Napster is going to Japan — but don’t expect the iconic cat to become a big hit with Japanese music fans: The Seattle-based music service has teamed up with Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten to power that company’s local Rakuten Music service.
As part of that deal, Rhapsody will power the back-end of Rakuten Music, and also supply more than 20 million songs from independent labels. Rakuten Music will also start to feature playlists curated by Rhapsody’s team, and may over time add other Napster features.
Napster is just the latest company to try its luck in the Japanese market, which has proven challenging for international music services. Spotify finally launched in Japan last September after circling the market for years.
That hesitance is part because Japanese music consumption habits are very unique, explained Napster CTO Brian Ringer during a recent conversation with Variety: “It’s different than just lighting up one more country in Europe.” Japanese consumers are still buying a lot more physical media, and are much more focused on local stars than their Western counterparts.
However, Ringer argued that it would be a mistake to simply think of Japan as a slower-moving market. Local labels have innovated a lot on packaging, CD rentals and other formats unique to the market, he said. Now, they might be ready to take the leap into digital. “The time is right,” he said.
This isn’t the first time for Napster to power a third-party music service. The company struck a similar deal with iHeartMedia in the U.S., and has been running the back-end of that company’s on-demand service since its launch late last year. Ringer said that Napster may take the same approach in other Asian markets as well, where it could benefit from partnering up with better-known brands. “You really need to have a local presence,” he said.