Google Brings Its Music Streaming Service to Japan's Unique Digital Music Market

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

The service joins Apple Music and two other pay-only services in the CD-loving country.

Google Play Music launched in Japan on Friday, giving the world's second-largest music market -- but a late adopter of music streaming -- subscription services from two huge technology companies. Google Play Music's arrival follows the launch of Apple Music in June but precedes the world's largest music subscription service, Spotify.

The Japanese service follows the familiar formula. According to a report, Japanese consumers will pay ¥980 ($8.25) including tax, and after a 30-day free trial. The service is reported to have about 35 million titles, or 5 million more than Google Play has previously boasted, and is available for Google's Android operating system and Apple's iOS mobile operating system. There is one wrinkle, however: consumers that register by October 18 will pay just ¥780 ($6.56) per month, in perpetuity.

New subscription streaming services are arriving to a country that has been slow to make the transition from physical copies to downloads, and from downloads to streaming. Japan's music subscription market grew 43 percent in the first half of the year, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan. Even so, subscription revenues totaled just $42.4 million and accounted for only 2.6 percent of the country's recorded music sales (excluding performance and synchronization royalties). 

Both Google and Apple could enjoy an early-mover advantage in Japan they have lacked elsewhere in the world. The two companies are competing in the nascent Japanese streaming market against LINE, which added a music subscription service to its popular messaging app, and AWA, a joint venture between CyberAgent and Avex Group Holdings, owner of the Japenese music imprint Avex Trax.

For a change, Spotify will play catch up. 

The subscription services currently available in Japan have something in common: they're paid-only services that lack the free listening option that's central to Spotify's business. Spotify's long-planned launch in Japan is thought to be delayed by slow negotiations with record labels. And it's worth noting Japan was a rare market where Spotify was not integrated with Sony Playstation after Sony decided to retire its Sony Music Unlimited subscription service. Unlimited free streaming is certainly controversial within the music industry but appears to be outright unwanted in Japan.

Until Spotify enters Japan, consumers will benefit from competition that appears to already be bringing down prices. LINE reportedly launched a promotion offer of 60 days for ¥1,000, discount from its regular monthly price of ¥1,000 for unlimited listening or ¥500 for 20 listening hours. CyberAgent, Inc. dropped the price of its new AWA streaming service to costs ¥960 per month from ¥1,080.