year and some occasional input of his own, viewers began tuning in to see him and hear some of what he liked to show.

And so last year he pitched a similar idea to InterFM in Tokyo: let’s focus more on music that I—and other DJs—like to play. The station is just one of three FM stations in Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis. The owners, at least, listened and made him executive director.

“It doesn’t have ratings as high as I would like,” Barakan relates, “in part because it plays Western music, not J-pop. And also, the internet allows all kinds of streaming services now. You pay ¥1000, for example, and listen to as much as you like. These services are great if you know what you want to listen to, but I think you have to be reasonably knowledgeable about music. Radio offers the chance to listen to what you don’t know when you have a good DJ. After that, you can go to the subscription services. There is still plenty of opportunity for radio and the internet to coexist. I’m trying to turn InterFM around so that we can satisfy listeners first. Then sponsors may come on board. And if listeners like the station, then the sponsors will benefit.”

Barakan pauses for a moment, thinks about what he’s doing, and smiles.

“Maybe I’m making a terrible mistake and will be out of a job, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”












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