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When American Record Companies Hated Japan

The industry’s assault on a Sony innovation presaged a sea change in the music landscape.
April 17, 2021
Featured Image
Gramophone records and players on display (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

“An ‘assassination’ is in the making,” thundered Stanley Gortikov, longtime record executive and then-president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). “The assailants are Japan’s equipment makers.” He continued, “Your country overtly demonstrates that it has contempt” for American industry. Japanese-made hardware stands “ready to invade our borders.” Gortikov concluded, “We would prefer to perceive you as partner, not predator.”

Those words might seem to make more sense coming from Donald Trump than a record executive. Indeed, the former president was, in the same era, firing protectionist barbs at Japanese imports. But Gortikov’s remarks come from “An Open Letter to Japan,” a September 6, 1986 Billboard magazine editorial.

The remarkably jingoistic and somewhat flamboyant letter was addressed not to Japanese manufacturers writ large, however, but rather to Sony, which was about to release a new recording format: the Digital Audio Tape, or DAT. (For some of this history plus a review of the technology itself, check out this video from retro-tech YouTuber Techmoan.)

Surely, Mr. Gortikov couldn’t have cared very much about the broader trade landscape; after hobbling its consumer release, the recording industry itself used the Japanese-made DAT format well into the 1990s. But the RIAA skillfully appropriated the au courant anger at rising Japanese technological primacy in the service of their own widely disliked industry.

The real bone of contention between Sony and the RIAA was the issue of unauthorized recordings, whether at home or by commercial counterfeiters. The DAT, despite using magnetic tape and resembling an ordinary cassette, was truly digital, and it was capable of recording at even higher fidelity than the Compact Disc. This meant that it would be possible to make perfect 1:1 copies of commercial recordings illicitly, a decade before inexpensive CD burners turned the tide in favor of the copiers. (This was not Sony’s first run-in with American copyright concerns; they ultimately won a nearly decade-long legal battle over the legal status of home VCR recordings on Betamax videocassettes.)

Gortikov pointed ominously to the existence of record rental shops in Japan, which presumably existed to facilitate illegal home duplication. That the DAT format was exquisitely expensive, from the recording decks to the blank tapes, didn’t suggest to him that illegal home recording via DAT would likely remain a niche option. Neither was he bothered by the fact that numerous free public libraries in the United States also loaned vinyl records. It was more acceptable to scapegoat Japan.

None of this is to say that the recording industry didn’t truly believe illegal copying was eating into their bottom line. They probably did, though the evidence for that proposition has always been thin, resting on the simple calculation that the value of all illegal recordings should instead have been industry profits. But this supposition is far too simple: Somebody willing to cobble together a music library out of illegal home recordings and pirated tapes probably wouldn’t particularly appreciate the DAT’s high fidelity; on the flipside, true audiophiles wouldn’t want such a sketchy music library in the first place.

Some believed, therefore, that the recording industry had a second motivation to oppose the democratization of high-fidelity equipment and media: competition. A cassette-sized digital tape that could achieve master-quality recordings was only a marginal—and expensive—improvement for the illegal home taper. But it was potentially a game-changer for smaller upstart studios, labels, and recording artists. This consideration, if it was indeed a major one, would not have appeared in Billboard magazine.

This blast from the past, when “home taping” was an explosive political issue, is more than a trip down memory lane. It helps sketch out a number of changes in the industry landscape.

For example, there’s a clear throughline from that 1986 editorial to today’s trade disputes over intellectual property. IP was then a budding trade and industrial protection issue, but today it’s a chief component of trade agreements. There’s an interesting flip here. Protectionism has increasingly fallen out of favor, but as economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out, IP protections can be viewed as tariffs for white collar industries. The broader justifying context for Stanley Gortikov’s editorial was the widely perceived “threat” from Japanese industry, particularly in automobiles and consumer electronics. Yet over the decades, it is IP defense which has become the respectable form of protectionism.

The relationship between home audio equipment and music has also transformed since the 1980s. These were always intertwined but distinct industries; consumer electronics giants RCA and Philips held record labels from the first half of the 20th century. But the Japanese electronics industry mostly focused on selling electronics, and the vast majority of music was not intended to be recorded on or listened to on any particular company’s hardware.

But in the wake of the anti-DAT campaign, Sony acquired CBS Records (which had been a major anti-DAT campaigner), and the overlap of electronics firms and record labels has only continued. Some years later, for example, Sony also acquired RCA Records. Innovations including but not limited to the DAT made professional-quality recording more accessible, not just for pirates but for artists. Streaming services like iTunes and Amazon Music—with their iPods and Macs and Alexa smart speakers—have merged music libraries with proprietary hardware on which to listen to them. Amazon Music now releases “Amazon Original” songs from both mainstream and more obscure artists. In 2019, musician Tim Ingham wrote in Rolling Stone, “Record labels are becoming streaming services; talent management companies are becoming record labels; distributors are having a go at becoming managers.” The overall industry has simultaneously become more fractured, and more concentrated and vertically integrated.

Then, of course, there’s the CD-ROM drive. Computer manufacturers successfully lobbied to exempt CD-ROM drives from copyright protection technology that ultimately ended up, by an act Congress, in DAT machines. Only a few years later, it would become incredibly simple to duplicate music (and software), both digitally and illicitly. In a final twist, it is companies associated more closely with computers than either records or consumer electronics—Apple, Google, and Amazon—which are at the forefront of music distribution.

And not least of all, Gortikov’s editorial today reads as exceedingly politically incorrect. An industry as mainstream as his would never be caught framing an argument quite this way, much less in a magazine that was practically the industry’s trade publication. The relative docility of the corporate rhetoric around China’s checkered relationship to American industry certainly says something about China’s influence and market power, which outstrips even that of Japan in the 1980s. But it also illuminates a certain positive advance of globalization since the Japan-panic days.

Today, “Home Taping is Killing Music” is a punchline, and the battle against pirated music is yesterday’s war. But the recording industry’s last stand against a forgotten tape format lives on in the form of a more tightly integrated industrial landscape and in trade agreements which principally protect creative and white-collar endeavors. That retro 1986 Billboard editorial was more prescient than Mr. Gortikov could have known.

Addison Del Mastro

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. Twitter: @ad_mastro.