Should music be free?: Japanese singer Junko Yagami uneasy about rise of streaming services

Should music be free?: Japanese singer Junko Yagami uneasy about rise of streaming services

Junko Yagami is seen at a gym in the U.S. She says that muscle training is essential for her musical activities. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Japanese singer-songwriter Junko Yagami, who recorded a series of pop hits following her debut at age 20, has been active in the United States for over 30 years. In 2022, she became the first Japanese person to be inducted into the “Women Songwriters Hall of Fame” in Washington, D.C. In a contribution below, she reflects on the shift away from CDs to music streaming services, and poses a question about the way people listen to music today.


What would you do if you saw a restaurant flyer that says, “Customers can visit and eat as much as they want, 24 hours a day, for $12 a month. You can choose anything from Japanese, Western, Chinese food… you name it. It’s even OK to leave it unfinished if it’s awful after one bite!”

Though there might be many people who are eager to take advantage of such benefits as consumer prices soar, do you think this restaurant would be able to keep going in terms of business from the standpoint of the manager, instead of the customer?

This might be bothering to hear right after the New Year, but the subject suddenly came up after a conversation with my daughter in the U.S., where I returned at the end of last year for Christmas. As we were stuck in the usual traffic jam, I asked my daughter, who was driving, “These are all good songs! Is this the radio?” My daughter then raised the name of a streaming service that allows users with subscriptions to listen to music by accessing the internet. She said, “It’s awesome because it lets me listen to my favorite music all the time for around 7 dollars a month!”

My daughter continued, “I add a song to a playlist if I think it’s good in the first 30 seconds. If I don’t like them that much or get bored with them, I can just delete them one by one,” and started singing along to songs that were playing. When I asked what the names of the artists and songs were, my daughter said, “Let me see…” and told me the artist and song names while looking at the car’s monitor screen. In other words, she doesn’t pay attention to them.

Music can gain listeners if it’s saved in playlists without regard for the name of the artist or the song, after only the first 20 to 50 seconds, but it’s not listened to at all if it doesn’t make it into these playlists. Even when people listen to a song, after a while, it’s thrown away before they can remember its name. As someone who creates music, I cannot keep calm about the reality that such a ruthless way to “enjoy” music is the mainstream among today’s listeners.

Making music costs a considerable amount of money. Actually, if the artist is invested in their music, they can spend as much as they want on it. If the artist wants to use the sounds of instruments played by people for the entire song, rather than relying on audio stored in the computer, and holds recording sessions repeatedly until they’re satisfied, studio expenses and payments to musicians will balloon tremendously.

Junko Yagami(image courtesy of author)

Even so, artists had covered their production expenses by having people buy records and CDs. However, as subscription services became the mainstream, CD sales have dropped drastically. Not only this, but you could even say that the practice of “buying music” has disappeared from our lives. Some might think, “But people also pay for subscriptions, and don’t artists also get royalty payments?” The reality, though, is that while my single “Tasogare no Bay City” (Bay City in evening twilight) has had over 10 million streams following a “city pop” revival, the digits of the balance in my savings account have not changed greatly at all. As subscription prices are low and the total number of streams on such services is massive, even when divided up, tens of thousands of streams do not amount to much in payments for songwriters, composers, singers, and musicians.

Unlike cooking, investing a large amount in production does not guarantee a good work of music, but if there isn’t enough money, production costs must be cut back on inevitably. There’s no choice but to lower recording costs for each song by reducing time spent on it or producing all instrument sounds with a synthesizer. What’s more, if it’s the first 30 or so seconds that determine whether someone will listen to the whole song, the melody and structure must be changed, and the singing also needs to be done accordingly. Are “analog” elements that can’t be quantified, like the energy and passion of artists who move hearts, and give us courage and peace of mind, unworthy of attention? Does it really make me behind the times to create a suite that is 11 minutes, 17 seconds long as the title track for “TERRA,” an album I released around one year ago?

It’s also true that there are young people who found out about me through subscription services. Being able to listen to a variety of music freely without prejudice or making assumptions widens your world by far. Therefore, I don’t want to have a completely negative view of these services. It’s not like I’m doing music to make money either. But, I do want to say this: Music is not free content of no value. At this rate, the profession of musicians will disappear.

(Japanese original by Junko Yagami)


Junko Yagami is a singer-songwriter who was born in the central Japan city of Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture. Yagami made her professional singing debut on her 20th birthday with a piece titled “Omoide wa Utsukushisugite” (The memories are too beautiful). She has numerous hit songs including “Mizuiro no Ame” (Sky blue rain). She moved to the United States in 1986, and resumed her stage career in Japan in 2011.

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